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Review of Wesleyan University’s Office of Residential Life
ACUHO-I External Review Team
Executive Summary

At the request of Director of Residential Life Jeffrey Ederer, an external review was conducted of the residential life program at Wesleyan. Tom Ellett, executive director of housing and residence life at New York University, and Leslie Urban, associate director of residence life at Davidson College, visited Wesleyan April 16 - 17, 2003.

The reviewers were asked to evaluate the department’s vision and strategic goals for enhancing the quality of the university’s learning community; its overall program, including operation, staff training, facilities, community development, and policies and procedures; internal and external communication; organizational structure, and staffing levels for central office staff, live-in professional staff, and student staff.

The reviewers identified numerous issues and presented recommendations. Their most significant findings concerned the need to articulate a vision for residential life that puts it squarely in the context of Wesleyan's learning community. This sense of purpose can then inform key decisions about the roles of both professional and student staff. The work of both groups thus can become better aligned with institutional learning objectives. Among the consultants' findings and recommendations, those listed below are of greatest strategic and operational importance.

Key findings include:

There appears to be a lack of formal connection between the in-class and out-of-class experiences at Wesleyan. Students currently view the residence hall as a “place to sleep” and “live with your friends,” rather than as a place with intentional educational goals. Wesleyan’s college environment is a perfect place to create a living-learning community.

Residential life programs across the country are becoming more focused on the academic context of student life. With this in mind, it would be good for Wesleyan to answer the following questions: What educational benefit is there in having a residential campus? What can the institution do to impart learning to students outside the classroom? Wesleyan should discuss what outcomes students should gain from the housing experience and then enhance programs and staffing to match those goals.

The program houses offer the best possibility to align Residence Life goals with the academic goals of the institution. There may be roles that the academic units and other university faculty and administrators could play within the residential setting. The dean's office should collaborate with Academic Affairs to design and implement programming in this area.

There was a good deal of discussion and disagreement regarding Wesleyan's non-discrimination stance as it relates to program housing. The current program housing model—affinity housing—can be seen as discriminatory, yet it flourishes on the campus. A number of peer institutions have not allowed homogenous groups to live together in one facility. This is a very delicate issue. A campus dialogue should be created to consider Wesleyan's long-held traditions and to guide its future practice.

Every year, numerous students are transported to the hospital for alcohol poisoning. The university must decide whether to continue handling these situations with a counseling response, as opposed to a behavioral response. The recommendations in the 2001 University's alcohol policy review do not appear to have been fully implemented.

Many staff members do not believe the institution is doing enough to hold students accountable for their behavior. Additionally, some professional staff in Residential Life believe that the system falls short in cases where students may need serious intervention for their alcohol or drug behaviors.

The current model of enforcement creates ambiguity about the university’s expectations of student staff. The role of student staff should be reviewed and modified to align with the university's goals for behavioral aspects of residential life.

Student comments in the Admissions brochures suggest that they have a great deal of autonomy and freedom. The materials should also be clear about the expectations of the institution that students be good and responsible citizens.

The Office of Residential Life appears to bear the brunt of announcing and instituting policies that should be presented as University decisions. Examples include the fraternity house agreement and changes in program houses (Malcolm X House and WestCo). The university leadership does not spend time with front-line student staff explaining how particular decisions fit the mission of the institution.

At Wesleyan, it appears as if students believe that their voice needs to be the most influential one in decision making. While students are crucial in the life of the institution, it struck the reviewers as strange how much students believe they should have the ultimate authority for what happens at Wesleyan. While the reviewers appreciate and desire student involvement, it appears that students do not understand their role. Much of their displeasure with Residential Life is located in their feeling that the institution is not taking students' perspectives into account.

The head resident position leads to inconsistencies in supervision. Head residents supervise some of the student staff, while the full-time professional staff supervise others. Students reported that supervision was “stricter” from professional staff. Student staff members supervised by head residents were more vocal in their distrust for and disengagement from the Residential Life Office.

Key recommendations include:

  • Work with the Academic Affairs leadership to encourage faculty to lead programs in the halls.
  • Integrate student support services, such as writing clinics, into the halls.
  • Create an expectation for the program houses to formally present the learning gained from their experiences in the house. Doing so would showcase the important role outside-the-classroom experience plays at Wesleyan.
  • Provide formal roles for staff from Student Services and the academic units to help create a seamless educational experience. A faculty advisor needs to be active in each program house; providing a listing of these advisors to the student staff would enable them to call upon the advisors for floor programs.
  • Assess whether the current approach to “non-discrimination” as it applies to residence hall living matches the intent of the program houses. The affinity houses (e.g. Womanist House, Open House, Korean House, and Malcolm X House) may not be assisting in the creation of a welcoming and engaging environment for all students. Many excellent institutions practice “social engineering” by placing students with diverse backgrounds together. Wesleyan's current program house model may, in fact, be creating a segregation of students.
  • Challenge student expectations about important behavioral issues. Changing campus culture on the use of alcohol and other drugs is very difficult. Students seem to believe that the university should not play a role their private lives. However, educational reasoning and the institution's legal responsibilities dictate otherwise.
  • Focus alcohol education on responsible drinking, rather than abstinence. Send a consistent message. None of the students we interviewed were aware of the university's social norming campaign, nor the overall views of the institution as they relate to alcohol and other substance use.
  • Ally with Behavioral Health and Academic Affairs toward the full implementation of the recommendations in the 2001 alcohol policy review.
  • The president and dean of the college should spend time with resident advisors, who can be a true voice for students. Presenting at student staff training and attending open forums where staff share the issues occurring in the residential areas could be helpful.
  • Introduce the class deans more routinely in students' residential experience by having them attend meals with students, participating in programs, and assist in training. The deans already provide Residential Life with important student behavioral follow-up. They would be crucial partners in enhancing the quality of academic life in the halls.
  • All marketing materials should be consistent with the goals of the university for the residential experience.
  • Students’ voices must be heard, yet students also must understand their role in the decision-making process. Student staff members in particular need to understand their role as staff and the conflict they can create when sharing with other students their disagreements with university policy.
  • Have Residential Life Office report to the Dean of the College, so that University oversight is closely aligned with the day-to-day operation of the department.
  • Bring more adult presence into the residence halls, perhaps by providing housing to Student Services staff. Increasing their positions to full-year, rather than 10-month positions would enable them to assist with preparation for new student orientation and resident advisor training. Relocate area coordinator offices into residential areas of the campus.
  • Add at least one live-in area coordinator position. Wesleyan's current ratio of students to live-in professional staff is 900 to 1. Most campuses have ratios of 400 or 500 to 1. Having a fourth area coordinator would reduce Wesleyan's ratio to 675:1.
  • Augment the role of the resident advisor in policy enforcement and the role of professional staff in judicial cases.
  • Eliminate the position of head resident to remove the existing disparity in RA supervision. The funds saved could help fund a full-time staff position.
  • Assess the division of administrative responsibilities between staffs in Residential Life and Student Life Facilities to ensure that Residential Life staff can maximize the time they spend on program development and student outreach.
  • Administrative staff in Residential Life are overburdened with operational tasks. Administrative assistants should assume greater responsibility for oversight of this work.

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