Turning College Dorms into Vibrant Neighborhoods

A diverse private university creates free spaces in residence halls where students develop the capacity to work through conflicts and problems.

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When Adam Weinberg became president of Denison College (now University) in Granville, Ohio, he was committed to introducing the concept and practices of public work to student learning. He knew that a public-work approach would mean shifting away from a professional service model, in which faculty and staff simply convey information to students or solve their problems, and toward a citizen-professional model of working with students to unlock their constructive talents. He also knew that public work required rethinking assumptions about 

where civic learning can or already does take place. Weinberg and his staff decided that the place to start was with the dynamics and spaces of student life itself: with “the campus controversies, residential halls, student organizations, and other places” of daily interaction that might become sites “where students learn skills, habits, and values of public work.”

The first important change was a conceptual change among Denison’s student affairs staff. Through intentional and iterative discussion, reflection, and imagination, student affairs staff came to see themselves as citizen professionals, and residence halls as diverse neighborhoods where students could learn to be citizens by working through conflicts. Laurel Kenney, vice president for student development, realized the change needed to be grounded in the institution’s history and culture, including what she calls “Denison legacy strengths” like leadership development, civic engagement, creative problem-solving, and intellectual curiosity and humility. To cultivate these and other skills of democratic living would require inviting students to co-create communities that felt like true homes, fostering environments that were respectful, safe, interesting, and fun.

How to begin that co-creative process? Erik Farley, dean of student leadership development, turned to well-tested organizing methods, such as “one-on-ones” between unfamiliar individuals and civic deliberations among whole floors and blocks of students. “It’s a mistake to assume that folks have rapport,” Farley states. “But a foundation of knowing each other’s stories has real potential to mitigate violence and vandalism.” Based on his experience as one of the few African Americans at Denison in the early 2000s, Farley understands that the challenges of an environment where “most people are not like  

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me” can also be opportunities for personal and community growth--if students develop the skills to grasp them. “You have to understand the culture you’re operating in.”

As the foundation of shared stories and spaces grew stronger, students began demonstrating such skills and understandings--the public work mindset and capacities Weinberg had envisioned. In response to the nationwide challenge and discussion of “party culture” on campuses, student residents took initiative. They organized a deliberation involving both critics of campus parties and leaders from the fraternities and other social organizations who typically organized them. On a shared chalkboard students wrote the various words they associated with parties: fun, social, violent, unsafe. Then they developed ideas for action, such as moving parties away from residential rooms into multipurpose spaces, developing student-led trainings in safe-but-fun party planning, and creating alcohol-free spaces.

On the whole, students were both enthusiastic about the experiment and realistic about the challenges. As one student leader, Ivy Distle, explained, “When students are faced with political unrest they fall back on organizations that represent their identity, people like themselves.” But the relational work “helped to break their bubbles.” Like with all public work, the result of such bubble-breaking was not some magically comforting lather of consensus. It was the far more bracing and restorative experience of genuine human contact.