Not all colleges created equal

The window in Beth Fiedorek’s ’08 Calhoun College bedroom last year did not close all the way. Often when it rained, Fiedorek said, water would collect on her windowsill and then spill onto her bed, leaving her sheets and pillows soaked. In the winter, the heater would come on and off sporadically, sometimes leaving the room uncomfortably cold. So when several of her friends announced that they were moving to an off-campus apartment as seniors, Fiedorek decided it was time to leave Calhoun behind.

“My college has some problems because it hasn’t been renovated in a long time,” she said.

Data provided by the Yale College Dean’s Office suggest that Fiedorek’s case is not unique.

While Yale has committed to finishing renovations of all 12 residential colleges by 2011, deteriorating buildings and undesirable room configurations have driven many students off campus in the meantime. The University’s policy of “equality without proscribing uniformity” among the colleges — which has manifested itself in everything from the number of students in each college to the special facilities they boast — can lead to discrepancies between colleges that make it harder to keep Elis in the fold. This alienation may be a blessing in disguise, however, as the appeal of life in a renovated college could lead to a worsening housing crunch on campus in the coming years.

Off campus or on?

Every year, a cadre of juniors and seniors, unhappy with the quality of life in their colleges, move off campus in search of more hospitable — and less dingy — living conditions.

The exodus is particularly acute in the four colleges that have not yet been fully renovated. Since the 1999-’00 academic year, an average of 22 percent of non-freshmen in Calhoun have lived off campus each year. For Ezra Stiles, Jonathan Edwards and Morse Colleges, the averages stand at 19 percent, 19 percent and 22 percent, respectively.

In the renovated colleges, many more upperclassmen stay on campus. Berkeley and Branford colleges, the first to be redone, have seen an average of just 16 percent and 13 percent of upperclassmen, respectively, move out of the colleges over the past eight years.

The remaining colleges’ pre- and post-renovation numbers reveal a similarly stark disparity. The percentage of off-campus upperclassmen in Davenport College went from an average of 24 percent before its 2004-’05 renovation to an average of 14 percent in the years since. Pierson College saw this number fall from 21 percent before renovations to 14 percent after, while Saybrook College saw a drop from 22 percent to 13 percent.

But the decision to move off campus is a complicated one, often based on more than a college’s state of physical upkeep, students and administrators agreed.

Ezra Stiles Master Stuart Schwartz said the fact that his college’s rooms are almost entirely stand-alone singles deters many students from living on campus for all four years. He said he thinks the demand for on-campus housing in Stiles will increase after the renovations, which will reconfigure the college’s internal architecture to include more multi-person suites.

“If kids want to live together with their friends, they can’t do it on campus,” Schwartz said. “When we’ve told students here about the plans, the two things that most excite them are the room configurations and the fact that we’re going to have some more common space.”

Schwartz said students often complain about the lack of communal facilities in Morse and Stiles — the two colleges have about 40 percent less common space than the original 10 colleges. The architects planning the Stiles renovation are considering adding new common spaces, such as an exercise room or a movie theater, to the underground horseshoe that connects Morse and Stiles, he said.

Regardless of whether students request more on-campus housing after the renovation, Schwartz said, he thinks the change will be a chance to reinvigorate college life and increase interactions among Stiles students who now do not see each other often. The renovation plans call for the creation of an “ecological imprint” within Morse and Stiles that will once again make the two colleges popular places to live, he said.

“We’re talking about an arboretum or some solar panels,” Schwartz said. “They’re going to try to include as many environmentally positive aspects as possible. … We’re trying to give them a kind of a character.”

Calhoun Master Jonathan Holloway said he faces an entirely different challenge in getting upperclassmen to stay on campus, as juniors and seniors in Calhoun often move off campus in search of single bedrooms. He said he expects more Calhoun upperclassmen to remain on campus after the college’s renovation, which will add significantly to the dozen or so existing singles.

“Calhoun is unique in that it has a fairly large number of very large suites that are popular — two-floor, town-house kinds of suites,” Holloway said. “But it also has very few senior singles. This year’s senior class would love to be in Calhoun, except for they all want singles.”

Matthew Strother ’08, who lives in an apartment near Bulldog Burrito, said he thinks many of the juniors and seniors in Calhoun who move off campus do so out of a desire to have a “guaranteed single.”

