Close to a decade ago, Yale University set out on a mission: to acquire a few two-story houses tucked near the corner of Prospect and Canal streets.
University administrators did not want the houses. They wanted the land on which the houses stood, because they forecasted erecting two new residential colleges there at some point in the future.
And this year, that long-held plan finally came together. This weekend, the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, formally authorized the construction of two new residential colleges on that very site, behind the Grove Street Cemetery along Prospect Street. The expansion will be Yale College’s largest since the beginning of co-education.
Indeed, Elis of the next generation may look back at the 2007-’08 academic year as the time when Yale laid the foundation for a world of 14 colleges. From the open forums in the fall semester that allowed students to weigh in on expansion to University President Richard Levin’s declaration of support for the new colleges in February to the Corporation’s authorization this weekend, students this year have witnessed the prospect of two new colleges move from a vision to a soon-to-be reality.
And, to administrators who have been envisioning such a reality for a decade now, that could not be more exciting.
“It’s good for posterity,” as Levin summed it up in an interview this year, “and its good for Yale’s future.”
Yale did not decide to build two new colleges overnight. The expansion has been no less than a decade in the making.
Ten years ago, Levin presented the Corporation with a list of goals to advance the University over the next decade. Many of them — internationalizing the University and investing in the sciences, for example — would seem obvious to any mildly interested observer of University affairs over the last several years.
But what did not surface until very recently was the last item on his list: “Build two new residential colleges.”
In an interview this spring, Levin reflected on the proposed residential-college expansion, which a decade ago was but a goal on Levin’s checklist and, as of Saturday, is officially on its way to becoming a reality.
“I have thought of this for a long time as … the desirable thing to do,” he said.
But for much of his tenure, Levin concluded, the University was simply not in a position to pull the trigger on such a massive project. An early budget estimate placed the cost of the two new colleges at no less than $600 million — more than the total endowment of the average American university.
Levin, the longest-serving president in the Ivy League, inherited a severe budget deficit when he took office in 1993. So for the first five years in the presidency, expanding the University was not even on the radar, Levin said.
His priorities, he said, were simple: overhauling campus facilities — “the place was crumbling,” Levin recalled — and improving Yale’s relationship with New Haven.
After five years, he and administrative confidantes sat down to develop a 10-year plan to present to the Corporation. Among the goals in that document were internationalizing the University, going green and investing in the sciences.
On the list, too, was the residential-college proposal — but to be completed last, when everything else was done.
“I thought for Yale’s long-term reputation and global standing, we really needed to tackle the other things first,” Levin said. “When we got those moving, and we had the resources to move ahead with expansion of the undergraduate population, then we’d tackle it.”
In the winter, some members of two committees charged with examining expansion’s impact on academics and student life wondered about whether that cost could be the Achilles heel to Levin’s aspirations.
And, back in 1998, the money question reared its ugly, gilded head, too. “It’s actually one reason I didn’t push for it until the last few years,” Levin said.
But since 1998, the University’s endowment has more than tripled, rising from $6.6 billion one decade ago to a sum that today stands at $22.5 billion, largely thanks to the financial acumen of Yale’s investments czar, David Swensen.
And as the endowment soared, talk of the colleges began to percolate. In 2000, the University published its Framework for Campus Planning, which mapped out a location for the new colleges, behind the Grove Street Cemetery along Prospect Street.
The University continued to “keep quiet” about the expansion plans, Levin said, although he admitted that he began broaching the idea with alumni at least five years ago.
Now, with many of Levin’s other initiatives underway and the University at a level of financial strength virtually unimaginable a generation ago, the University decided last winter that the time was right to finally go public with the residential-college proposal.
“If you’re ever going to expand,” Roland Betts ’68, the senior fellow of the Corporation, said this winter, “this is the right time to do it.”
And so in February 2006, Levin convened two committees of students and faculty — one that would assess the effect of expansion on student life, the other on the University’s academic resources — and embarked the University upon what he called a “year of
exploration” regarding the question of whether to expand.
Over the course of the 2007-’08 school year, administrators gradually pulled back the curtains on their plans and opened a dialogue with a campus thirsty for news of the expansion.
Students heard from administrators at open forums and responded to a lengthy questionnaire about what they would most like to see in two new residential colleges. Their response was tepid at best, angst-ridden at worst.
In several campus-wide polls over the course of the year, students rejected the planned expansion overwhelmingly. In February, one week before Levin went public with his support for the new colleges, a News poll found that only one in four undergraduates supported expanding Yale College.
In particular, many students objected to the planned location of the colleges, at the base of Science Hill. The new location would make the colleges a full half-mile trek from Old
Campus, and an unpleasant trek at that. Students also expressed concerns about what life would be like on Science Hill, which administrators admit tends to turn into a ghost town on nights and weekends.
“If students already complain about having to walk to TD — which is far closer — I imagine it will only be worse with this new location,” Zoelle Egner ’10 said earlier this year.
The two committees admitted as much when they reported back to Levin in February. Their assessment of the decision to build the new colleges described the street leading to the colleges as a “long and dull block” with “imposing” buildings and “cramped” sidewalks “that make it feel like a wind tunnel.” The walls of the cemetery adjoining the site were described as “aesthetic and psychological barriers.”
