Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
July 2, 1999

Alexander drops 'one size fits all' approach

by Steve Sullivan

If all goes as planned, the first big step in the university's residence master plan will open this fall, and a man who never planned on a career in university housing will be as happy as a freshman who just nailed a chemistry test.

The first big step -- and, university officials hope, the first success -- is a nine-story, concrete structure named Maple Hall. The man is a tall, native Texan named Randy Alexander. Alexander is facing the biggest challenge of his career as he guides a multi-million dollar, long-term updating of the university's residence system.

"It would be easy to conclude that we are behind the times, but my predecessor Chuck Fredericksen did sound the alarm over a decade ago about our facilities getting on in years," said Alexander, director of residence since 1997. "Student leaders, however, resisted the recommendation to raise rates to address facility issues, preferring to keep the rates down. So, Chuck did what he was asked to do. Now, as we face the challenge of modernizing our facilities, Chuck's excellent financial management over many years is the reason we are able to raise our rates and still remain very competitive."

Maple Hall epitomizes what the master plan was designed to accomplish, as well as the many challenges it presents.

"Maple Hall is our beta site to test new ideas," Alexander said. "The bottom line is academic success, creating an environment in which students will enjoy more academic success, are more likely to graduate and have a happier experience."

Maple Hall is intended to be a neighborhood for younger, primarily freshman students, and will feature regulations and support services geared toward the needs of new students. As university officials monitor progress on Maple, ground is being broken on a Hawthorn Court project, a new 23-building apartment complex intended for upperclass students with fewer regulations and support services.

"Our previous approach to structuring residential communities could be described as 'one size fits all.' One key element of the master plan is a belief that all students don't need the same thing. Freshmen, for example, need more structure than older students," Alexander said.

Maple Hall, where 75 percent of the residents will be freshmen, reflects that. Each floor will have a study room, computer lab and lounge/kitchenette area. Maple also will be home to eight learning communities. Staffing will include a community adviser and academic resource coordinator for each floor. Rooms will be carpeted, have a sink and new, loftable furniture. Students will be able to control heating and air conditioning in their rooms. Large community bathrooms will be replaced by facilities with more privacy.

And there will be some rules. Maple will be an alcohol- and substance-free residence hall. Upperclass students will be expected to maintain a 2.5 grade-point average. All residents will be expected to participate in campus organizations, community service or personal development projects. There also will be times, albeit late in the evening, when residents won't be allowed to have members of the opposite sex in their rooms. (Common areas on all floors will be open 24 hours to residents and their guests.)

Maple Hall also reflects the challenges facing the overhaul of the university's residence system. While university officials remain optimistic that it will be ready this fall, construction delays and recent vandalism have threatened to delay its reopening.

Changes such as these are not always immediately embraced by all. An Iowa State Daily editorial last spring labeled Maple Hall's policies as "ludicrous" and questioned whether anyone would want to live in the building. While some may pooh-pooh the policy experiment at Maple Hall, it has done nothing to diminish interest. By early June, more than 1,200 students -- more than one in three applicants -- had applied for Maple Hall's 488 beds.

Such stats help Alexander take the student newspaper's criticism in stride. He points out that most changes being made in university housing result from a 1997 market survey in which hundreds of students told ISU officials what they want from on-campus living.

"We're an auxiliary enterprise. We don't get state funds. To create something students don't want would be financial suicide," Alexander said. "It was students who told us they wanted more privacy, sinks in their rooms, access to kitchens.

"I have yet to do a presentation to a student group on the master plan that wasn't well-received," he said. "Once students hear and understand everything we are trying to do, they are supportive."

Freshman experience spurs interest in student affairs

Director of residence Randy Alexander had planned on a career in business, not student affairs, but then his college roommate got a threatening letter and the FBI showed up.

While a freshman at East Texas State University in the late 1960s, Alexander lived in a residence hall suite with two other students, one an African American named Larry. One day, several African American students, including Larry, received a letter labeling them "Uncle Toms" and threatening retaliation by the Black Panthers. The threat was taken seriously by the students and university administrators. Before it was over, the FBI was involved and Alexander got to meet the vice president for student affairs, who recommended the roommates leave town the weekend the retaliation was to take place.

The weekend passed without incident, but interacting with university officials sparked an interest in the student affairs field. Alexander served as a resident hall assistant his sophomore year, and ultimately earned a degree in psychology and a master's in student personnel and guidance from East Texas.

He didn't exactly plan to go into university housing, but with the initials "RA," perhaps it was inevitable. Alexander served as assistant dean of student development at Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, 1976-78; director of residential living at Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos, 1978-80; and director of housing at Wichita State University, Kansas, 1980-90. He served as director of university housing at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, from 1991 until 1996, when he was appointed director of residence at Iowa State.

Alexander got a fast introduction to student residences at ISU. His family needed to live in a handicap-accessible residence for his daughter and a Schilletter Village apartment fit their immediate needs. The first week there, he had to break up an argument between a family and some single students a quick lesson in the different lifestyles of ISU students.

"My first week here, and I already was an RA," Alexander said.

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