For colleges, not all renovations created equal

This summer, construction crews will be hard at work renovating several Yale residential colleges. For Davenport, that will mean the end of a massive overhaul expected to result in a college as beautiful as its recently redone neighbor, Pierson. For Trumbull, the renovations will move students to Swing Space next year — but with the consolation prize of entirely revamped facilities in the fall of 2006. But for Calhoun, renovations will mean just one thing this summer: new windows.

For almost a decade, Yale has proudly touted its efforts to modernize its residential colleges, some of which were literally falling apart by the 1990s. By the start of next year, fully half of Yale’s colleges will have realized the benefits of those efforts. But as it becomes increasingly clear that three colleges — Calhoun, Ezra Stiles and Morse — will receive much less extensive renovations, the University must begin to address a serious challenge to the equity underpinning the entire residential college system.

In defending its less ambitious plans for Calhoun, Morse and Stiles, Yale counters that they have been renovated more recently than the other colleges, and that none of the three is so flawed as to require a full-scale construction. That’s true, and would be a fair argument if the renovations elsewhere on campus were merely directed toward repairing what was broken. But — thankfully — the renovations have done much more than that. Particularly in common spaces, dining halls and basements, Yale’s capital improvements have been so extensive as to substantially transform student life in the renovated colleges.

Complete overhauls of Calhoun, Morse and Stiles may not be necessary or even possible. But the University must face the fact that the facilities within these colleges already lag behind those of their renovated counterparts, and that new windows and repaired roofs will not close the gap. The recent controversy over dining hall restrictions has given rise to questions about whether a key principle of the residential college system — that all 12 offer equivalent, if not identical, experiences — is true. But unless a concerted effort is made to offer every college the kinds of amenities that have come with the most recent renovations, Yale, by 2008, will have created a system with far greater inequities than anything students complain about now.

The reality is that the expectations students had about the final outcome of the renovations campaign differ sharply from what the University is now planning to accomplish. No one argued with a long-term process that would prioritize those colleges with the direst needs. But nearly everyone expected that the end result would be 12 residential colleges all upgraded to about the same level. With the end of the renovations process now coming into view, it is troubling to imagine that the actual outcome may well be the opposite: an increased physical disparity among the colleges.

In the 1990s, Yale effectively made a decision that it wasn’t just going to repair its crumbling infrastructure; it was also going to build some of the nicest dorm space in the country. That’s a laudable goal, and one Yale appears well on its way to achieving — but not if it goes only three-quarters of the way there.

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