Yale should open dialogue on new colleges

Yale’s new residential colleges are like a rumored baseball trade: There is still no official word, but every soft sign suggests a decision is all but made. As early as 2004, the Yale Daily News quoted President Levin as saying that “for some time” he had considered adding two or four new colleges, mourning how “many outstanding students … we must turn down.” This fall, the News has chronicled Yale’s purchase of land near Prospect Street for major construction.

Few things define this community as much as the residential college. In four years of change, the college, with its family of classmates, stays the same. It blends the rush of Yale’s large size with smaller, more intimate warmth.

Yale need not shy away from expanding, but it must expand the right way. It is not merely building new dormitories — it is building new residential colleges. Here is a plan for doing so:

1. The new colleges’ students should live on Old Campus. Yale offers two freshman experiences: Old Campus’ bustling hub of camaraderie, and Silliman and Timothy Dwight’s cloister away from said hub, where freshmen bond. Both experiences depend on Old Campus’ status as hub and Silliman’s and TD’s as cloister. If too many colleges housed freshmen, Old Campus’ spirit — and freshman unity — would dwindle. Yale should preserve this balance. The administration should consider using McClellan’s annex housing, and renovating nonresidential Old Campus buildings like Connecticut Hall, for freshman rooms.

2. The administration should consider more sites in addition to the much-ballyhooed Prospect Street site. This location’s distance from central campus may make for three isolated years beyond the borders of college life’s delightful serendipity (“Hey, let’s stop by So-and-So’s room; it’s on the way!”).

Prospect Street has advantages — for example, the chance to build more of a community around Science Hill — but also has enough complications that other sites must be considered. These may be vacant spaces, like the parking lot between Naples and the Green, or even spaces that already hold buildings but whose location is ideal for a college. Debating whether these latter sites’ advantages over Prospect Street, for something as fundamental as a residential college, merit relocating what is already at these sites will insure that the new colleges enjoy the best location possible.

Before a final choice, administrators should survey students and sit down to talk with us. We and those who follow us are the ones who will live in the colleges.

3. The new colleges’ architecture must be striking. Yalies love Branford’s Gothic glory and Davenport’s brick elegance, but a copy of either will look like what it is: a copy. Part of why a residential college feels like home is that inside it, you know there is nowhere else you could be. Even Morse and Stiles, though they may lack Branford’s beauty, represent a stunning testament to modernism.

A walk through Yale is a walk through the history of architecture. Cutting corners on design to lower the budget would sap this eclecticism with ersatz construction. Seeking out today’s most inventive architects will keep this Yale tradition sterling.

4. The administration should consult students on features of the new colleges. College amenities — Calhoun’s cabaret, Morse’s recording studio — buoy the spirit of home.

5. The colleges should be named for great Yalies, not necessarily for donors. From firebrand preacher Jonathan Edwards, class of 1720, to Morse Code inventor Samuel Morse, class of 1810, Yale’s tradition of naming colleges for alumni who toiled to improve people’s lives sends a powerful message: The point of a Yale education is to give of yourself to the world. My suggestions for names: Kingman Brewster, the University president who led Yale through the civil-rights movement and the inclusion of women and minorities; William Sloane Coffin, Brewster’s beloved, influential chaplain; and Edward Bouchet, class of 1874, the first African-American with a Ph.D.

In the 1930s, the college system’s inventors could only have imagined the “bright college years” they would make possible for our generation. It is our turn to blend Yale tradition with rigorously debated change, so that Yalies 70 years from now may enjoy their years here even more than we.

Noah Lawrence is a sophomore in Saybrook College.

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