Despite regular fluctuations in students’ attitudes about living in singles or suites, Morse Master Frank Keil said he thinks the renovations will convince more students to remain on campus.

“This appeal of suites waxes and wanes, and prior years of Morsels have felt that the larger than normal single room sizes more than compensated for the lack of common rooms,” Keil said in an e-mail. “Based on my conversations with sophomores, I wouldn’t be surprised if the trend swings back in the other direction over the next few years.”

But Jessica Johnson ’08, who moved into an off-campus apartment last year and now lives on Howe Street, said Morse’s room configurations, crumbling interiors and lack of community spaces made the college “not all that nice to live in.” Johnson said she feels a greater sense of community among the Morse juniors and seniors who live along Park and Howe Streets than she did as a sophomore living in the college.

“I found living in Morse very isolating because you have the hallways and all, but it’s not a suite,” Johnson said. “Living in my apartment is great. … It’s way more like a Yale suite than anything in Morse.”

Where’s our movie theater?

For many Yalies, the move off campus is about finding a place for friends to live together or escaping deteriorating rooms, but the residential college masters have nonetheless tried to use college-wide events and small improvements to college life to keep students in their colleges.

Schwartz, for example, redecorated the college’s common room last year with new furniture, a new coat of paint and a big-screen television. But he said there is only so much he can to do improve the college in its current state.

In the run-up to the Morse renovation — which is supposed to begin within the next two or three years, although the exact date has not been announced — Keil has relied on college-wide events to make all Morse students feel like part of the community, he said.

As a group, the masters try to ensure that each college is given equal support for the events that they hope will keep students engaged in college life.

Council of Masters chair Judith Krauss said the Council uses an elaborate system to mete out a roughly equal amount of money to each college at the beginning of the year for items like intramural sports equipment or field trips to see an opera in New York. In determining how to allocate the hundreds of thousands of dollars of general University appropriations it receives each year, the Council tries to balance out pre-existing inequalities arising from each college’s restricted endowment and parents’ fund, for which current students’ parents fundraise each year, she said.

“I think any master would tell you that they don’t go scrounging for funds to run any kind of basic programs,” Krauss said. “Some of the differences you see in programming have to do with different areas of emphasis for the masters and/or for the students.”

The dramatic differences in some colleges’ endowments are a result of the original organization of the residential college system. At that time, students were allowed to choose their college and those of similar economic backgrounds tended to congregate in the same college. This created an irreversible legacy of disparities between the colleges, Krauss said.

Despite the masters’ efforts to even out these inequalities, some students think glaring differences persist.

Until the renovations are completed, the University should attempt to give all Yalies comparable residential experiences by granting them access to all residential college facilities, Calhoun senior Jessica Poter ’08 said.

“I do think it’s unfair,” she said. “I understand that it’s a long process to renovate all the colleges. [But] I do wish we had open access to the Pierson gymnasium facilities and stuff like that.”

Differences in the colleges’ special facilities have become more pronounced as they are renovated. Silliman, which was renovated last year, features a movie theater, sound studio and digital arts lab. Davenport and Pierson share underground resources, including a print shop, pottery studio, dance studio, music practice rooms and movie theater with stadium seating. Berkeley, the first college to undergo renovation, features a half-size basketball court, a wood shop and a game room complete with pool, ping pong and an NBA Jam arcade game.

Yale College Council President Rebecca Taber ’08 said she met with Krauss last spring to discuss giving undergraduates universal keycard access to residential college common spaces. Expanding keycard access would make life more convenient for students and combat some of the isolation that grows among the different colleges, Taber said.

“The idea is that those are University facilities,” she said. “Sometimes you need to get to a library or a computer cluster, and if you’re at Saybrook and can’t get in, then you have to wait and go back to your own college. [Limiting keycard access] decreases the feeling of community, not increases it.”

But Holloway said he thinks opening up each college’s doors to all Yalies could fracture the sense of cohesiveness that masters work to create within their colleges. Just as he and his family set aside certain meals to eat alone together, Holloway said he thinks parts of residential college life should remain intimate.

“It’s not a matter of being exclusive — it’s a matter of creating opportunities for the community to get to know itself,” he said. “I’d be hesitant to [allow universal keycard access], but again for the reasons of trying to make sure that this randomly assembled group of people who form a community actually have a chance to be a community.”

