Yale pushes forward on plans for new colleges

Yale is quietly conducting a study on the feasibility of building multiple new residential colleges, University officials said this week.

Within the last month or so, administrators said, President Richard Levin has personally coordinated updates to an old study exploring the financial implications of adding new facilities and students to Yale’s roster. While officials said there has been no formal decision on the expansion, the study’s new life confirms recent rumors that the University has a renewed interested in building colleges for the first time since 1961.

Janet Ackerman, the associate vice president for finance, has been reaching out to departments ranging from dining to financial aid to determine the economic effects of increasing the undergraduate student body, Associate Vice President for Student and Financial Administrative Services Ernst Huff said. Two years ago, President Richard Levin said the University was considering the addition of two to four colleges that would be built after renovations to the existing 12 college are complete.

“There was some planning done several years ago when the idea first came about, but it’s been within the past month or so that the University has revived its potential interest,” Huff said.

Some high-level administrators said they were not aware of the study’s existence, and Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said the new colleges are not currently part of Yale’s fundraising priorities for its capital campaign. But those participating in the study it said it is broad in scope. Among the questions being asked are how staff levels might increase and how much funding would be needed to cover financial aid for additional students.

“The University is studying the proposal to build new colleges in all its aspects, including the effect on financial aid and student financial services,” Financial Aid Director Caesar Storlazzi wrote in an e-mail.

Officials conducting the investigation are nearing a point at which they will be able to determine the colleges’ populations and internal design features, Huff said. The new colleges would house their own dining halls and otherwise stay consistent with Yale’s current residential model.

Huff said he did not know where the dormitories might be built or how many students they would house. But Physics Department chair Ramamurti Shankar said an administrator recently approached him about the possibility of a 10 percent spike in physics enrollment. A 10 percent increase in the undergraduate population would add about 530 students.

“I know that there was a talk, and I was asked by somebody in the administration whether the increased population could be managed by the physics department,” Shankar said.

The answer to the administration’s question, Shankar said, is that a larger student body would require more physics teachers and classroom spaces — an example of the major logistical hurdles Yale would face in bolstering its ranks.

The complications include enlarging everything from facilities to numbers of sports teams, Deputy Provost Charles Long said, which is why Yale might want to be discreet about raising the possibility of an expansion.

Long said he has not heard of the study, and has not noticed a recent increase in the level of discussion about new residential colleges. But alumni have expressed interest in the idea for years, he said, and Yale would not want plans for an expansion to linger in the public’s imagination without a clear understanding of the costs and benefits.

“Once the idea is in the air, you want to work on it quietly and quickly,” Long said. “You don’t want to create expectations that you do not want to fulfill.”

The last time the University tried to expand was in 1972, when New Haven officials thwarted its plans for two new colleges because they did not want the proposed site to fall under Yale’s tax-exempt status. Town-gown relations are much improved since then, as was evidenced over the summer when Yale acquired development rights to a section of the Dixwell neighborhood behind Grove Street Cemetery. In exchange for contributing about $10 million to improve infrastructure around the area, the University was authorized to utilize the space for academic or residential purposes — including new residential colleges.

That addition to campus is near one several areas that a 2000 study identified as possible sites for residential use. The study, called “A Framework for Campus Planning,” speculated about locations in which the University could expand but did not include the cost analysis involved in the current study.

Karyn Gilvarg, who heads the New Haven City Plan Department, said Yale is a long way from drafting permit applications detailing how it will develop the newly acquired property.

“We’re quite a ways from any kind of specific plans,” she said. “Whatever use they put the land to, they have to design it first.”

Long noted that the land offers extremely valuable expansion space for a variety of purposes, including social science buildings.

Provost Andrew Hamilton said he was not aware of the study, but that the University is “constantly” investigating possibilities that may or may not come to fruition.

“There is always the question of how might we as a university respond to that great pressure on our number of undergraduate places,” Hamilton said. “The goal of any study at a university like Yale is to look into what the possibilities are.”

Increasing the size of the student body is an attractive proposition, Long said, because it would extend Yale’s opportunities to more students and allow for a larger breadth of faculty. But Morse and Ezra Stiles, the last residential colleges to be built, were added nearly a half-century ago.

“It’s always a temptation to say, ‘is there an advantage to getting bigger?’” Long said. “The answer is almost always yes to that. The question is how much bigger, and where?”

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