To a committee of Yale professors meeting in 1971, fourteen residential colleges and an open-air ice skating rink on Cross Campus seemed the best way to invigorate undergraduate education.
Yale President Kingman Brewster had charged the committee, called the Study Group on Yale College, with a weighty task: examine the objectives and functions of a college education.
“We badly need a coherent, purposive articulation of the goals of education at Yale for those between the high school and post-baccalaureate careers, or graduate and professional training for careers,” Brewster wrote in a letter to the committee.
Almost a year ago, Yale President Richard Levin called for another academic review of Yale College. The committee for this review differs in composition from the panel assembled 30 years ago, and today’s committee members also hope they will be better able to implement their goals.
Dean of Yale College Richard Brodhead, who is leading the current academic review, said the 1972 review took place during a time of “extreme turbulence” and was followed by years of economic recession.
“Ours is more targeted than that one,” Brodhead said. “But it is also far more inclusive.”
What might have been
The 1972 committee, which consisted of political science professor Robert Dahl; psychology professor William Kessen; physics professor Horace Taft; history professor Jonathan Spence; and Elga Wasserman, special assistant to the president on the education of women, suggested converting Old Campus into two new residential colleges and having all freshman live in their colleges.
It also recommended the creation of an “extended semester” plan, in which all undergraduates would spend only three years on campus but still take four years to graduate. Under the program, students would complete the 104 weeks of instruction in six semesters and take a year off for “private study or work in society.”
The study called for the University to “humanize its spaces for living and study” with additions such as European seaside-style windbreaks and extra benches on Cross Campus, Old Campus and Beinecke Plaza. In order to make life more bearable during the winter, the study suggested sled runs on Science Hill and an open-air skating rink on Cross Campus.
The study also recommended appointing 15 mentors to each college. Two-thirds of the mentors were to be faculty members of the University whose teaching duties would be cut in half while they were mentors. The system was meant to resemble the British tutorial system, where “you really did a lot of thinking and learning within your college,” Spence said.
Although the mentoring system was never implemented, Shapiro said the Political Science Department has switched to a system of putting a political science advisor in every college rather than having the director of undergraduate studies do all of the advising.
The committee recommended that Yale develop a plan by which each student “should work a couple of hours a week on behalf of the college in which he live, under the direction of skilled personnel from the University Operations.”
“I still think that’s a marvelous idea,” Dahl said. “Of course it’s impossible.”
‘A rather dizzying period’
The basic proposals of the Study Committee of Yale College in 1972 were never implemented, Dahl said.
“I still remember it as a rather dizzying period,” Spence said.
After meeting every week for two years, the committee brought its proposal to the faculty. The faculty rejected the recommendations because of the radical changes it called for and because of budgetary concerns, Dahl said.
“We had convinced ourselves that most of the recommendations we were making would be accepted,” Dahl said. “But we were very much mistaken.”
Spence said the committee was excited by its discussion, but that it became too sheltered and “self-absorbed.”
“It was too ambitious a program,” Spence said. “It was finalized too strongly — It was seen as stampeding people rather than the beginning of debate.”
Spence said looking back, the five-person committee was far too small. The committee, he said, was composed of five people who got along well with President Brewster.
“In retrospect we were asked to do much too much,” Spence said. “There was not enough consultation with the faculty — I think we were probably a bit too didactic.”
Dahl said the entire proposal required more radical changes than the faculty was ready to make.
“One lesson that can be learned is that faculties can be quite conservative if there is threat to departmental control,” Dahl said.
Learning from the past
In November 2001, Levin asked the 41-member Committee on Yale College Education to “assess the undergraduate program and consider changes and improvements.”
Levin asked the committee to consider the question, “What will an educated person need to know a decade or two from now, and what steps can Yale College take to ensure that students are given the best preparation for the future world?”
The current committee is divided into four working groups focusing on different areas: biomedical education, physical sciences and engineering, social and international studies, and the arts and humanities. Committees are composed of students, faculty members and alumni.
“The charge begins with the assumption that Yale College education is in good shape right now and speaks mainly of finding specific ways to enhance it,” said Penelope Laurans, associate dean of Yale College and special assistant to the president. “This does not mean that the report won’t be ambitious. But, no doubt, it is destined to be ambitious in quite specific ways.”
Political Science chairman Ian Shapiro, who is leading the social and international studies working group, said the review is not prompted by any sense that there is “a great evil in the Yale College curriculum.”
Instead, Shapiro said the huge investment Yale is making in refurbishing its facilities, “beefing up” the study of science and improving its graduate and professional schools prompted Levin to charge the committee to investigate how Yale College can use these resources most effectively.
“Every generation has its own way of approaching a review,” Laurans said. “President Levin and Dean Brodhead chose to make this review committee a large one, with 41 members, drawn from many departments across the University, as well as with students.”
Levin said the previous reviews informed the current review.
“In part we were educated by them in recognizing the need to involve a larger number of faculty and students in the process,” Levin said. “We felt it was important to really get a significantly larger number of people involved.”
Brodhead said a small committee can reach consensus more easily, but the advantage of a large committee is having more views come into play.
“We’re discussing many fascinating recommendations,” Brodhead said. “We want to have them as well thought out as possible before we open them up to public discussion.”
Shapiro said the committee learned from rejection of the 1972 study.
“One thing we learned was that it is possible to write great reviews of Yale College that never get implemented,” Shapiro said. “For every proposal that anybody makes there’s at least as much discussion of the merits as how it’s going to be achieved.”