In the 1990s, Cornell University faced a campus-wide housing problem. Physically unattractive dormitories on the University's West Campus did not foster a sense of community among students or engage them in learning outside the classroom. The existing culture in these residences contributed to a broader campus divide between Cornell's North and West Campuses. The noisier West Campus dormitories tended to attract freshmen students who intended to join nearby Greek fraternities and sororities, while the quieter North Campus was home to more academically-engaged students. Efforts to remedy the West Campus residents' reliance on off-campus housing following their freshman year were unsuccessful due to the shortcomings of outdated buildings. As Cornell's peer institutions began to implement residential models that emphasized a holistic undergraduate experience, it became clear that the University would need to reimagine its housing system in order to enrich the lives of all future students.
Though Cornell's housing challenges were not new, responding to them required significant capital investments that would address on-campus housing as a whole. An opportunity arose in 1997 when University President Hunter Rawlings III announced a strategic plan to consolidate freshmen housing on North Campus by constructing three new dormitories. The move presented an opportunity to also transform West Campus. The West Campus Residential Initiative sought to create attractive on-campus housing for students beyond their freshman year, provide an alternative to off-campus and Greek housing, foster a sense of student community, and extend learning opportunities and interactions with faculty outside of the classroom. The ultimate goal was to create a residential system that reflected Cornell's core values of inquiry, creativity, equity, and public engagement.1
A project planning group composed of faculty, staff, and students proposed five residential living-learning Houses on West Campus, which were constructed between 2001 and 2008. Faculty members drove the vision and the programming for the new buildings: each House would contain its own dining hall, common areas, and accommodations for faculty-in-residence. In a productive hybrid arrangement that combined interdisciplinary expertise, two project managers were named -- one from Student and Academic Services and one from Facilities Management.
While the financial burden of simultaneously implementing two major residential initiatives created debt for the University, it allowed efficient and timely completion of the two projects. The Atlantic Philanthropies, a frequent contributor to Cornell, provided funding totaling $103.6 million for the West Campus Initiative.
Today, West Campus attracts more students than it can accommodate and better serves Cornell's institutional values. While differing perspectives on House governance and admission processes have created some rifts between administrative staff and faculty, this initiative has successfully exposed students to a new range of intellectual and extracurricular opportunities and helped change the University's undergraduate residential culture. While it is yet to be seen whether the initiative has enhanced Cornell's competitiveness among its peers, the expanded programming within West Campus reflects Cornell's long-standing academic values.
This case study is based on research conducted by MASS Design Group between May and September 2015. Funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies, this case illustrates how capital projects can introduce new approaches that enrich the character and programs of institutions.