A residential revelation

Hutchinsons find validation in England for Rice’s world-class residential colleges 

After nearly six decades, Rice University has received a measure of validation as having one of the world’s best residential college systems.

It came last month in a meeting of peers at Durham University in England, where John and Paula Hutchinson, former longtime college masters at Rice, gave presentations about their experiences and offered (and sought) advice.

The Collegiate Way conference drew representatives of 40 universities from around the world to its inaugural gathering to share information about their distinctive student communities.

Durham Castle

Rice Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson walks through Durham Castle, the home of University College, part of the residential college system at Durham University in England. Hutchinson and his wife Paula stayed in the castle while attending a conference on residential colleges last month. Construction of the castle began in the time of William the Conqueror in 1072, and it was given to the university in 1837.

John Hutchinson, Rice’s dean of undergraduates and a professor of chemistry, delivered a keynote talk on the roles of faculty in residential college life. Paula Hutchinson spoke about student volunteerism as part of the college system. Both have a deep understanding of the residential college system at Rice: They served as masters of Wiess College from 1994 to 2001 and Brown College from 2003 to 2008.

“I know this is a biased interpretation, but many people came up to us to rave about Rice’s system based upon what they learned,” John Hutchinson said. “That left me with the impression that not only do we think we’re one of the best in the world, but a lot of people at the conference agreed.”

Rice established residential colleges in 1957, when the university opened Baker, Will Rice, Hanszen, Wiess and Jones.

Rice’s financial and philosophical commitment to the college system impressed many at the conference, he said. “They were wowed by the fact that we house so many of our students, that students spend all of their time here associated with one particular college, by the resources available to support the college masters and the associates and advising programs and the sense of community among the students. The university has invested heavily in all of these.

“The resources that back up the staff who support the college system are hard to find anywhere else,” he said.

Hutchinson said Rice’s emphasis on faculty involvement with colleges through masters, residential advisers and a “buddy system” that pairs faculty members with individual students is a point of pride.

“I went into the conference looking for ideas about how to get our faculty even more involved,” he said. “But it became pretty clear that our faculty are among the most involved of any of the residential college systems. I think we set the standard in terms of faculty engagement. That was gratifying, but it’s a strength we need to build on.” He said he hopes to “gain some traction” on ways to make the college system more attractive to faculty as a way to foster relationships across disciplines.

Hutchinson said Rice’s investment in social workers who support students and college masters through the Wellbeing Center drew great interest. “It’s a strength of Rice’s system. People were really interested in our employment of social workers to help students who are in transition and the faculty who assist them,” he said.

Paula Hutchinson’s talk focused on the culture of care she came to treasure at Rice. “I talked about the number of student volunteer positions, everything from peer academic advisers to health reps to Emergency Medical Services,” she said. “They were amazed at the Emergency Medical Technician program, and the fact that O-Week coordinators, advisers and countless other students all volunteer their time for each other and for the good of their college.”

The relative autonomy of Rice students in the colleges impressed the attendees. A Durham alumnus “was stunned that Rice students conduct their own searches and interviews for masters,” said Paula Hutchinson, who will teach in Rice’s Program for Writing and Communication in the spring.

She noted one keynote talk titled “When Does Help Hinder?” supported her view that young people need opportunities to work through problems and processes on their own.

“There are limits to how far we want to go in solving problems for our students,” John Hutchinson added. “Letting them solve their own problems is a key ingredient of the kind of personal growth they’re able to experience at Rice.”

He said that while Rice’s residential colleges are often compared to those Lovett saw at Oxford and Cambridge during his world tour, the implementation is very different.

“That led to some interesting discussions about contrasting systems,” he said. “If you’re starting a residential system, do you want to have colleges, as they have at Cambridge, where each is more or less a stand-alone school? Imagine having to have separate faculty for each college — and the classroom space as well. In addition to it not being financially desirable, it’s not academically desirable, because it isolates the students.

“Or do you want colleges where students do their academic work collaboratively, but their social and cultural and leadership development [takes place] in their own environments?

“I don’t think there was a conclusion — we didn’t take a vote at the end — but it was clear that the merits of Rice’s system were very apparent, very strong,” he said.

Respect for Rice’s success has drawn a steady stream of universities to Houston to see firsthand why the system works so well, Hutchinson said. “I think they see the comparative advantages of our residential colleges.”

He said Rice will be represented at the next Durham conference in two years, as well as at an annual symposium for domestic universities founded this year at Virginia Tech.

“It was a very gratifying event,” he said of the Durham experience. “It was very educational, very exciting, but as a representative of Rice, it was very reaffirming. To me it’s clear the conference established that Rice is world-class as a residential college system.”




About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.