ResLife Myth #3: Community Happens… Magically

Believing that community building happens naturally and doesn’t require intervention is a myth. This “myth” is often not one that is widely believed by most professionals that work in residence life, but rather those that work outside of it. What many individuals do not realize is the amount of work and intentionality that goes into developing happy, healthy, and productive communities. Rather than just providing “sleeps and eats,” campus housing and residence life departments construct living spaces with intentionality. This intentionality has many benefits beyond just the “warm fuzzies” of community belonging. It can impact student retention, health, academic success, and many other issues.

Perhaps the best known and most widely used campus community model, or rather “principles of community,” were developed and published in a special report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Often attributed to Ernest Boyer (who was the President of the Carnegie Foundation at the time, and the author of the report’s preface), these principles first appeared in”Campus Life: In Search of Community,” published in 1990. This report represented the work of a number of individuals who were seeking to address contemporary challenges colleges and universities were facing–many of which persist to this day. An the abstract of the report reveals, it was:

A national study of social conditions on college campuses found that college officials were concerned about alcohol and drug abuse, crime, breakdown of civility, racial tensions, sex discrimination, and a diminishing commitment to teaching and learning. In response to those findings, this book proposes that both academic and civic standards be clarified and that the enduring values that undergird a community of learning be precisely defined. Six principles are presented that provide a formula for day-to-day decision making on the campus and define the kind of community every college and university should strive to be: (1) a purposeful community, (2) an open community, (3) a just community, (4) a disciplined community, (5) a caring community, and (6) a celebrative community.

As the abstract mentions, these principles are intended to guide “day-to-day” decision making. Given their central role in developing campus community, many residence life and education departments adopted these principles as guides in developing their own community development plans. Still relevant today, these principles still guide the work on many campuses. They can effect decisions ranging from architectural decisions in the construction of new residence halls to the programs and activities that are planned and executed by staff members.

Purposeful – “A place where faculty and students share academic goals and work together to strengthen teaching and learning on the campus” (p.9).

Open – “A place where freedom of expression is uncompromisingly protected and where civility is powerfully affirmed” (p. 17).

Just – “A place where the sacredness of the person is honored and where diversity is aggressively pursued” (p. 25).

Disciplined – “A place where individuals accept their obligations to the group and where well defined governance procedures guide behavior for the common good” (p. 37).

Caring – “A place where the well being of each member is sensitively supported and where service to others is encouraged” (p. 47).

Celebrative “One in which the heritage of the institution is remembered and where rituals affirming both tradition and change are widely shared” (p. 55).

Although learning is increasingly becoming a central focus of a number of different residence life departments, community development remains an important goal in this process. Much like a class will not be effective if the environment and classroom dynamics are not conducive to learning, a residence hall will not be an effective educational environment if a community is not developed to support it. For this reason, community development alongside student learning remain two of the most important pillars in residential education work.

Key Questions

  • How might you apply Boyer’s six principles of community in your practice?
  • Is your departmental decision-making guided by efforts to maximize community and student learning?
  • How might you develop policies and training programs for staff that promote community?