Professors Get Lesson in Dorm Life : L. B. Faculty, Students Commune as Campus Residents

Times Staff Writer

At 5:30 p.m. on a recent weekday, the Parkside Commons dormitory dining room at California State University, Long Beach, was bustling with activity.

Hordes of students ate their dinners, chattering above the din of clanking trays. Outside on the grass, clearly visible through the windows, a game of Frisbee was in full swing. And as some of the youthful students rose from their chairs for second helpings, the volume of their appetites seemed exceeded only by their cheerfulness.

Over in a far corner, however, a discussion of a different sort was taking place. There, hunched over a round table, eight people sat in serious debate.


“My argument is that you can’t blindly follow everything the President does,” said a distinguished-looking elderly gentleman wearing a gray suit and light blue tie.

Lecturer Is Resident

“But what he did in Libya was right,” countered a passionate young man clad in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt.

The man in the tie was Robert Ellison, 71, a lecturer in business law at the university’s School of Business. The T-shirted youth was an 18-year-old student with an undeclared major. Both are residents of this dormitory complex on the lower end of campus. And both are participants in a program designed to relieve each of any stereotypes about the other.

“Our goal was to create an atmosphere that enhances more informal relationships between the students and the faculty,” said Gary Little, director of resident life for Parkside Commons, home to 492 students who live in five buildings and share a common dining room.

Share Students’ Lives

So last summer Little asked for volunteers from the faculty willing to share their students’ lives in a particularly personal way. And since September, five faculty members--one in each dorm--have been living alongside the youngsters, eating the same food, listening to the same loud music and generally forgoing the middle-class comforts of adult academia in favor of the Spartan rigors of dormitory life.

Though the concept is common on the East Coast, Little said, it is fairly new to California campuses. “I like it fine,” Ellison said of his new life style. “I want to re-up for another year.”

To be sure, being a professor in the dormitories has its advantages. While students double up in tiny rooms and share communal bathrooms, professors live in larger, single chambers with kitchen units and private baths. And though they are not paid extra for their duties, the faculty members do receive free room and board.

But they have a lot of responsibilities as well. Like conducting occasional informal “table top” discussions or special programs of the sort in which Ellison and the hawkish student exchanged their views over dinner. Or scheduling regular hours in the dorms for students in need of academic advice and tutoring.

The professors are also expected to be able to cope with the personal demands of dormitory living.

“People knock on your door at 2 a.m. to ask if you have any orange juice in your refrigerator,” complained Karl Grote, 32, a visiting professor of mechanical engineering from West Berlin. “You have nearly no private life; if you have a girlfriend, you must make sure that she has her own apartment.”

Yet Grote said he likes living in the dorm because it gives him an opportunity to observe students firsthand. “The instructors here are sometimes too powerful,” Grote said. “This will close the distance. . . .”

To be sure, that didn’t always seem to be happening for these urban explorers on the far side of the generation gap. When the professors first arrived, according to Ellison, many were seen as intruders unworthy even of neighborly harassment.

“The idea of a relationship between faculty and students was alien to the students,” he said. “They thought initially that we were here to monitor their behavior.”

To some extent, those barriers still exist.

‘It’s No Big Deal’

John Lee, 20, a business major, said his sole relationship to the professor assigned to his dorm consists of seeing the man eat in the cafeteria. “It’s a waste,” Lee said of the faculty-in-residence concept. “I’ve never asked them anything; it’s no big deal. They’re just getting free room and board.”

And Sharon Hawksley, also 20, had to think a minute before coming up with the name of the instructor assigned to her dorm--philosophy Prof. Paul Tang.

“I think it would be more helpful if he were in a major closer to mine,” said Hawksley, a micro-biology major. “I’ve never invited a philosophy major to a party; they would make pretty boring company.”

Tang, 40, admits that not all students are taking advantage of what he and the other professors have to offer. But more and are, he said, and one of his goals in the dormitory is to encourage students to interact with professors outside of their major fields.

“It’s my wish that more and more will become more broadly oriented and see the value of a broad education,” said Tang, who also plays piano and did his undergraduate work in biochemistry and zoology. “Students tend to be too vocationally oriented at the university,” Tang said.

Some of the professors say their perceptions are changing as a result of their experiences in the dorms.

“I think it has made me more tolerant of students who come (into class) with half-baked excuses about why they didn’t do their homework,” Ellison said of his life in the dorm.

Said Grote, who until recently rode a skateboard to class and says he frequently attends student parties: “This has helped me understand their stress. I can understand why they blow off steam.”

They were blowing off steam recently at an impromptu photo session in front of Grote’s dorm, during which students snapped pictures of the professor and his clowning brood.

“It’s a great atmosphere when you can talk to your professor,” said Dave Strong, a 25-year-old mechanical engineering major. Then, joking: “If I have any trouble I just come over and he does my homework.”

Others had less academic reasons for supporting the arrangement.

“He’s fixed my ghetto blaster four times,” chimed Marci Mori, 19, speaking of her powerful radio. “We all love Karl.”

Scott Hakeman, 21, added: “He doesn’t even seem like a faculty member. We just think of him as an elderly student.”