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Housing system undergoing comprehensive review

Members of the Stanford Board of Trustees Committee on Academic Policy, Planning and Management on Dec. 9 were briefed on the work of two task forces now undertaking a comprehensive review of Stanford's housing system.

The Task Force on Housing and Dining Services, initiated by Provost Condoleezza Rice and headed by University Budget Director Tim Warner, has been meeting since last spring to determine how Stanford's operation compares to peer institutions in pricing structures and types of services offered.

A second group, also initiated by Rice, was created in the fall to examine the underlying mission of Stanford's housing system. Headed by Ramón Saldívar, vice provost for undergraduate education, the Task Force on Residential Programs and Student Housing for Undergraduates will determine whether improvements can be made to strengthen the links between the undergraduate curriculum and the residential component of undergraduate life.

Both groups are composed of faculty, staff and students and have some overlap in membership.

Finding ways to reduce growth rate of room and board fees

Warner's task force has been charged, in part, to suggest ways of reducing the growth rate of student room and board fees. It will make its recommendations to the provost by late January or early February.

Keith Guy, director of Housing and Dining Services, said such a comprehensive review has not been undertaken in at least 10 years. "I am hopeful that the outcome of the review will be positive for us and that the resulting changes that will most likely occur will benefit Stanford students," Guy said.

Housing and Dining Services operates on the money it collects from room and board rate charges as well as fees collected from summer conferences, Warner said. About 300 to 600 full- and part-time employees are on its payroll, depending on the time of year.

The $60 million operation is responsible for student dining, facilities management, operations, and cleaning and maintenance of student housing. It also oversees summer storage, energy conservation, health and safety, and the Capital Improvement Program in student residences. The Residential Education program is covered in the Housing and Dining Services budget but it operates as an independent department, headed by Jane Camarillo.

"We are a full-service operation relative to other [colleges]," Warner said of Housing and Dining Services. "We have a lot of offerings across the board and we are also expensive, relatively speaking. Our room and board rate is on the high side compared to rates at comparable schools."

One thing that is clear from the group's findings, Warner said, "is that to make major changes in the system that would save significant amounts of money would require taking a pretty hard look at the [current housing system's] programmatic values and programmatic underpinnings."

Having a few dining commons in different areas of campus, as opposed to dorm-based dining halls, for example, would result in huge cost savings, he said. But the switch to a more centralized dining system could diminish the sense of community spirit that individual dining halls are intended to foster.

The task force intentionally steered clear of making cost-driven recommendations that could affect the university's residential education program.

"I think it's probably fair to say that this has been an operational and financial review as opposed to a programmatic review," Warner said.

Any suggestions for change regarding residential education, he added, will come from Saldivar's task force and will be driven by institutional priorities rather than cost concerns.

Strengthening the links between the dorm and the classroom

Saldivar said his group was charged with examining "the nature of our current residential education program and its relationship to undergraduate education." Specific areas to be addressed include the housing assignment system, staffing issues, and advising and academic support.

The task force's report is due at the end of spring quarter. "We have to hit the ground running," Saldivar said. So far, the group has met once for an introductory session in mid-November, but it will meet on a weekly basis beginning in January.

"Residential education is a huge and in some ways amorphous topic," Saldivar said. "A broad range of programs are offered to students in the dorms and we want to look at how those are organized and how they complement and support the academic mission."

According to Saldivar, the current review of Stanford's housing system is an outgrowth of recent initiatives to strengthen the undergraduate curriculum.

"We are involved in a very comprehensive examination of the nature of undergraduate education in general," he said. "Through Stanford Introductory Studies, we are taking a very focused look at the first and second years in particular. Because an important part of a student's education occurs in the dorms, it seems timely to think through the nature of our housing and residential programs."

Some of the questions members of the task force will grapple with in the coming months are:

Different housing scenarios examined

Camarillo, director of residential education and a member of the task force, said the group has its work cut out for it because there are compelling arguments for and against the various housing scenarios that are being considered.

Living in an all-freshman dorm, for example, can be a great bonding experience, she said. But about 300 students each year request to live in four-class dorms, oftentimes because they want to get away from the party atmosphere associated with freshman dorms.

"I am not sure we will be doing a service to all students if we only offer all-freshman dorms for first-year students," Camarillo said. "But it is successful at other universities. What we need to hear now is that faculty and students endorse the idea and residential education staff can support it."

One of her concerns about instituting all-freshman dorms is that there will not be enough resident fellows who apply to live in them. "Fewer apply for them now because it's a lot of work," Camarillo said. "You have younger students who go through much transition in their first year and may require more attention compared to the rest of their years at Stanford.

"Resident fellows take a very active role in building community, in meeting students and trying to ensure that they have access to resources. If you have 90 people living in your house all going through the same thing, that just means that you are going to be a lot busier."

A residential college model, where first-year and second-year students live in certain buildings on campus and juniors and seniors live in another grouping of buildings on campus, is appealing from a residential education and advising perspective, Camarillo said.

Gender alliance discussions, cross-cultural excursions and scavenger hunts in San Francisco are great community builders, Camarillo said. But upperclassmen often are not interested in the same types of residential education programs that first- and second-year students enjoy.

"Juniors and seniors aren't necessarily looking for how to build community with their next-door neighbor," she said. "They have already developed a social network, developed some connections with faculty and want more faculty contact."

By bringing together freshmen and sophomores in one location and juniors and seniors in another, Camarillo said, advising and academic support can be tailored more effectively to meet the needs of each group. A drawback to this model is that first- and second-year students possibly would have fewer opportunities to interact with upperclassmen, who often serve as mentors and guides for what's ahead.

Student input sought

Despite the ambiguities involved in determining what, if any, changes should be made to improve the Stanford's current residential education program, Camarillo said she is glad an in-depth look at the housing system is being undertaken.

"We really want to be able to take advantage of the task force to see if there are different models to better support the academic mission of the university," she said.

Because some of the recommendations that may come out of the task force's deliberations have the potential to substantially alter campus life, ample opportunities will be provided for students to voice their opinions on all facets of the housing system.

"We definitely want to hold open hearings, do surveys, hold focus groups and make sure that we have a great deal of student input into the information that we are assessing," Saldivar said.