Students and faculty discuss Residential Commons system
SMU opened five new housing facilities in Fall 2014, enabling all first-years and second-years to live on-campus. SMU also implemented a “Residential Commons” (RC) system campus-wide, converting all of the old dorms to the new RC model.
The RC system was started under a set of guiding principles, decided upon after much hard work by student, faculty and staff teams. These purposes acknowledge that “learning happens everywhere” and resolved that the Residential Commons system would “nurture a student’s development” and “create a community through a common experience and identity.”
The RC system is nearly two years into its implementation, almost at the completion of its first full cycle. Current second-years are about to complete their mandatory term in the system, which provides a perfect time to reflect on how the RC is living up to its goals.
Dr. T. Tylor Behrens, assistant vice president of Student Affairs and dean of Residence Life and Student Housing, believes that the system is functioning quite well. He commented that “data from surveys are saying that students feel more engaged and connected” with the new Commons systems. He also claimed that there is a “waiting list of 200 students who wanted to come back to the RC system,” proving its effectiveness.
Students largely agree that the early years of the RC have been a success. Michelle Aphiayarath is a sophomore who decided to live on campus after commuting her first year.
“There’s something for everyone in the RC system, whether it’s performing at one of the events hosted by a commons or planning the event itself,” Aphiayarath said.
The numerous ways to participate in the campus community fostered by the RC system was “one of the main factors in deciding to move on campus” for her.
Mansoor Kahn, third floor governor of Armstrong Commons, described the RC system as a “launch pad from which students can find connections throughout campus.”
“Armstrong is always putting on some type of event for its residents so there is never a week when the residents are bored or go without a break from dining hall food,” Kahn said.
In addition to the events hosted by each RC, there are the Faculty in Residence and Faculty Affiliate programs which offer students even more connections throughout campus.
Alex Bush is an environmental science major residing in Morrison-McGinnis.
“The faculty affiliates attend most of the events, adding academic value and personality,” Bush said. “Katie Little, our RCD, and Mark Kerins, our FiR, are great people committed to the community and helping out in any way they can.”
However, others are not as satisfied with the RC system and believe that it could be driven to be better. In addition the positives he saw, Alex Bush acknowledged that “the inclusion of various personalities and backgrounds in these communities makes it difficult to kindle interest among all people in a building”.
“The RC system is missing a strong sense of unity” due to the fact that it is a new program and the differences across the system, Bush said.
Kahn also acknowledged the some of the drawbacks of the current RC system.
“The RC system is lacking a unified approach in that some commons take a very active role in creating events for their residents while other commons take a more relaxed approach and don’t do as much for their residents,” Kahn said. As a results of this, he has noticed that Armstrong events “typically attract a few people from other commons who heard about our event and wanted to come because their own commons wasn’t doing anything.”
Kahn noted that the imbalances are a big problem for the system.
“The randomization of where you are placed your first year can determine how much fun, entertainment and connections you can potentially have,” Kahn said.
Anne Hart, sophomore president of Armstrong Commons, additionally cites a lack of funding as holding back the commons system.
“The RC system… is missing funding on a basic level” of the student government organizations running each commons, Hart said. “The expectation for Commons Councils is to throw major events and continuously provide experiences for residents, but with so little money,” an incredibly high bar for these young governments to hit.
Students are not the only ones to point out the shortcomings of the RC system. Mark Fontenot, one of the pioneering Faculty in Residence, is quick to admit that the system could be organized better.
“It has great dedicated people, and there are great things happening in select pockets of campus, but there is a wide distribution of how the system is functioning,” Fontenot said.
Fontenot believes the RC system is lacking leadership and support from the university administration.
“The system was conceived because people thought it would look good on postcards and raise student interest, but once the ribbon was cut the upper administration saw it as done,” Fontenot said.
He claims this attitude has caused many of the planned activities of the RC system get cut due to cost or other reasons.
“OE2C gutted RLSH staff and significantly reduced their ability to administrate,” he said. “There are some amazingly dedicated and passionate people putting forth 200% to make the RC system successful, unfortunately they are mostly in the ‘worker bee’ positions within the system serving the students rather than having the power to affect the future of the system.”
Regardless of whether one chooses to focus on the negatives or the positives of the RC system, the whole program is relatively new and has years ahead of it where it will evolve to take on more of its own characteristics. In the meantime, there are students and committees working hard to improve the RC system.
“We still need to work on making the RC a university-wide experience. We need to engage other departments such as athletics and alumni relations so that it is not just a RLSH experience but a university-wide experience,” Dr. Behrens said.
Additionally, Dr. Behrens has formed a task force called RC 2020 which is focused on improving the RC system and setting goals to be achieved by the year 2020. This task force is looking at things like graduate themed housing, creating more developed persona for the commons, and further supporting the career and life goals of the students in the RC.
It is the hope of RLSH and SMU as a whole that the RC system will improve the academic experiences offered to students and better connect everyone with their campus communities.