Report from ’90s still guides student-life efforts

By Sam Cate-Gumpert

In conjunction with major projects currently in the pipeline, including the construction of a new dorm behind Burton-Judson, the appointment of Kimberley Goff-Crews as vice president and dean of students this year presages a level of formal commitment to student life at the University by the administration not seen since the publication of the Quality of Student Experience report 11 years ago.

“This is my fourth month here, and part of what I’m asking is, what are the next steps, what do we need to be thinking about to help the students, five or ten years out?” Goff-Crews said. “The University as a whole is also doing planning to try and figure out some of the same things. President Zimmer has only been here one year more than me, so I think this planning is typical of new [administrative] changes.”

The Quality of Student Experience report, commissioned by then-president Hugo F. Sonnenschein, brought together students, faculty and administrators to gauge satisfaction with student life both in the College and at the graduate level.

It led to some major changes and developments at the University, including the rehabilitation of the Reynolds Club; the construction of Ratner Athletic Center; and the introduction of longer orientation weeks, winter breaks, and of the Pass/Fail option in certain classes.

Goff-Crews, who will use her new appointment to help the University build on its strengths and identify areas of student life that need improvement, said she used the 1996 report as a way of looking into how the University has acted in the recent past.

“I’ve been asking, ‘what things should we be thinking about in the future,’ talking to a lot of individual student groups, reading a lot of reports, seeing how [the University] has done so far in terms of student life,” she said. Communication with the student body was a clear mandate handed down to her by both President Zimmer and Student Government, she said.

“My hope is to come back to what I’ve listened to and the reports I’ve read, and say ‘here are things that we need to focus on.’”

According to Matt Kennedy, Student Government’s vice president for student affairs, there have been significant improvements to student involvement in administrative decisions. “Now, we actually have input before things are formalized,” he said.

Still, Bill Michel, assistant vice president for student life and associate dean of the College, recognized room for improvement. “Here’s an area where I will say from historical perspective, we do a lot more than we used to, but we have a lot more to do,” he said.

“When I was a student here, I spent a lot of time with my core group of friends. There wasn’t really a sense of, ‘there are a bunch of places where I’m going to bump into kids,’” Michel said.

An unintended consequence of rehabilitating the Reynolds Club was that it combined with the new Bartlett Dining Hall and Max Palevsky dorms to create a North Campus “hub of student activity,” he said.

“Now you go out at seven or eight o’clock at night and you run into people, you feel like you are part of a campus,” Michel said.

Dean of the College John Boyer sees the same possibility for creating a vibrant student hub in the new South Campus.

In the coming years, the goal is to have a much larger percentage of students living in campus dorms, he said. “Even when the new dorm [on South Campus, behind Burton-Judson] is opened, we will still have only 60 percent of students in housing,” he said. “I’d actually like to have 75–80 percent of our students within our housing system.”

“I think this is a major problem, in the long term, as Hyde Park becomes more and more condominiumized and off-campus housing opportunities for students disappear,” potentially affecting the U of C’s competitiveness with peer institutions, Boyer said.

He also cited the need for additional funding for student job and internship opportunities. “There is still a tremendous demand out there. We have to find 100 more internships within the next two years.”

“We need to keep moving here, we can’t be at a standstill,” he said. “There are other major opportunities [for student life] that we need to be exploiting.”

“As you improve things,” Michel said, “new opportunities present themselves, and student expectations rise.”