How Can Colleges Shape Campus Values and Social Life?

Our current book, How College Works, inspired Rebecca Chopp, chancellor of the University of Denver, to write the following post. The book club’s discussion takes place on Twitter (#ChronBooks).


I very much agree with much of what Mr. Chambliss and Mr. Takacs write about student success in How College Works. But let’s be clear about what it means to succeed, because success must mean more than just graduating.

I prefer the term “thrive” because I feel “success” is too easily interpreted in the context of grades, honors, awards, and other forms of external recognition. The word “thrive” draws attention to how each individual flourishes within a community context and lets us pay attention to the development of social and moral character as well as knowledge and wisdom.

So how do we help 21st-century students thrive? The authors of How College Works are right that students need close relationships in order to be anchored amid the swirling newness of college. I don’t think it is enough to leave new relationships to chance. Leaving friendships entirely to chance (even if we expand those chances) makes it more likely that some students will slip through the cracks.

I have worked in six institutions, and in each one the student culture is distinct, continually reinforced by the often-unconscious practices in which students engage. One college might have a “work hard, play hard” culture in which one learns in the first week that it is not cool to talk to academics outside of class and it is very cool to party.

Another may have a “birds of a feather flock together” culture in which students find their comfort zone and settle into silos of mini-communities. Students are already shaped by cultural practices, but when those practices are unconscious or merely assumed, they fail to realize the educational values we seek, and they privilege students who are already predisposed to thrive.

Why don’t we start being conscious of cultural practices and start shaping them by cultivating an intentional community life, what John Dewey called “associative living”? Let’s cultivate practices in which students make friends not by chance but because we are cultivating friendships around community values.

The key is for the university to articulate clearly its communal values (i.e., respect for others, accountability for one’s actions, etc.) and then to incorporate those values into the ways students meet—ways that are supported outside and inside the classroom.

Here are some practices I could support:

  • Intentional pairing of roommates who have political, religious, or socioeconomic differences, coupled with training and support.
  • Orientation programming that lasts an entire year, bringing students together with individuals they might not normally meet.
  • Social events that feature small, random groups of students’ having dinner together off campus.
  • Dormitory workshops on handling conflict that focus on conflict resolution as the resolution of differences.

Mr. Chambliss and Mr. Takacs recognize that we can expand ways for students to make friends. But I think we must change our paradigm more radically, by cultivating social and intellectual skills in the context of community. Let’s focus on engaging students with our communities, and let’s think consciously about how students are developing their character and wisdom, as well as their critical- and creative-thinking abilities. As a side benefit, we can emphasize essential habits of respect, accountability, and responsibility for all.

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