Last spring, during one of the open student hours I hold (weekly whenever possible, less often as Carleton travel dictates), a second-year student arrived at my office eager to tell me the story of a friend who had just visited him. The friend was an undergraduate at another university, a university whose name would be recognized around the globe. The Carleton student’s story was brief and telling: His friend was stunned by how much significant, substantive, weighty conversation took place in the lounges of Carleton’s residence halls. More surprising still, the visitor related, was how much of this conversation concerned issues raised in courses in history, physics, and math. Such conversations, apparently, occurred rarely at our visitor’s home university.
The Carleton student’s story delighted me—though after my wife Teresa’s and my nearly six years at Carleton, the narrative no longer surprises us. It is precisely this engagement that I think most characterizes Carleton students. Our students’ engagement—with issues that matter, in conversation with others—comes centrally from the habits of the College as shaped by generations of students, whose habits in turn were shaped by the Carleton teachers to whom we all owe so much. Such lively engagement has led me to rename Carleton, if descriptively accurate names are sought, Intellectual Curiosity College or Life of the Mind U.
Note, please, that the narrative that begins this column took place in a Carleton residence hall. This is as it should be, since the promise of a residential liberal arts college includes that of sustained deliberations, long after class times, throughout our residence halls. What is not as it should be is the situation with which we have lived now for several decades, that of stretching our capacity beyond what is ideal and preferred for residential housing. For long years now, we have had insufficient room on campus to house our students and we have crowded too many students into our residence halls, so that too many lounges (the site of the conversation behind the student’s visit to my student hour) have long since been converted into bedrooms. While the size of Carleton’s student body has not increased significantly in recent years, approximately 400 more students are enrolled now than were enrolled in April 1967 when Watson Hall, the most recently constructed full-scale residence facility on campus, opened.
Hence, a significant goal of our current Breaking Barriers, Creating Connections campaign is to return many students to campus by building two new residence halls, to be located south of and facing the Language and Dining Center, such that the residence halls will shape with the LDC and Nourse Hall and Myers Hall a new quadrangle, a sort of mini Bald Spot. One of these halls will be named Cassat Hall because of a visionary and generous gift from Pat and George Cassat, both members of the Class of ’46, and we will begin construction by summer 2008.
We aim to fulfill the promise of a residential college. We aim to ensure that stories like the one related to me by a current student continue in the years ahead. The only way to meet these goals is to plan and construct first-rate residence halls to house more Carleton students than we are able to accommodate now. Our work in building our first new residence halls in many years begins soon. Watch the Voice for updates on this and other construction projects.