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SMU Revives Centuries-Old College Housing Tradition: Professors Living In Student Dorms

College dorms aren’t what they used to be. SMU just unveiled its new Residential Commons that opens this fall for students. The price tag: $146 million. There are hardwood floors, huge projection screens in the dining hall, and meditation rooms. In the middle of it all: apartments for professors.

Why would a professor want to live near college kids?

Rita Kirk, a communications professor, is used to having kids around. Her house was always the one in the neighborhood where all her son’s friends would hang out. Students energize her. That's why she was one of the first to sign up to live on the SMU campus. In a dorm. With college students.

“I also really enjoy getting to hear students’ dreams and what they’re interested in so it just seems like a normal thing to sit on a couch somewhere and talk to students about what they’re into,” Kirk says.

Professors living in dorms dates back a few centuries. Oxford and Cambridge faculty lived among students when those universities were founded. A century or so later, when the medical faculty at Brown refused to live on campus, the school’s medical program was suspended.

These days, professors live in dorms at several colleges across the country, including Vassar College, Tulane University and Clemson University, according to U.S. News & World Report.

In Texas, professors live on campus atBaylor University andTexas State University-San Marcos.

Kirk, the SMU professor, says students can get a lot out of having their professors nearby.

“They develop bonds with them. They see them. They sometimes have dinner with them,” Kirk says. “And so they’re not strangers to them. It’s not just some impersonal person that teaches your class. It’s somebody that you can have a relationship with.”

SMU says it's a way to humanize professors

The housing complex is set to open in the fall. It includes five new buildings and six existing dorms that have been remodeled. The perk for the 11 faculty members who’ll be living on campus -- they get their own apartment.

But what about concerns they’ll get too close to students?

“I think it’s a way for faculty members to be more human to students. I know, I’m the daughter of a faculty member and even when I went to college, I was intimidated by faculty," said Lori White, SMU’s vice president for student affairs.

White says the biggest challenge for them was finding professors who wanted to live on campus. But in the end, they had more faculty apply than they needed. Some of them are single, others are married with kids, including two sets of twins. Some have pets.

“Some students have said to us, 'Oh, it might be a little weird having a faculty member living in. It might be like mom and dad,'” White says. “But as we’ve looked at other universities that have residential college or residential commons models, none of those things come into play.”

What do students think?

Freshman Joshua Oh says he’ll reap some benefits from living side-by-side with professors.

“A lot of times, professors don’t really have time to interact with their students, but by living on campus, they’ll be with us 24-7 and they’ll be able to answer questions,” Oh says.

SMU will be able to house 1,200 more students with the new dorms. That’ll bring the total number of students living on campus to more than 2,700. The school is nixing its specialty dorms and opening them to all first- and second-year students. Sophomore Arin McGovern says that’s a good thing.

“[It] will promote a better atmosphere all together,” McGovern says.

Among the new tenants livening up that atmosphere will be Kirk’s pet Bichon Frise: Sir Emerson of Eaton – an aristocratic name for a housing model that dates back to aristocratic times.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.