Colleges' newest dorm dwellers: Professors and their families

Abraham Klemek and his professor parents, Melissa Keeley (holding his sister) and Christopher Klemek, live in a GWU dorm.
Abraham Klemek and his professor parents, Melissa Keeley (holding his sister) and Christopher Klemek, live in a GWU dorm. (Jahi Chikwendiu)
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By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010

In the spring, Jeffrey Sich told his friends in St. Louis that he was moving to the District for an associate professorship at George Washington University. Then the 55-year-old carefully explained where he would live: a sophomore dorm.

"It was met with shock: 'You are going to do what?' " Sich said. "But it's a great conversation starter. . . . And it's been done before - Rodney Dangerfield."

No, this is not the setup for a reality TV show. And, yes, GWU officials are fully aware there's a middle-aged guy living on the first floor of Dakota Hall.

GWU is one of dozens of colleges across the country that place professors (and sometimes their families) in residence halls. It's a practice borrowed from the early days of academia that has grown in popularity in recent years, especially at large urban universities looking to create a more personal, small-campus feel.

In exchange for free rent, professors agree to live among the masses, answer questions, attend floor meetings, endure odd noises at late hours and host small gatherings in their quarters, which typically are larger than the dorm rooms shared by students. Some students never stop by, and others form lifelong friendships with their older neighbors.

"It's very casual. There's no class attached to it. You solely talk about your interests," said Patrick Eronini, 19, a junior nursing major at Georgetown University, which has six faculty members and 28 Jesuit priests or chaplains living on campus. "At the very least, students are going for the free food."

As colleges construct dorms, many are adding a professor suite or two to the floor plans. Last year, Catholic University opened a hall that included an apartment large enough for two faculty members and their now 1-year-old daughter. Georgetown included faculty apartments in the last three residence halls built on campus.

And this fall, GWU opened a hall that houses about 290 undergraduates, plus professors Melissa Keeley and Christopher Klemek and their two young children - who have become celebrities on campus.

The family hopes its presence will help students in the mostly freshman dorm feel more at home. The couple are also excited to organize events, host dinners and share their research with students.

"Learning to write essays is one skill set. So is speaking in class. It's difficult to take your interests and your knowledge and use it in real-world settings," Klemek said. "We have the ability to mentor that . . . and give them an opportunity to rehearse that."

GWU started placing faculty members in dorms about 12 years ago to help bring an academic feel to the halls. This year, there are five professors in four dorms. At first the program was aimed at freshmen, but then administrators realized it was a better fit for sophomores.

"Our first-year students are transitioning on so many levels. . . . They are far less apt to knock on a faculty member's door in the residence hall," said Rebecca A. Sawyer, senior assistant dean of students. "By sophomore year, they already understand that faculty relationship."

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