Bechtel Residence Ushers in A New Era in Residential Life


After a year of robust community discussion, Joseph Shepherd (PhD '81), Caltech's vice president for student affairs, unveiled on February 1 a plan for the use of the Institute's newest undergraduate residence and for overall changes to its residential life system.

The Bechtel Residence, which will officially open to students in September 2018, will be a multi-use residence that will be able to accommodate 212 undergraduate students from all classes, freshman through senior, from day one. With a mix of single rooms and suites in a complex of six interconnected buildings including a 220-seat dining hall, all arranged around a large courtyard, Bechtel is expected to provide students greater flexibility in shaping their residential experience.

The addition of the new residence—named for Caltech life trustee Stephen D. Bechtel, Jr.—will also make it possible, for the first time in Caltech's history, for nearly all undergraduates to live on campus for all four years. It also provides the Institute with the opportunity to expand the housing options available to graduate students by freeing up Caltech-owned, off-campus apartments and houses for their use. Both steps have been longtime goals for enhancing residential life.

"The introduction of a major new residence provides opportunities and challenges for our community," Shepherd says. "We have the opportunity to provide a distinctive residential life experience in Bechtel that will make available new choices for living and learning at Caltech. We have the challenge of integrating this into the legacy of our current House system to create a harmonious and inclusive residential community that is appropriate for the 21st century."

Engaging the community in determining how best to use Bechtel, while also appropriately considering the impact the new residence will have on the current and future residential life system, has been a primary goal throughout the process, Shepherd notes. Small-group discussions, campus town hall meetings, webinars, and an on-the-road series with alumni around the country, as well as numerous consultations with trustees, faculty, and administrators, provided hundreds of individuals an opportunity to express their views on Caltech's housing and residential life program. Furthermore, three separate working committees composed of faculty, Student Affairs staff, and students were all asked to assess potential models and systems, evaluate Caltech's existing programs, and ultimately provide recommendations for a path forward.

The 16-member student committee, known as the COUCH (Committee on Undergraduate Caltech Housing), delivered a hundred-page report in December with their research and recommendations. Their work, taken together with the information and perspective provided by interactions with the other stakeholders, significantly shaped Shepherd's final plan, which he says ultimately balances individuals' views and wants and the good of the current and future community.

"There has been a lot of thoughtful and intensive discussion to try and find a good path forward," says Caltech professor Antonio Rangel (BS '93), who participated in the faculty working committee. "I was really impressed by the student leadership. The COUCH committee really took this problem head on and, through their research and report, I learned things about the student experience that were ultimately really important in changing my mind and shaping my recommendations."

In talking about her role as the chair of the COUCH committee as well as the chair of Caltech's Interhouse Committee, undergraduate student Rachael Morton, a senior, said how appreciative she was to be included in the process.

"It was really interesting to be involved with a decision of this magnitude, that will potentially affect so many future generations of students," Morton says. "Caltech is unique in that it allows a system of shared governance between students and administration."

Fellow committee member Janice Jeon, also a Caltech senior, further emphasized how seriously she and her peers took the responsibility of representation. Their work included everything from helping to articulate a set of shared principles for residential life—principles that include intellectual growth, mentorship, diversity, identity, support, choice, and the Honor Code—to listening to a wide range of views on topics such as safety nets, board plan, and the Houses.

"It is not as simple as plopping people into a new building," Jeon says. "It really takes a great amount of thought and collaboration to create a vision for a new residence hall that will be integrated into and will thrive within the existing community."

It is in these particular areas—the full integration of Bechtel into the existing residential community and the continued refinement, assessment, and enhancement of Caltech's residential life system overall—that Student Affairs will continue to focus attention. In addition to specifying a plan for the use of Bechtel, Shepherd's decision—described in The Plan for the Future of Residential Life and Opening the Bechtel Residence—detailed a series of reforms to the current residential life system. Those changes, meant to reinforce the students' guiding principles for residential life, include updating the process for assigning students to residences, Houses, and rooms, modifying how students are represented in governance and leadership, increasing the Institute's investment in residential life, and expanding the Faculty-in-Residence program.

The details regarding how each of these changes will be implemented and, ultimately, evaluated and assessed for effectiveness moving forward are still to be finalized. A newly established Advisory Committee on Residential Life, which will include representatives from the student and faculty bodies as well as Student Affairs staff members, will be the primary body responsible for ensuring that new ideas for Bechtel and residential life programs are advanced, tested, and evaluated.

"It's become clear that after the decision comes out, students will continue to work with faculty and staff over the years. And we look forward to being continually involved in the process," Morton says.

By applying Caltech's core mission of advancing discovery and inquiry into new ideas to the residential life system, Shepherd says, the Institute and its students should be able to build a living and learning experience that will continue to evolve and adapt to the community and its needs.

"As a former undergraduate, a student House president, and an IHC chair, I am very enthusiastic about all of the conversations around student life and how to allow students to explore different types of residential experiences during their time at Caltech," says Caltech professor Richard Murray (BS '85), who also served on the faculty working committee. "The Bechtel Residence presents a great opportunity for the students, faculty, and staff at Caltech to make the undergraduate experience an even better one than it is today."

For more details about the plan and the process for moving forward, visit the Bechtel and Residential Life website.

Joseph Shepherd is also the C. L. "Kelly" Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering; Richard Murray is the Thomas E. and Doris Everhart Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems and Bioengineering; and Antonio Rangel is the Bing Professor of Neuroscience, Behavioral Biology, and Economics.