“The doubters were many,” the committees wrote in their report released Feb. 18. “Why, it was asked, did the colleges have to be located there?”
But even in the aftermath of the committees’ report — and their suggestions that the University enliven Science Hill by constructing a gym, a classroom building and adding a coffee shop or cafe on Prospect Street — many students remain fiercely opposed to putting up two new colleges there.
And they show little sign of changing their minds.
“The life of a Yale student can easily get stressful and emotionally draining,” Wonjae Lee ’10 said earlier this year. “Living next to a cemetery wouldn’t really help the situation.”
Lee — who said he was worried students in the new colleges would feel cut off from the rest of campus — was not alone in his worry. In a poll conducted by the News in February, more than 60 percent of students said they were dissatisfied with the site in question. And in a questionnaire circulated by the two committees in November, 70 percent of respondents said they opposed the proposed colleges’ location.
But according to current and former Yale officials involved in planning for the expansion, the University had little choice but to plan for the colleges on the Prospect Street site. As much as students might complain, these officials said, there is simply no other viable option.
“This was felt to be the site that worked the best,” University Planner Laura Cruickshank said. “Two colleges take up a lot of space.”
And in recent months, another major motivation has emerged for the University’s desire to build the colleges on that site. Following a sort of “If you build it, they will come” mentality, University administrators are banking on the new colleges’ ability to pull students up Science Hill, thus enlivening the area.
“I believe that the presence of undergraduate residences north of Grove Street will alter the perception that Science Hill is ‘too far away’ from the ‘center’ of campus,” Levin wrote in his message to the community on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Provost Andrew Hamilton — who next year will leave Yale to take the helm of Oxford University — said the administration will ensure that, as students have demanded, the new colleges will not “damage the culture of Yale.
“But in my opinion, there is one part of the Yale College culture that needs to be damaged, and that is the isolation of the sciences,” Hamilton said. “This is not a culture that we should be proud of.”
But the expansion could change all that, Hamilton said. “Putting two new residential colleges there,” he promised, “will have that very important affect on changing the perception of Science Hill among our undergraduates.”
With eyebrows raised over aspects of the proposal, Levin has repeatedly vowed that the University will address student concerns. In particular, he promised to carry out the suggestions of the two committees, which suggested a laundry list of initiatives — ranging from the construction of the Science Hill gym to an analysis of the role of discussion sections — to ensure the addition of two new colleges would neither detract from the quality of a Yale College education nor diminish students’ quality of life.
“By creating two new communities of roughly 400 students, intimacy can be preserved,” Levin wrote to the Yale community upon announcing his support for expansion in February. “By responding aggressively to the issues of adequate staffing, amenities in proximity to the new colleges, transportation, security, activity space and support for student activities as outlined by the study group, I believe that the quality of education and extracurricular life will not only be undiminished, but truly strengthened.”
A week later, the Corporation approved continued planning for the new colleges, asking administrators to plan a preliminary budget for their construction and develop a strategy for raising funds to pay for them.
The Corporation formally authorized the expansion this weekend, officially setting into motion a project that will increase the size of Yale College some 15 percent. Levin repeated his vow that the expansion will not damage the residential-college experience that Elis for generations have come to love.
Administrators, Levin wrote to the community, will ensure that “the quality of the Yale College educational and social experience will be as extraordinary as ever” in a world of 14 colleges.
“Our goal is that students in every residential college, old and new, will have an even more robust and enlivening experience as a result of this expansion,” Levin said.
But providing for that will come at a price. To help pay for it all, the University will raise the goal of its $3 billion capital campaign, Yale Tomorrow, to $3.5 billion. Already, $140 million has been raised in gifts and pledges toward paying for the new colleges, Levin said Saturday.
The campaign this year surpassed $2 billion and is a full year ahead of schedule.
“Based on the experience of the campaign to date, and a careful review of the opportunities of the next three years, we are confident that a $ 3.5 billion goal is within reach,” Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said Saturday. “We believe we will be able to maintain the annual totals of about $ 500 million in commitments that will get us over the $ 3.5 billion goal.”
Over the next few months, several key details will likely emerge regarding the expansion. Now that students no longer can debate whether to build two new colleges, the conversation will likely turn to two issues: what the colleges will be named, and in which architectural style they will be built.
Administrators have been vague on those two points, but this much is clear: The University, in keeping with tradition, will not name either of the colleges after living donors. Levin promised that the community will be able to suggest names for the colleges.
As far as architecture is concerned, administrators have privately indicated that the colleges are almost certain to be built in a traditional style, rather than a modern one as in the case of Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges, the last two colleges to be erected. The colleges are not envisioned to be neo-Gothic, but rather Georgian in design, according to early conversations among administrators.
Architecture or naming aside, the next year looks to be a pivotal one in the history of Yale as the magic number 12 officially begins its transition to becoming 14. Students’ complaints aside, administrators maintain that expansion is in the University’s long-term interest.
But only the Elis of the future will be able to judge that question.
“The skeptics are correct to view this move as a big and risky one,” the committees concluded in February. “And of course no one of the present generation can be certain whether this is the right move.”
This article is adapted from a year-long series published in the News on the prospect of residential-college expansion. An earlier version appeared in the Commencement Issue of the News.