It might be unsurprising, given how liberal we are most of the time, that when Yalies take conservative positions, we tend to be pretty dumb about it.
I’m referring to the last-gasp outcry surrounding the expansion of Yale College, which the Yale Corporation will undoubtedly rubber-stamp by the week’s end. Students have decided that two residential colleges should not be added at all — and certainly not at the selected Prospect Street site — because the expansion will damage “campus culture.” As grateful as I am to hear that phrase coming from people who aren’t me, it seems like a ridiculous moment to use it. Since when is it the job of the institutional bureaucracy to embrace the new and that of the youth to oppose it in favor of “the way we’ve always done things”?
Besides, it’s a waste of time — expansion seems to be a done deal. But the transitional era, the years between now and the new colleges opening, will be key in determining what happens when they do. To justify our conservatism, we need to identify the exact values we’re afraid of losing (rather than trying to protect the obsolete system itself) and justify these values in terms of our individual experiences — the only area in which we have more expertise than the Corporation. Only then will we, or Yale, be able to construct suitable solutions.
Take, for example, the claim that the Prospect Street location is “isolated” from the rest of campus. The administration dismisses these concerns by assuring us an improved bus system will make it easier for students to get to the new colleges from the old, and that extra features such as rehearsal and retail spaces will “draw” interest to the area. It seems as if Yale sees an integrated campus as a scale, and is trying to stack incentives on one side, so student opinion will tip toward viewing the new colleges as part of the campus center.
This isn’t how it works; what we consider to be familiar isn’t based on a calculation of where we spend the most time. Instead, we mentally organize our campus based with subjective perceptions gained by just walking around. Anyone who doubts this should try entering Cross Campus by cutting across the parking lot across from Hendrie Hall — it looks entirely different than from the north-south path that links Old Campus to Beinecke Plaza. Those three blocks, with the similarly broad and open squares of the residential colleges that surround them, provide a model for how walking around campus should feel.
The area north of Grove Street, including the site for the new colleges, is nothing like that. The buildings on Prospect become more spatially and architecturally isolated the closer they get to Science Hill — leaving the walker feeling vulnerable, especially to wind. (It doesn’t help that the first block of the walk is alongside Grove Street Cemetery.) Furthermore, most buildings in the area currently serve very particular purposes, from department offices to DUH — so when a student walks northward these days, it’s almost always a journey with a single destination in mind, after which the student will return immediately to the embracing valley of central campus.
Placing multipurpose and residential spaces on Prospect Street will change the way we think of the area to some extent, but Yale would only reinforce the idea that the new colleges are “distant” from campus by encouraging students to use bus transportation (currently associated almost exclusively with going off-campus) to get there. Even if it insists that Yale remain a walking campus, the administration can’t change the unsettling feeling a journey beyond SSS presents, and there’s no problem with that — some aspects of student culture have to be shaped by students themselves.
And if we start now, we can shape it for the better — even though none of us will still be around as undergraduates by the time the new colleges actually open. While the fact that the entire population of the Yale College community turns over every four years makes the claim of a static “campus culture” especially ridiculous, it gives individual students a great deal of autonomy in affecting general attitudes just by changing their own behavior and passing it down to younger generations.
Let’s start orienting ourselves toward the future so that the campus culture we value can be preserved beforehand by our own actions. Walk around the north of campus more often. Tour the Grove Street Cemetery. Make impulse visits to Swing Space and TD. If we start now to expand our collective definition of the heart of Yale’s campus, we may find, when we return for our 20-year reunions, that students in the new colleges feel less isolated than we feared they would — and we might feel oddly comfortable on Prospect Street ourselves.
Dara Lind is now a junior in Branford College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.