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Colleges' newest dorm dwellers: Professors and their families

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010; B1

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."

Sich, the professor who recently moved to GWU, decided to try the program for a few reasons: free rent while he tries to sell his condominium in Missouri, a six-minute walk to work and the chance to interact with students.

"It's total immersion" into campus culture, said Sich, whose research focuses on tropical and infectious diseases. "I figured nothing would do that quite like living with 200 sophomores."

Professors who live among students understand intimately how a campus operates and what students think, and they are forced to be culturally savvy, said Daniel Porterfield, a Georgetown assistant English professor and vice president for strategic development who has lived in Copley Hall with his wife and three daughters for seven years.

Each year, Porterfield and his wife, Karen Herrling, both Georgetown graduates, reassess whether they want to stay in the four-bedroom dorm apartment or return to their home in Arlington County, which they rent out.

They keep deciding to stay because their daughters - ages 7, 12 and 13 - seem to thrive in the collegiate atmosphere.

Porterfield said he enjoys hosting classes in his apartment, introducing students to each other over dinner, watching groups of friends form and inviting young alumni back to visit. He does set boundaries, though, such as joining a gym off campus.

"If there is a downside . . . it requires an adult to be very comfortable personally and to know that they're being observed a lot," he said. "They see me with my children. They see me carrying in the groceries. They see me and my wife walking on campus, holding hands."

GWU's new provost, Steven Lerman, previously worked at MIT, where he and his wife lived in a graduate student dorm for nine years. One Sunday a month, the couple cooked holiday-themed pancakes for the entire building (this would be pumpkin pancake season). And the first visitor to their new home on GWU's Mount Vernon campus was a former MIT student-neighbor.

"We got to understand their lives in a way I never did in the classroom," Lerman said. "In American higher education, there ought to be more of this. It can only help the educational process."

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