Parents' Newsletter, Fall 2009

Golder looks to improve life and learning in the residences


Deborah Golder, associate vice provost and dean of residential education, joined Stanford in January from Drexel University. She heads the Student Affairs division responsible for the policies, programs and staffing within Stanford’s 78 residential facilities.

Golder, who also held residence positions at Dartmouth and the University of Maryland-College Park, said she was drawn to Stanford by the unique residential system, especially the role of the faculty members and senior administrators living in the residences as resident fellows.

Golder calls the potential for improving the residential experience at Stanford “profound.”

She said, “We can harness these pockets of excellence further and ensure that every student at Stanford has a good residential experience—and that many have a great one.”

As Stanford welcomes 1,697 freshmen and 23 transfer students, Golder answers questions of interest to parents about changes in the residences, alcohol policies and the evolving role of her department.


How would you describe the Stanford residence system, and how does it compare to those of our peers?

It is diverse. Also, almost all students live on campus for four years, so we can engage them in multiple ways. About half our houses have resident fellows, who are senior faculty and staff committed to living in community with students. That fact alone speaks to the values of the institution.

The other half of our houses feature more independent living and include about a quarter of the population. It is unusual to find students living independently in the safety and sanctuary of the university campus. They are still part of the community, but get an opportunity to exercise responsibility, from being kitchen managers who must follow county code to helping set standards for behavioral norms. There are universities that have some of that kind of housing, but none that have it to the degree Stanford does.

Within these two environments are layer upon layer of programs. Throughout a student’s years, they can walk in all these different worlds. That is very congruent with how I have come to understand Stanford. There is the same level of diversity as in the curriculum and among the students.

What are the big changes in the residences this year?

The Housing Master Plan rolled out by Residential & Dining Enterprises has improved the physical environment of the residences. The improvements have a significant impact on the learning environment we help create. If you have three people squeezed into an area designed for two, it makes building community harder.

We’re developing programming around the big changes, the biggest of which is that two-thirds of the incoming freshmen will be living in Wilbur Hall and Stern Hall. Seven of the eight houses in Wilbur and five of the six in Stern are going to be all frosh. That will be an energy-filled environment. At the same time, about a third of the incoming class asked for four-class housing, and the Housing Master Plan ensured it was available. The fact we can offer both kinds of experiences is wonderful. 

Upperclass houses that have been tight have a lot more breathing room. There is also an effort to bring some social space back. People need nooks and crannies to curl up with a laptop.

We were partners with Housing, as well, in changes made to room selection. The Draw, which is a lottery used to assign housing to upperclassmen, this year was cleaner and clearer. The outcome is that sophomores are in more places with resident fellows, and juniors and seniors are in more places that offer independent living, which makes sense.

What is your vision of education and learning inside the residences?

I think of learning broadly. There is formal learning, programmatic learning, intellectual learning and interpersonal learning.

Learning happens formally in the classroom, but we expand and extend its meaning in our residences. For instance, several houses last year invited former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to spend time with students. There are great minds and former world leaders at Stanford who enjoy the intimate student contact of the residence.

There is also learning that happens in community about one’s self: How do I advocate effectively with my roommate around the fact that I like the window open when I sleep? That learning allows the development of life skills. Students also learn how to build interpersonal skills—how to knock on a door to ask someone to turn down the music rather than send a text message. This is also an environment where student staff and resident fellows help with issues around identity, cultural awareness or responsibility to other human beings.

If, during these formative years, we have engaged them in ways that help them understand their impact on others—and if, someday, those lessons play out in their lives—well, that’s pretty exciting.

What are some of the biggest challenges freshmen face as they transition to college?

For one thing, parents play a very different role than, say, 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Many students are used to a more structured academic and extra-curricular environment than they find at Stanford. Here they get to decide whether they go to class or not, eat a meal or not and, perhaps, do some things that aren’t so smart. This is a safe environment to make mistakes.

That’s very important for students who were used to being “the one,” the top of the class, the best athlete. They are joining a community of exceptional people. Here they have a chance to redefine, a chance to be someone new or a more authentic version of themselves. But there is a great deal of transition to being part of this very driven, talented and competitive community.

How do you see Residential Education at Stanford evolving?

There is a decade of data that proves Stanford students love their residential experience. I want more. I want them to love it, but I want to know that they are learning something. That is happening, but it can happen more and in more creative ways. Community is inherently dynamic. We have a responsibility to be dynamic, too. Universities are bureaucracies where it is easy to stay the same. We want to build an organization that evolves just as students evolve.

Every college and university deals with alcohol. What is Stanford’s approach?

One of the things I enjoy about Stanford is that we respect our students and treat them as adults. We expect them to be thoughtful decision makers. We begin with a premise that is not punitive, but rather educational. We have faith that our students will make good choices. Sometimes they won’t. Then we intervene with educational resources so that they don’t make the same mistakes again. Alcohol is a part of college culture in the United States. If it compromises health, safety or community in the residences, we get involved.

What advice do you have for parents?

As much as students have to learn to live more independently, some parents need to do that, too. If a student is struggling, we hope parents will ask, “Who have you talked to about this? Have you sought some resources?” It’s like learning to hit a ball. In the end, the student has to swing the bat. If your parent is there, holding on to the bat and not letting go, you can’t learn. Parents can stand on the sidelines and give advice, like “keep your eye on the ball.” But let the student be the one out there swinging the bat.

Be assured there are lots of people for them to talk to: the resident assistant who lives with them; the resident fellow; the residence dean, who can connect to a wide array of campus resources; the academic director, who is there for academic decision making. All of these people sit right in the residences.