Opening the books on a new century

Before there was Yale, there were the books.

Originally conceived in 1701 as the Collegiate School in Branford, Conn., legend has it that Yale University came about when a group of ministers gave a gift of scholastic volumes to the Collegiate School.

This weekend, three centuries after its founding, Yale returns to its books.

With Sterling Memorial Library as the backdrop for its first major University event, the Tercentennial will unite the campus in a way that not even the University’s biggest events have. Football games bring together undergraduates and alumni, speakers draw students and faculty, and commencements bind graduates and their families.

But only at a time like this can union organizers and administrators, students and professors, and neighbors and alumni stand together, whether gazing at fireworks overhead, hanging on the words of former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73, or grooving to Paul Simon and Counting Crows.

By Monday morning, though, the fireworks will be gone, the Crows on the road for another gig, and Clinton on the eighth hole somewhere far from Yale.

But the legacy of Yale’s tercentennial year will go far beyond this weekend’s entertainment .

Throughout his eight years in the nation’s highest office, Clinton spoke of building “a bridge to the 21st century.”

On Saturday, Clinton returns to a University in the midst of a similar construction project.

For its bicentennial, Yale built Woolsey Hall and Commons with the goal of creating a marvel of college architecture. In the ensuing century, it constructed residential colleges and a unique system that still defines student life.

But while it built, it also destroyed, breaking down long-standing barriers against women and minorities. It solidified connections to public service, evidenced by Clinton’s appearance as the third president or former president to speak to students in the last year. And it reaffirmed its commitment to the books, making love of learning rather than wealth the prerequisite for a Yale education.

In its fourth century, Yale must once again build up and break down.

It must tear down the walls of elitism and isolation and build a bridge to the rest of the world, backed by the creation of a new center for the study of globalization, a distance learning alliance with Oxford, Stanford and Princeton universities, and need-blind admissions for international students.

It must complete the three-century evolution of the University’s consciousness from regional to national to global, opening the pages of its books for all the world to read.

On its tercentennial, Yale must write the conclusion of one chapter of its history and draft the introduction of another.

What better place to begin than with the books.

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