A Vision Realized

The West Campus house system is transforming student life The West Campus house system is transforming student life Last September, I spoke to Cornell staff and the Welliver McGuire construction team to congratulate them on the early completion of House Five, now named Flora Rose House. The day was breathtakingly moving for me. An abstract […]

The West Campus house system is transforming student life

The West Campus house system is transforming student life

Last September, I spoke to Cornell staff and the Welliver McGuire construction team to congratulate them on the early completion of House Five, now named Flora Rose House. The day was breathtakingly moving for me. An abstract vision had come to life. An idea had become embodied in steel, wood, concrete, glass, trees, and grass. What was once a concept—a vision of students and faculty sharing the intellectual and social possibility of college residential life—was finally realized in spaces that are beautiful and majestic. The new West Campus House System was in place.

West CampusThis vision had been long in the making. In the Seventies and early Eighties, Cornell was a favored place to which many faculty from other universities thought of sending their children. It was the iconic campus: picture-book beautiful, academically prestigious, and, in a time of urban unease, a safe and quiet place (its own social tensions of the late Sixties notwithstanding). And yet it was a campus with a "housing problem." A not-small group of colleagues from other schools reported of visits here with high school juniors in tow. They loved the campus, but were mystified and finally discouraged both by the apparent "intellect-free zones" that were the primarily freshman U-Hall dorms and the anonymity of dining halls where 1,800 students ate. Thus it was that when I chaired a committee on housing in 1983 we recommended creating a "residential learning unit"— a community of about 300 students, with affiliated faculty and its own dining room.

Universities, especially ones in the Finger Lakes, move with glacial speed. Fifteen years later, that recommendation was dusted off and expanded into the idea of a five-part house system on West Campus. Ten years later, these residences have been completed, thanks to Hunter Rawlings, the president who championed the idea; Susan Murphy '73, PhD '94, the vice president who supervised the planning; and Edna Dugan, the assistant vice president who co-chaired committee after committee with me and whose brilliant administrative, budgetary, and people skills brought practical, concrete reality to our vision.

Now the five houses, named after legendary Cornell faculty— Alice Cooke, Carl Becker, Hans Bethe, William Keeton, PhD '58, and Flora Rose—have reshaped West Campus, looking very much like what their principal architect, James Timberlake of Philadelphia, describes as an Italian hillside town in Upstate New York. I, like many of my faculty colleagues, now walk down the slope to speak to small groups of students in the houses—in my case, about church and state in America, or about loving and hating the Red Sox. I, along with students, attend concerts or hear talks there from the likes of Oliver Sacks, Janet Reno '60, and Bill Nye ("The Science Guy") '77, all of whom have come to live in a guest suite and take their meals with students in the house dining room. Once each week, I bring five or six students from my large lecture course down to a house for an informal lunch.

The houses make it easier for faculty to get to know the talented undergraduates we attract to Cornell, to see these students as more than anonymous figures in the classroom—their faces, alas, now often hidden by their laptops. They are each and every one complex and fascinating young people with varied backgrounds and important ambitions. In turn, the houses make it possible for students to know faculty better, to see them as real people who can talk about movies, music, and mothers as well as bioengineering, bell curves, and botany. No longer the remote Olympian purveyors of truth and theories, the faculty have become what A. D. White hoped they would be: students' "friends and companions."

I have come to love this place in my thirty-six years of teaching here, to love this Ivy League school with its Big Ten soul, this university that since its birth has played such a rebellious and innovative role in American higher education. I take pride in knowing that in my years here I have taught many students and written many books, but right now I am proudest of my role in creating the West Campus House System, this new jewel of Cornell, so "glorious to view" below Libe Slope and "far above Cayuga's waters."

— Isaac Kramnick

Isaac Kramnick is the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government.

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