William Sledge is afraid that Yale is turning into Harvard.
“We’re becoming too precious. We’re becoming like Harvard. Seriously,” Sledge says in an interview at his Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital office.
“Whenever an institution comes into the position of being too precious, it begins to distort that institution’s identity.”
Sledge believes that the College’s small size forces it to reject too many qualified applicants each year. Luckily, he has a solution.
The residential college system is in need of some serious repair, Sledge says, and new colleges may be the remedy. As the chairman of the Student Life Committee, one of two groups that will advise the Yale Corporation on whether or not to build two new residential colleges, his voice has been a key part of the ongoing discussions about expansion.
Joseph Gordon, Dean of Undergraduate Education and the head the second committee exploring the new colleges — which is charged with exploring the academic implications of expansion — said Sledge has brought his “hands-on experience about residential life” to the ongoing discussions.
“He is a strong supporter of enhancing the academic life of the colleges, with thoughts about increasing the availability of tutoring and advising services through the colleges,” Gordon said.
While he has been a member of the Yale faculty for 30 years, Sledge believes now is the time for the University to reform the residential college system. Listening to his refined Southern accent, it is hard not to be convinced.
“If Yale does not act now to fix current problems in the residential college system, these problems will grow much worse in the foreseeable future,” Sledge said.
In addition to his duties on the committee, Sledge is the medical director of the Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital. Even though it is past dark on Friday night, Sledge has agreed to an interview at his YNHPH office. He said he could talk all day about tweaking the residential college system, and he wants Yale students to understand why changes must be made.
There are two problems with the status quo, Sledge said.
“One is that, right now, Yale College is too much in the business of saying no to excellent applicants,” he said.
Sledge also thinks a college’s small size can place constraints on student life in areas ranging from housing and classroom space to resources for performing arts and recreation.
“Yale is limping along in certain areas,” Sledge said. “My committee looks for ways to make the residential colleges solutions to our shortcomings.”
Sledge leads his committee’s bi-weekly meetings, presenting issues for consideration ranging from housing to the roles colleges play in students’ academic lives. The group is exploring not only the possibility of adding two colleges, but also ways of, in his words, “fine-tuning” the residential college system as a whole.
“To really get it right, we’ll need the momentum of a large project — something like building two new residential colleges,” he said.
While Sledge is quick to defer credit for the committee’s progress to his colleagues, those who work with him on the committee praised his leadership and agree that Sledge has been integral to driving discussion.
“Sledge has a way of summing up our talks, of bringing cohesiveness to our meetings that would otherwise be lacking,” said Emily Weissler ’09, one of three students working with Sledge.
Gordon said Sledge is “undaunted and energetic” during committee meetings.
“He communicates a sense of hopefulness and excitement to all of us,” Gordon said.
While many students know him as the former master of Calhoun, a position he held for ten years, Sledge is also an accomplished research psychologist specializing in adaptation — including ways in which astronauts adapt to space’s extreme conditions and patients adapt to terminal illness — and he said much of his most important work is still ahead of him.
Sledge first came to Yale in 1972 to work as a resident in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine after completing a medical internship at the University of Pennsylvania. Sledge’s stay in New Haven did not last long, however, as he enlisted in the Air Force in 1975. Although the Vietnam War was drawing to a close, he volunteered to serve after realizing that his low lottery number made being drafted inevitable. His teenage dream was to be a professional pilot, but the Air Force did not let him near a plane because of his severe near-sightedness. Instead, the Air Force stationed him at the School of Airspace Medicine in San Antonio, Tex., where he worked as a researcher.
Sledge’s commanding officer James Boydstun remembers Sledge as “a perfect Southern gentleman, very sharp, very bright.” Boydstun recalled speaking with Sledge at length about his life at Yale.
“He was excited to get back there. He couldn’t wait to get back there,” Boydstun said. “I think he had Yale in his blood at that point.”
In San Antonio, Sledge and Boydstun studied different kinds of adaptation such as the way returning prisoners of war adapt to American home life — studies which he says continue to influence his work.
Sledge returned to Yale in 1977 and has been a faculty member ever since. He worked as a clinical psychiatrist in the 1980s and continued to study adaptation. It was during this time that Sledge befriended up-and-coming economics professor Richard Levin, who a decade later would become president of Yale.
Levin said his friend’s research has always given him a unique insight into student life.
“He’s very sensitive to the full range of issues that students confront,” Levin said. “He’s a psychiatrist and has a very strong insight into the needs of people during the college years.”
In 1995 Levin asked Sledge to become master of Calhoun. Sledge accepted, with some reservations.
“I had some doubts,” Sledge said. “I had given adolescent psychiatry a try and I hadn’t much liked it.”
But Sledge said he “absolutely loved” the job, and current Calhoun seniors said Sledge was a popular master who hosted unique Master’s Teas. Jennifer Sarah Bolton ’08 recalled one Tea Sledge arranged with World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler Diamond Dallas Page. Bolton said after Page arrived at the Master’s House, Page took off his coat, revealing a sleeveless shirt that showed off his muscular arms and numerous tattoos.
“Then Master Sledge took of his coat, and he was wearing a shirt with no sleeves,” Bolton said. “It was great. They had totally planned it.”
Sledge said being master and leading the Council of Masters gave him insight into Yale’s residential college system. He learned how much a college could help a student develop intellectually, which feeds into his “great reverence” for the residential college system’s potential.
But Sledge left the master’s office in 2005 because he wanted to get back to his research.
“It was time to graduate,” Sledge said. “The research just wasn’t getting done the way I wanted it. We weren’t making the kind of progress I’d hoped for.”
Yet Sledge was only able to freely pursue his research for two years before he was once again called on to serve the University. In the spring of 2007, Levin asked Sledge to chair one of the committees looking into the College’s expansion.
In his office, Sledge laughed when asked if he had any hesitations about leading the committee.
“My rationale was that it wouldn’t take too long,” Sledge said. “And I’m always willing to help out when President Levin calls, when the University calls. So I accepted.”
Things have not played out as he imagined, Sledge said. Over the summer, Sledge lost two months that could have been devoted to research when the committee’s presentation date to the Yale Corporation was postponed to February.
“I don’t begrudge it at all, but I’m still glad that it will end soon,” Sledge said.
With less than three months before the committee presents its findings to the Yale Corporation, members are already beginning to assemble their findings and prepare their recommendations.
Student response to the expansion has been lukewarm. Only 23 percent of participants in a Nov. 5 poll conducted by the News said they supported building the two new residential colleges, and 68 percent said they do not think the Yale administration will take undergraduate opinion into account when deciding whether to expand.
While she remembers Sledge as being a “popular master,” Calhoun senior Erin Johnson ’08 said she is not in favor of the new colleges.
“I don’t see the point of adding new students,” Johnson said. “I don’t find the University’s reasoning compelling.”
Still, Sledge said student conservatism does not worry him. He said student reaction at the open forums the University held from Oct. 24 to Nov. 5 to discuss the possible expansion were proof that Yalies are receptive to a strong argument.
“By the end, [students] agreed with us that, somehow, the residential college system needs improvements,” he said, beginning to pack up his things for the drive home.
When asked if he would accept the chairmanship of the committee again if he could go back in time, Sledge said he would.
“I feel like this has been an opportunity to make a small indent on it, and on Yale’s future,” he said. “But yes, soon my research will call. It calls me now in the middle of the night.”
Smiling, he suddenly takes on the tone of a giddy child.
“It says, ‘Come back, Dr. Sledge. Come back!’ ”
He laughs again, gently closing the door behind him as he leaves his YNHPH office.