Letter from Ithaca

The Living-Learning Experience

From David Skorton

wELCOME TO MY FIRST column in Cornell Alumni Magazine. I look forward to sharing my thoughts and observations about the University, and to getting your feedback about the issues raised.

One of the most difficult aspects of the presidency in a large research university is getting personally engaged with the students and understanding their experience within the broader university context. For that reason,my wife, Professor Robin Davisson, and I have focused during our first few months on getting to know students on their own turf. In addition, we hoped to gain an understanding of the role the living-learning communities on North Campus and West Campus play in the undergraduate experience. I am convinced that the living-learning concept is a robust one and is important for the quality of the student experience-- and that we should continue to strengthen it.

Robin and I moved into Mary Donlon Hall on North Campus for a week at the beginning of the fall semester to meet our fellow first-year students, and we've experienced the living-learning environment for sophomores and upper-level students as house fellows at the Carl Becker House on West Campus. I've also visited some of the program houses, where students explore a particular intellectual, cultural, or creative interest.

Recognizing Cornell's long-standing tradition of including students in university governance, I've asked Vice President Susan Murphy to arrange periodic meetings with student leaders as well as open sessions to which all students are invited.We had our first open session recently, hosted by the Student Assembly, with excellent give and take. Finally, the editors of the Daily Sun invited me to write a monthly column, which I have used to explore what I hope are thought-provoking topics.

From these undertakings, I have formed some early conclusions about the student experience at Cornell. First, the bright, highly motivated students here expect to receive not only a superb pedagogical experience but also to participate in real research, creative work, and public service directed by faculty mentors. Second, first-year students greatly appreciate the opportunity to enter our large community within smaller groupings. Third, Cornell students are hungry to be involved in shared governance of the University and have a clear expectation of meaningful interchange.

All these student appetites are fed by our living-learning communities. The idea for faculty participation in residential life began during the administration of Frank Rhodes. It grew and matured under the leadership of Hunter Rawlings and is now a thriving part of the Cornell culture. Some 720 undergraduates live in the residential houses on West Campus; 1,800 will live there when all five houses are completed. Not only does our system permit students to experience Cornell within communities of manageable size and scope, it also permits undergraduates to become closer to graduate students, faculty fellows, and faculty-inresidence. The system encourages mentoring in curricular and many other areas, a chance to meet role models, and an opportunity to challenge and be challenged on the entire gamut of academic and worldly issues. It also provides meaningful opportunities to be involved in house governance.

Many of our fraternities and sororities are also engaging faculty fellows as well as recent graduates and graduate students to serve as mentors within the houses and work closely with chapter and Greek council leaders. I hope the interest in faculty involvement and in the integration of living and learning will come more fully to characterize Greek life on campus.

Recently, as you may be aware, there has been quite a discussion about housing for transfer students. Each year about 500 students transfer to Cornell. I was a transfer student myself as an undergraduate, beginning my studies at UCLA and finishing my baccalaureate degree at Northwestern, so I am sympathetic to the special interests and concerns of these students. About 200 students currently live in the Transfer Center on West Campus, which will be relocated temporarily to the Hasbrouck Apartments next year because of West Campus construction. As we move forward with the West Campus Residential Initiative, I will continue to listen closely as staff and students work together to integrate transfers into the West Campus houses while continuing to provide the support and services the current Transfer Center provides.

I welcome your feedback, comments, and suggestions about the living-learning communities and other aspects of the student experience at Cornell. Please contact me through CAM or by sending a note or e-mail to me at 300 Day Hall.

-- David Skorton