Dr. John M. Grandin
The failure of the fraternity system is nowhere more apparent than at the University of Rhode Island. With his patience worn thin by numerous behavioral violations, mostly associated with binge drinking, President Robert Carothers has closed one URI Greek house after the other. Campus visitors cannot help but notice the number of grand old houses with boarded windows, symbolizing the passing of a system which may once have been valid and useful, but now asks to be replaced.
What will happen with these buildings? Will they be demolished for parking space? Will they be converted to administrative offices? Will they be sold? This is the story of the resurrection and rebirth of one such house, formally known as the URI chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and today known as the International Engineering Program House (IEP House), which serves as the residential and administrative center for students and faculty committed to a global engineering education.
URI's International Engineering Program (IEP) is a unique five-year program, through which students complete both a BS in one of the engineering disciplines and the BA with a major in German, French, or Spanish. Highlights of the program, which is designed to provide engineers in today's global workplace with bilingual and cross-cultural skills, include a study-abroad semester at a partner university and a six-month professional internship in Europe or Latin America. The IEP has been in place for a dozen years now, beginning with its award winning German model, and more recently expanding to French and Spanish. Over 150 students are enrolled in the program, which likewise brings over twenty exchange students from Europe to the URI campus each year.
The IEP is a multifaceted program which includes specialized language classes for engineering students, study tours abroad for younger students in the program, and close coordination with global industry through its advisory board and internship placement system. Because of its challenging nature, but also due to its promise of career opportunities with some of the world's most successful global companies, the IEP attracts bright and highly motivated students. Similarly, it has also attracted a faculty highly committed to the success of the program and their students. Such a combination has led to a comprehensive curriculum with a higher than usual student-faculty interaction, and thus an ideal candidacy for the occupancy of an empty fraternity house.
Happily there was no real conflict between the goals of the SAE alumni responsible for their building at URI and the faculty of the IEP. The corporation officers were weary of trying to maintain a house for students unwilling to assume responsibility for their surroundings. Indeed, after closing their own chapter and renting the house to another fraternity, only to have that organization evicted from campus for drug and alcohol violations, they were more than eager for alternatives. If there were a chance to refurbish the structure to its former beauty and utilize it in consonance with at least some of the fraternity's long-forgotten values, there would be little left to discuss. The kicked-in walls, the destroyed furniture, the garbage in the yard, the food stuck to the ceilings, and the smell of beer were more than they could handle. The system as they had known it was simply no longer viable.
With the fraternity in need of a tenant, the university eager to do something about an eyesore at the entrance to its campus, and the International Engineering Program in search for a home and a positive physical presence on campus, an unusual entrepreneurial deal was struck. The fraternity alumni opted to maintain ownership of the building, but agreed that radical repairs were needed. A bank loan in the amount of $500,000 was secured by the alumni to renovate the house to the IEP needs; the IEP agreed to a ten-year tenancy based on income from student residency; the university agreed to help with retrofits for handicap access and a new sprinkler system; and corporate partners agreed to furnish the building appropriate to the IEP needs.
Though the "deal" appears simple and straight-forward, and has proven very effective in the meantime, one should in no way suggest that it came about with ease. First, the IEP faculty had to decide in no uncertain terms that they not only wanted to be in the housing business, but also had the skills to do so successfully. Second, the faculty needed to be sure that their IEP students would actually want to live together in a house on campus. Third, the university needed to be convinced of the viability of this unusual arrangement, and to be assured that the faculty behind this scheme would actually be able to do what they were proposing. Fourth, the university needed to convince the RI Board of Governors for Higher Education that a ten-year lease of this structure with guarantees of over one million dollars would be wiser than bringing the bulldozer in for simple removal. Fifth, a bank had to be convinced of the viability of a half million dollar loan on a trashed frat house. The number of meetings and the trauma leading to the actual construction process could easily be the source of an entertaining book. Suffice it here to say, however, that the pieces of this project were warmly endorsed by the university leadership, that they fell into place over a tense half-year of meetings, that URI's former SAE House underwent major renovation in the summer of 1998 and now stands proudly at the entrance of the URI campus as the IEP House.
The IEP House is both an administrative and residential home for URI's International Engineering Program. Now in its fourth year of occupancy, it houses the IEP office with director and assistant director, and 44 IEP students in both single and double rooms. The house includes a living room, seminar room, activity and dining rooms, a kitchen, as well as a guest room for visiting faculty and researchers. As such, the IEP House is the focal point for the program, and the meeting point for IEP students and faculty, whether residents or not. Amenities of the building include internet and cable access as well as German language television to every room.
The residents of the IEP House are students in the program with good academic standing, i.e., students working simultaneously toward both the BA in language and the BS in one of the engineering fields. Happily, while coming together first and foremost for academic reasons, the house has become a living example of the goals of a multicultural education. The residents are men, women, white, African-American, and Hispanic. Six of the residents are exchange students from our partner university in Germany, thereby integrating themselves into American life while helping the Americans prepare for study abroad and internships in Germany. Two of the students in the past year have been physically handicapped, one permanently confined to a wheel chair. A healthy mix of Rhode Islanders and non-Rhode Islanders as well as persons from privileged, highly educated backgrounds living side-by-side with first generation college students also contributes to an appreciation of otherness.
