WEST HAVEN, Conn. — Ten years ago, University President Richard Levin laid out his goals for advancing Yale over the next decade. Investing in the sciences was among them — and the gleaming new Daniel L. Malone Engineering Center and the Class of ’54 Chemistry Research Building are proof of that.
But on an urban campus, new laboratories can only be built so quickly. Enter West Campus.
Now, with some 550,000 square feet of state-of-the-art laboratory space at its mercy, the University is preparing to ramp up its investment in the sciences at a pace completely unimaginable just over a year ago. While administrators emphasize that planning for the redevelopment of the former home of the pharmaceutical company Bayer HealthCare is still in the earliest stages, in interviews this month, they could hardly contain their excitement about the potential the property holds for boosting Yale’s research endeavors.
“Yale has world-class strength and faculty and research in the sciences,” said Provost Andrew Hamilton, the Benjamin Silliman Professor of Chemistry. “And the West Campus becomes a wonderful place where we can connect and strengthen those areas of research that are already strong at Yale.”
He was not exaggerating. When Hamilton laid eyes on the laboratories, one of his administrative colleagues jokingly recalled, “his eyes grew wide with wonder.”
For good reason, perhaps. The West Campus will allow Yale to launch new research that otherwise could have taken up to 15 years to fit into the central campus, administrators say.
Few would deny that Yale’s sterling reputation derives more from its preeminence in the arts and the humanities than the sciences. While the University produced such scientific giants as Josiah Willard Gibbs 1858 GRD 1863 in its earlier days, scientists fleeing from Hitler a half-century ago spurned Yale for schools like Harvard and Princeton because of the tenor of anti-Semitism that reigned for years in New Haven.
But the tide has turned. Reinvesting in the sciences has been a pillar of the Levin administration, captured best in Yale’s announcement in 2000 that it planned to spend $1 billion on its science departments and the School of Medicine, particularly on the construction of new laboratories and research buildings.
That investment would not come quickly. Construction on the planned Yale Biology Building, for instance, had been slated to begin as early as 2006 but has been long delayed because of resistance to the building’s initial design from neighbors. Yale then scrapped its plans and started over, hiring a new architect, Cesar Pelli. Now, according to Bruce Carmichael, the associate provost for science and technology, the YBB is not scheduled to open until 2011.
With the West Campus in hand, Yale will not have to wait to pursue its scientific ambitions. The laboratories here are ready for occupancy, their equipment stowed away in a nearby warehouse, their lab tables cleaned. Beakers and flasks — washed and ready for use — sit in locked glass cabinets, lonely but hopeful.
The laboratories yearn for life. Yale yearns for laboratory space.
It was a match made in scientific heaven.
“The addition of this ready-made, state-of-the-art research space will allow that growth to accelerate at an unprecedented level,” Levin said at the time of the acquisition, “potentially making it possible for Yale scientists to develop new discoveries, inventions and cures years earlier.”
The cures will have to wait to be developed until at least this summer, when the first researchers will occupy the shimmering research space here. Administrators emphasize that they are in the earliest stages of planning for the West Campus.
Years ago, nearly 3,000 Bayer employees bustled around the 137-acre campus here. But it will be years before Eli scientists fill the space.
“These decisions are being taken slowly,” said Steve Girvin, the deputy provost for science and technology. “We don’t want to do something now that will restrict us from doing things how we would have done them 15 years from now.”
In the long run, most of the scientists at the West Campus will be fresh recruits hired over several years, said Robert Alpern, the dean of the medical school.
Yet Alpern stressed that labs at the West Campus would have equivalent status with those at the medical school and on Science Hill.
“We want the main campus and West Campus to be one intellectual community,” he said. “The core facilities in West Campus will support the investigators at the medical school and College.”
Indeed, the University has no shortage of plans for what will eventually happen in the sprawling labs here. Officials in the Provost’s Office — which has been coordinating the planning for the new campus — have been meeting with science faculty members over the course of this academic year to brainstorm about what could take shape on the West Campus.
The brainstorming, however, is constrained by the University’s finances, as the rate at which the University can roll out those plans will depend, at least in some part, on fundraising. Yale will boost its spending from its $22.5 billion endowment by some 40 percent next year, and part of that increased spending will go toward supporting the West Campus, the University announced in January. But the University is aggressively marketing the West Campus to donors — particularly foundations and corporations, said Inge Reichenbach, the vice president for development.
“What makes it very exciting for us is that this West Campus really is a great tool for talking about an institutional science agenda — not just about individual needs, a professorship here, a professorship there, but about the big picture of where science at Yale can go,” Reichenbach said.
Whatever does happen here, it will be in addition to Yale’s current scientific programs and will not merely relocate them.
As Girvin put it, the West Campus should be synonymous with the “new.”
“It is not going to be used for overflow space or gradually eaten up by slow expansion,” he said. “The idea is to use it as an opportunity to do new things in the arts and the sciences.”
The University announced its $109 million purchase of the Bayer campus in June after weeks of secret negotiations as the University vied for the site against other bidders. Levin and other senior administrators did not consult with the faculty throughout the process; if word leaked out that Yale was interested in the property, it would have driven the bidding higher, he said.
Alpern admitted that when the sale was announced, faculty initially expressed “confusion and skepticism” over the purchase.
But Levin said in a recent interview that he and fellow administrators had few concerns about the clandestine acquisition.
“Worst case, we could have bought it and discovered that the faculty thought it was a terrible idea, and we could have sold it,” he said.
Alpern said attitudes have now swung in favor of the new facilities. Faculty interviewed by the News concurred, expressing fresh optimism for the new possibilities the facilities will create.
Many faculty emphasized that the campus will enable Yale to create new interdisciplinary programs.
“In particular, as science becomes more multi-disciplinary, it will be important for Yale to be able to bring together researchers from the life sciences, medicine and engineering,” said Craig Crews, an associate professor of chemistry; pharmacology; molecular, cellular and developmental biology; organic chemistry; and bio-organic chemistry. “This mixing of academic disciplines will be one of the greatest advantages of working on the West Campus.”
Richard Lifton, the Sterling Professor and Chairman of the Genetics Department at the medical school, was similarly enthused.
“It gives us an unprecedented opportunity to ask what new programs would be broadly enabling and transformative for Yale,” he wrote in an e-mail.
According to Hamilton, the administration has been strongly considering the idea of forming a cluster of different interdisciplinary institutes covering a broad range of fields, including cellular biology and human genomics.
“One institute that is receiving … attention is an institute focused on molecules with biological activity that might be used in connection with other institutes to study human disease to probe cellular function,” he said.
It is not surprising that Hamilton, with his chemistry background, is enthralled with the new laboratories. But Levin, an economist by trade, expressed just as much excitement about the potential of the new campus. Ten years ago, when he laid out his plans to invest in the sciences to the Yale Corporation, he said, he never imagined the University would be able to do it on this scale, this quickly.
But the purchase of the West Campus will facilitate just that. Levin called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for the University.
Nearly a year after the purchase was announced, his excitement has not dimmed.
“It was amazing,” he said. “It’s quite exciting.”
For part six, a look at the what the long-term future holds for the West Campus, see Thursday’s News.
—Thomas Kaplan and Raymond Carlson reported from West Haven, and Ambika Bhushan from New Haven.