Students mixed on expansion

Only 23 percent of Yale College students who responded to a poll conducted by the News favor building two new residential colleges, and most believe the administration will not consider student opinion when deciding whether to do so.

In an Oct. 29-30 poll of 515 undergraduates, 48 percent of respondents said they are opposed to building new residential colleges, while 23 percent said they are in favor. With three months remaining before the University makes a decision regarding expansion, 29 percent of respondents said they remain undecided.

The Yale Corporation will vote in February on whether to build two new residential colleges behind the Grove Street Cemetery along Prospect Street, and Yale administrators have promised that student input will be factored into the decision-making process.

But, if the poll is any indication, many students do not believe them.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents said they do not think the Yale administration will take into account the opinions of undergraduates when deciding whether to expand Yale College. Nineteen percent said the administration will take student opinion into account and 13 percent are unsure.

Yale President Richard Levin said contrary to what the students believe, University officials do want student input.

“It’s not fair to say that undergraduate opinion doesn’t matter,” Levin said in an e-mail. “We will be listening to all points of view in our effort to make a decision that serves Yale best.”

In interviews with the News, administrators expressed discomfort with the high percentage of students who indicated they do not believe their opinions will be factored into the decision-making process. A series of open forums held to seek student input on the new colleges has drawn only a handful of students over the last two weeks.

Asked whether he is concerned that students felt their opinions did not matter, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey pointed to the largely-ignored forums offered by the administration.

“I would hope that Yale students would come to the forums sponsored by the committees considering the new colleges and express their views,” Salovey said in an e-mail.

But even at those forums, some students said they doubt that the administration really cares whether or not most undergraduates want the University to expand. Administrators opened the first forum last month with an immediate pledge that the decision to build the colleges is not a “done deal.”

Students are still skeptical.

“People generally feel that this is going ahead full steam … but [students’ concerns] are not going to derail the project,” Nicholas Clemm ’10 said last month at a forum held in Pierson College by members of the two committees convened by Levin to examine the academic and student life ramifications of building new colleges.

Committee members demurred. The fact that Levin did not simply put the expansion proposal to a vote of the Corporation, they said, is proof enough that the University is not making a unilateral decision.

“President Levin didn’t have to form these committees,” said Penelope Laurans, the associate dean of Yale College and the vice chair of both committees. “I think the action in itself speaks volumes,” she said.

The committees will soon launch a survey of the undergraduate population to learn more about their views on the proposal, said Joseph Gordon, the dean of undergraduate education and the chairman of the academics committee.

“None of this would be done if student opinion weren’t valued,” Gordon said in an e-mail.

Committee members have stressed that they are eager to hear student opinions, especially about how the Science Hill area might be made more attractive to undergraduates. William Sledge, the former Calhoun College master who is chairing the student life committee, said students are missing a “really grand opportunity” to provide input into the process.

Administrators said they are less concerned that only one-fifth of respondents to the News’ poll said they favor new colleges. Sledge said when the committees conducted a focus group with students last spring, most of the students were opposed to the idea of new colleges at the start. But once they heard the administration’s rationale for expansion and learned details of what was proposed, most of them embraced the concept, he said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if 90 percent of the students said they were against it,” he said.

Sledge said since change seems so formidable in its scope, without knowing the details of the proposal, he would be against it as well.

Levin and Salovey said the results indicate that students are protective of the residential college system and are wary of any change that could negatively affect it.

“It is understandable, and gratifying, that Yale students are so satisfied with their college experience that they fear any change that might diminish the quality of that experience,” Levin said. “The Corporation and I take this concern very seriously, and, if we proceed, we will take all the steps necessary and feasible to prevent any dilution of the Yale College experience.”

The Yale College Council has not yet decided how it will proceed regarding the college proposal. YCC President Rebecca Taber ’08 said the YCC will only take action to lobby the administration when a definite student consensus is clear.

“There’s two things we’re talking about here,” Taber said. “One is having student input in the decision. Then we’ll be saying ‘Do we want to take a stand?’ I think it’s very unlikely that we’re going to be able to definitively say students don’t want this.”

For now, Taber said the YCC plans to work with students, residential college councils and Yale officials to determine how students can best provide input into the decision-making process regarding the colleges. If a strong consensus emerges among students against the construction of new colleges, Taber said the YCC will “stand firmly” against the administration and take every action possible to communicate the student body’s opposition.

The last remaining forum on the new colleges is scheduled for tonight at 9 p.m. in the Silliman College common room. The committees will release their recommendations in January.

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