The prisoner’s dilemma, sunk cost, groupthink — three academic principles that almost all Yalies will learn before they graduate. Taught in most introductory Economics and Psychology courses, these principles are supposed to provide insight into how we can make successful decisions in the “real world.”
Yet in the year since University President Richard Levin announced his plans to examine the feasibility of new residential colleges, there have been too few signs that the Yale Corporation has taken the necessary measures to avoid the dangers of groupthink.
Three important things must happen for us to feel confident not only that a sound decision-making process is being employed but also that the decision to expand is not a foregone conclusion and that the Corporation is taking every measure to ensure that such a decision and its implementation will truly benefit Yale.
First, the Corporation needs to decide — and publicly announce — what circumstances would make the decision to expand unfavorable. The reasons to increase the size of Yale’s student body are clear. But to believe that the “pros” of expansion can outweigh the “cons” in every scenario is unrealistic, and a clear sign of dangerously biased decision making.
If it would cost $5 billion to make the expansion successful, would it be worth it? If accommodating so many more students would require many majors to alter their requirements and offer fewer seminars, would the new colleges be as attractive? By determining and recognizing these limitations, the members of the Corporation can prove that expansion was not inevitable and that the extensive report from the exploratory committees is more than just a rubber stamp.
Second, since the committees made it clear that expansion will not be successful unless simultaneous changes are made to Yale, the Corporation should demand specific execution plans for these associated changes before even granting preliminary approval to proceed.
If the Corporation agrees that expansion will only be successful when accompanied by the specific changes recommended by the committees, it would be irresponsible to approve the next step in the planning process without first having evaluated the feasibility of the recommendations. Attracting new faculty in a wide range of departments without sacrificing Yale’s standards of quality, for example, might be easier said than done. The Corporation should consider hiring external consultants who, using comparative information from universities engaged in similar efforts, can analyze the probability that such essential corresponding reforms will succeed.
Finally, student opinion needs to be given greater weight in the ultimate decision made by the Corporation. Even after extensive efforts on the part of administrators to explain the rationale behind the expansion, only one in four students supports the plan. It is not that all students are inherently biased against expansion. Rather, the proposed location of the new colleges seems to be the most significant point of concern, with a full 70 percent of students opposed to developing the site.
Nobody is asking for the Yale Corporation to be swayed by the student poll of the minute but rather to acknowledge that undergraduates are best situated to understand fully the true social, academic and cultural implications of the proposed change. Merely having students serve on committees designed to evaluate the feasibility, rather than the desirability, of expansion is not sufficient.
Taking everything into account, what matters now is how to best move forward. The Yale Corporation’s pending decision will define Yale for decades to come — members of the Corporation must take concrete steps to show that they are not treating the decision to expand as inevitable but rather are truly analyzing its desirability and potential for success.
Only by explicitly acknowledging the factors that make expansion unfavorable, by allowing for the possibility that such factors may outweigh the potential benefits, by more clearly investigating the probability that changes undertaken as a result will be successful and by incorporating student opinion in a more significant and transparent way can the Yale Corporation prove to the student body, and to all those invested in this monumental decision, that they are making an objective, rational decision, rather than merely justifying a foregone conclusion.
Rebecca Taber ’08, Emily Schofield ’09, Harrison Marks ’10 and David Narotsky ’09 are the president, vice president, treasurer and secretary, respectively, of the YCC.