Though the house is occupied and managed by the IEP director and assistant director during business hours, there is no live-in resident advisor or supervisor. The house is based on the belief that academically motivated and gifted students with common personal and professional goals will be able to govern themselves and take responsibility for their environment. The residents of the IEP House elect their own five-member House Council each year, who assume the leadership for community matters. When a house resident violates a university housing rule or a guiding principle of the IEP House, such issues are dealt with directly by the Council. Likewise, when a resident needs help, advice, or council, someone is there for him or her. The IEP students have proven themselves fully capable of managing themselves and caring for their house and each other with pride, without the clout of a live-in house "parent."
An important component of the IEP House is its dining program, which began with the reactivation of the old fraternity kitchen this academic year. The IEP House offers meals to residents, but also to all faculty and non-resident IEP students. The dining room, therefore, has become a meeting place for the program in its broadest sense. Students can be heard bemoaning the latest calculus exam, discussing cultural differences between Germans and Americans, swapping stories about their internship experiences abroad, or expressing anxiety about going abroad the next academic year. With four or five faculty in the dining room at lunch time, this becomes a place and time for students to get advice or for faculty to move closer to the concerns of their students.
The IEP House has the good fortune of employing a chef with not only good cooking skills, but also a pedagogical dedication of his own. Knowing that the students will encounter different foods abroad, and that their career goals will bring them into contact with a multicultural kitchen and dining experiences with high behavioral expectations, he eagerly prepares and serves meals that many have not encountered before. Thus, when the students are abroad or in a corporate board room, red cabbage, Sauerbraten, canard á l'orange, poached salmon, and West African peanut soup will not take them fully by surprise. When the chef asked for special requests from the students this past semester, ironically there was a plea for steamed hot dogs and macaroni and cheese!
The IEP House offers a multifaceted program based around the goals of the IEP. New students meet here to learn more about the program. High school students interested in engineering regularly visit the house. Foreign language films and cultural programs are offered throughout the semester, as is tutorial assistance for IEP students, whether residents or non-residents. The house is also regularly visited by recruiters and interested executives of global companies eager to participate in and benefit from the education of a more global engineer. The IEP House organizes "fireside chats" with visitors from companies such as DaimlerChrysler, Hilti, TRW, and Bayer, and has enjoyed their support in furnishing and equipping the house. In the summer, the IEP House is used as the home for URI's intensive, residential German language and culture program, the German Summer School of the Atlantic, where faculty and students reside together and where English is "verboten."
There are many lessons to be learned from the IEP House experience. First of all, it demonstrates a contemporary and viable alternative to today's fraternity system for which binge drinking, hazing, and ridicule of academia's goals are too often the norm. The collapse of the old houses provides us today with the opportunity to build a new residential concept around shared academic goals on behalf of students with a demonstrated commitment. Such a concept not only provides a greater support system for students in their program of study, but also facilitates interaction between faculty and students. Sharing space with students and sharing meals with students, leads to a level of acquaintanceship and mutual respect which is unfortunately seldom attained in today's undergraduate experience.
Second, encouraging students of diverse backgrounds with common academic and personal goals to live together fosters and strengthens characteristics in our graduates which are valued by the University of Rhode Island as a whole and commonly sought after by today's global employers: personal engagement in a goal larger than the "job" itself, openness to other cultures and backgrounds, teamwork, mutual respect and support, and shared responsibility for a greater end, regardless of ethnic background, heritage, or personal creed.
Third, merging the residential sides of academia with the goals of the classroom helps students to transcend the gap or divide between the two. Whereas many students might find their personal lives in the dorms or the fraternities totally divorced from or antithetic to the content of their studies, the IEP House brings these things together. When students return from class, they have lunch with their classroom counterparts, indeed, even with their professors. When they have dinner, the discussion is inevitably at least partially tied to their academic and professional goals. Living in the IEP House enhances their identity as IEP students, and provides a more holistic framework in which to achieve their goals.
Fourth, uniting academic office and program space with student residential life provides new opportunities for faculty, while, at the same time, injecting new vigor into the debate over the appropriate roles for faculty and the concomitant rewards system. Should faculty be managing student housing? Should faculty be involved in renovating run down fraternity houses? Should faculty be fundraising for residential furnishings?
The answer from the author of this article is an emphatic "YES," even though it is clear that this scenario is fraught with complications if generalized for all of academia. Any time spent on this project could, or perhaps even should, be spent on research projects, in the library, and on publication of the next article. It would be difficult to ask assistant or associate professors to become deeply involved in the management of residential life for students, unless the institution were prepared to reward such activity as a significant part of a promotion and tenure package.
The URI faculty involved in the IEP House project have found it immensely rewarding. They feel that the opportunity to interact with students on this level and to provide the program with a central location and a clear physical presence on campus far outweigh any sacrifices that have been made. Recently, the director, assistant director and chef were called into the living room by a group of 25 house residents. What was billed as a meeting, turned out to be an end-of-the-semester thank you. All three received both serious and humorous gifts, the most memorable of which was a pair of IEP House briefs, especially prepared for the director by his self-proclaimed "Kinder." Nobody at URI can match the pride he felt that day!
Dr. John M. Grandin
Director, International Engineering Program
TI House 114
61 Upper College Road
University of Rhode Island
Kingston, RI 02881
Dr. John M. Grandin
Director, International Engineering Program
Office: TI House 114