It’s time to speak up against new colleges

At this point, I don’t think anyone gives credence to President Levin’s repeated reassurances that Yale’s impending two-college expansion “is by no means certain” (“Donors talk new colleges,” 4/11). The remark of an anonymous donor that “administrators conducted the meeting as if the construction of the colleges was a certainty” comes off as more apt. It’s too bad, then, that these new colleges, which seem broadly unpopular among the student body, will inevitably still be built.

Several of the concerns regarding the Yale administration’s still-developing plans have already been touched on in the News. Noah Lawrence’s proposed alternatives to the campus’s physical expansion were pretty much non-factors — I would burn and clear a wing of Sterling before I’d let them build a college in “the space between Au Bon Pain and Stiles” (“Expansion issue calls for an open mind,” 2/19). He did flag problems, though, with the new colleges’ assumed location behind the Grove Street Cemetery. Timothy Dwight and Silliman’s relative distance and in-college freshman housing already threaten the campus’s social integrity; I feel like, at some time or another, everyone’s opted to sit in their common rooms and watch “John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars” rather than hike to TD for a late-night make-out sesh. (No? Just me?) It’s not hard to recognize that colleges hidden behind an impassable cemetery would produce some profound social dislocation, to say nothing of the possibility of more Silliman- or TD-style freshman life. Yale doesn’t need more island-colleges.

Likewise, Julian Prokopetz drew attention to the presumed opportunity costs of the project, pointing instead to more immediate improvements that could be made to student life on campus (“College e-mail addressed the wrong issue,” 2/12). It’s a mistake to assume that there’s a pool of $400 million to $500 million floating around for smaller projects, as the alumni donors convoked by the University on Monday would no doubt be less willing to open their checkbooks for a thousand different micro-projects. (“Indeed, I shall underwrite the Beinecke Paper Towel Dispensers, and yea, I shall truly be immortal.”) Still, it’s undeniable that those small fixes are necessary, and would no doubt better improve Yale life.

Then there’s my personal concern with the plan’s underlying reasoning, a concern that I imagine has gone thus far unaired because other people are, how you say, “tactful”: namely, the quality of the expansion’s additional students and faculty. President Levin has pointed to otherwise qualified applicants who are rejected as a principal reason behind the construction of these two new colleges. These new matriculants are not, however, going to be the most exceptional, impressive members of the applicant pool. Rather, these will be the most marginal applicants, the most almost-acceptable of a substandard group — so Yale will get more boring regs. Truly, the dawning of a new day. Likewise, I fail to see how a dramatically expanded faculty could be assembled without adjusting Yale’s high standards downward, pushing Yale further toward mediocrity.

Why, then, if this plan is no good, is there no stopping it? Well, because of what political science calls a “collective action problem.” The majority of actors here would benefit from no colleges, but only slightly; but the few actors who stand to gain from new colleges have a substantial stake in their construction — and will therefore pursue their interests more forcefully.

This Yale administration will get more than that intangible (but tingly-feeling) history-making aura from such a significant project. There will also be the added tuition revenue (with, thanks to alumni giving, no real costs to offset) and ramped-up applications due to greater accessibility. It’s easy to be swept up in the excitement over the new colleges’ architectural styles and potential names, which, despite the precedent of Stiles and Morse, could theoretically turn out not-awful; President Levin’s suggestion that the colleges be named after their largest respective donors, though, only demonstrates exactly how mercenary and uninspired these could be. Unfortunately, while I think most of Yale recognizes the administration’s proposal as, at best, seriously flawed, few of us have enough of an interest in the issue to mount any real resistance. I look at the low turnout of the YPU debate of the issue, which still resulted in a 38 to 9 vote against the construction, as an indication of campus attitudes (“YPU debates new colleges,” 2/16). Nobody’s about to organize an alumni uprising, whether it’s a letter-writing campaign or a siege/tailgate at the Development Office. But somebody needs to step up and give voice to the widespread misgivings about these new colleges — now, if only someone else would do it.

Sam Heller is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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