If the YCC continues to advocate for greater keycard access, a decision on the issue would likely be made by the entire Council of Masters, Krauss said.

Dean of Freshman Affairs George Levesque, who works on freshman housing issues, said he thinks a degree of difference in facilities and traditions should be allowed to exist among the 12 colleges in order to give them each a distinct character. The individual colleges are allowed to choose for themselves what amenities to build during their renovations, University President Richard Levin said.

“Students in this college or that college should roughly have the same types of opportunities and the same types of resources,” Levesque said. “I believe there should be equity as much as possible without necessarily prescribing uniformity.”

Crunch time

Although the University is striving to minimize perceived inequalities between the colleges, too much success could backfire, creating new housing shortages all over campus.

While Keil is interested in drawing more Morsels into the college, its ability to absorb a larger on-campus presence may be limited. According to statistics from the dean’s office, since 1999 Morse has had an average of only 2.1 spare beds each year — the fewest of any college except Stiles and Jonathan Edwards — and has frequently had to annex upperclassmen to Old Campus.

If Morse, Stiles and Calhoun follow the pattern set by other colleges, their renovations will put an extra premium on space. Davenport’s average number of spare beds dropped from 32.6 before renovation to 13.5 afterward; Timothy Dwight College saw a decrease in extra beds from 30.5 before the 2001-’02 school year to 9.2 afterward; and Pierson experienced an 80 percent drop, from 50 spare beds to 10.33.

But some pressure has already been taken off the University’s housing stock with the departure of the unusually large class of 2007, Dean of Administrative Affairs in Yale College John Meeske said. For the first time, the University has residential college suites that are completely empty, and an annex building at 210 Park Street — which last year housed 60 undergraduates — is not being used for Yale College students this year, he said.

“We are always looking at the numbers and seeing what the trends are,” Meeske said. “It isn’t a steady line that points in one directions. There are always variations, and you have to tell whether what you’re seeing is just a one-term deviation or the beginning of a trend.”

Although he does not anticipate an overwhelming demand for on-campus housing, Meeske said the University has enough annex spaces to continue guaranteeing housing for those who want it. In the case of a particularly tight demand for space, he said, Levin and officials in the Undergraduate Admissions Office could potentially decide to admit a smaller freshman class in future years.

But the varying sizes of the 12 colleges makes some space crunches inevitable, Meeske said. With a combined capacity of 3,286 beds among the 12 residential colleges and usually no more than 200 annex beds on Old Campus, the University depends on a certain number of students’ living off campus each year. But the uneven distribution of off-campus students — of whom there are about 700 every year — does not leave each college with the same percentage of overflow.

Meeske said the allocation of freshmen among the residential colleges depends on several factors, including the number of beds available, meaning that smaller colleges like Calhoun and Trumbull receive fewer freshmen each year and larger colleges like Davenport and Saybrook end up with more. Meeske said he must also consider the size of dormitories on Old Campus and which colleges tend to annex the most upperclassmen.

“I think it’s a little less of a science than you might suppose,” he said. “If it were absolutely scientific, the scientific formula might say there should be 130 in such and such a college. But if there isn’t a single building on the Old Campus that can accommodate 130, I’m not going to put 120 in one building and 10 in another.”

The architects in charge of the Calhoun renovation attempted to include a greater overall number of beds in their plans, but the shape and pitch of the roof made it impossible to create new living spaces, Holloway said. Because Calhoun’s capacity will remain at roughly 234 after renovation, Holloway said he anticipates that many juniors — who, unlike sophomores and seniors, are not guaranteed housing in the college — will continue to seek off-campus rooms rather than face annexation to Old Campus.

“[With] 106 sophomores coming in and the opportunities for seniors to declare space if they want it … we might only be able to sleep 25 or so juniors,” he said. “[Juniors] are looking at the numbers, and they’re not too thrilled about the kind of room arrangements they would have.”

Ultimately, the future of Calhoun, Morse, Stiles and Jonathan Edwards after renovation is unknowable. What seems certain, however, is that the on-campus/off-campus dynamic and the contention surrounding the colleges’ varying facilities will change over the next four years. And as Yale potentially moves farther down the road toward the addition of two new residential colleges, these issues will be on the minds of students and University officials alike.

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