In September 1967 the Residential College opened its doors to 217 first year students. It was part of a nation-wide turn to innovation in higher education. Nearly fifty years later, long after initiatives elsewhere have faded, the RC remains a vibrant academic community on the University of Michigan campus. How and why this is so is what this brief history attempts to capture.
1) The Plan and its Implementation
The Residential College was over a decade in the planning. In fundamental respects, it was an experiment. The idea arose from LSA faculty and administrators worried about the impact of steadily rising undergraduate enrollment upon the quality of education at the University of Michigan. Beginning in 1959, LSA deans Roger Heyns and Burton Thuma, among others, expressed concerns about the inertial drag and impersonality of a big university, especially with an anticipated growth of student numbers. At the same time, faculty members in the social sciences, especially Theodore Newcomb and Wilbur McKeachie, became interested in the potential educational impact of a more coordinated intersection between living and learning. Together they conceived the outlines of a small liberal arts college, within the larger College of LSA, that could combine a core of common educational and cultural experiences, a close sense of community, and considerable autonomy for curricular innovation. At a LSA faculty meeting in October 1963, a motion to “sympathetically consider establishment of a new residential college” met with considerable opposition. Various critics spoke against any effort by LSA to absorb a larger enrollment, against the possibility of diverting funds from departments to a new unit, and against the idea of residential-based learning itself. Given the tone of the debate and “the apparent confusion” of the resulting vote, the Dean appointed a feasibility committee to review the concept. It recommended proceeding, provided that no diversion of departmental funds took place. This report was approved by faculty vote in March 1964. A planning committee (which included Theodore Newcomb, Donald Brown, Jean Caduner, Steven Kaplan, Carl Cohen, Bradford Perkins, Al Sussman, and Ellis Wunsch, among others) was appointed to develop the idea. After long deliberation, the Committee presented a full-scale plan for the new college which the Regents approved in April 1966.
The original design sought to create a liberal arts program that united the virtues of smallness with the resources of the large research university. It was to be a separate, four-year college within the LSA, focused exclusively on undergraduate teaching and learning. It was designed to be experimental – not only in curriculum, but in different kinds of pedagogy, different approaches to grading and assessment, distinctive residential arrangements that combined living with learning, and a unique governance structure in which students were to have equal voice with faculty in decision-making about requirements, curriculum, staffing, and community life. It was to have its own new building, erected on North Campus by the Huron River on a budget, approved by the Regents, of $11 million. The Planning Committee devoted much time to discussing the layout and architecture of the new building, which was to include classrooms, dormitories, dining services, and recreational facilities. Rather than waiting for the completion of construction in 1969, the new college began operation in 1967, temporarily quartered in East Quadrangle, a men’s dormitory on the main campus. This was done, partly, in the hope that a “going concern” might more readily attract donors.
The planners also crafted a detailed curriculum, designed to foster freedom and flexibility within a carefully structured liberal arts framework. It combined large lectures with small seminars and options for more informal and independent study that took learning outside the classroom. For the first two undergraduate years, students were required to live in the residence hall where dorm rooms and dining facilities were intermixed with classrooms, faculty offices, studios and performance spaces. Combining the learning with the living was designed to frame a core curriculum that was required of all students. The core included intensive first year writing seminars, the semi-immersion study of a foreign language to a useful proficiency, direct exposure to the practice of the visual and performing arts (the Arts Practicum), and a cluster of core lecture courses, all required of all, that were to be broadly interdisciplinary in content and team-taught. At the end of their sophomore year, students were to take a comprehensive examination on the core, before proceeding to entirely independent and individualized concentrations in their upper-level program. These self-directed majors were to be supervised by some 80 faculty members, borrowed from departments, who would work with students individually. Assessment featured a mixture of letter grades and written evaluations, with an emphasis on one-to-one feedback designed to reduce competition among students and personalize faculty review of work. The aim of both the core sequence and the evaluation system was to encourage students to take charge of their education, finding their own voice and learning how to use it in shaping a meaningful agenda of learning during their upper-level careers at the University – and beyond.