Kemper: Beware off-campus fiefdoms

De Gaulle once said the only constant of history is geography. The same can be said for a community’s physical trappings. The spaces, rooms, and various architectural hubs and spokes which surround us set the tone of our experiences more than we realize.

A collection of spaces necessarily creates a system of incentives to join certain organizations, make certain friends and engage in certain activities. Who controls those spaces has profound influence on the shape of our community.

I recently came across a 2003 Harvard Crimson article on why Harvard sucks. A serious, 5,600 word venture, it concludes with the damning question, “Would it be asking too much to not only be able to love the name on your diploma but the experiences behind it?”

It is not an entirely fair article — the biases of the authors and cherry-picked sources dilute their objectivity. But it does make one especially interesting point: that a principal advantage of Yale is the abundance and proximity of cheap housing around campus. They allow for the existence of a frat system with “dirty, big room” parties, a luxury inconceivable in highbrow, high-priced Cambridge.

The article actually sells our off-campus scene short. Indeed, from the whimsies of Lynwood to our constellation of frat houses to the folksy compound off Howe to the vast array of organization and team-specific abodes, off-campus Yale provides an offering of, well, space. Wonderful, malleable space, harnessed to the beck and call of our diverse social energy.

But it’s not all good. There is a real danger of segregation in our robust off-campus scene. Specialized houses target students of specific interests or identities and then swallow them into communities and fiefdoms that exist independently of the main river of college life.

Yale used to be aware of this danger. For a time almost all of Yale’s social scene was off-campus. A hierarchy of apartment blocks paralleled the hierarchy of clubs and societies — the fraternities were king. Beginning at the turn of last century, Yale set out to destroy that system.

The campaign — waged against alumni and other societies alike — culminated with the residential college. Here was a universal space to trump all spaces: huge halls, spacious common rooms and libraries, ornate and fantastical architecture.

And the college does more than create a space that trumps the off-campus offerings. It places it directly in the hands of students. It gives us rooms in which to foster bonds, space in which to throw parties, facilities with which to nurture organizations.

It provided access to everyone, regardless of connections, extracurricular choices or financial ability. It helps make Yale a coherent whole instead of a segmented collection of cliques and clubs.

So it worries me that, over many years, we have lost control of that space. Much of the attrition is subtle, involving privileges that Yale took even before we arrived on campus. This spiral began when enforcement of the higher drinking age dried college parties, setting students and faculty at odds. But much of the degradation of the residential college experience is attributable to new, and troubling attitudes.

It is my personal axe to grind that we are not trusted with most our terraces, towers, cupolas and decks. More substantial is various masters’ decision to bar student groups from using college common rooms. Even worse, the recent forced equalization of college budgets effectively bars alumni from giving back to their colleges.

These actions are indicative of an attitude that treats colleges as a collection of utilities and facilities rather than spaces in which we are to make and be made. Instead of seeing a common room as primarily a space for concerts, debates and rehearsals, this attitude would have it clean rather than used.

It pushes our creative social energies up Elm and down High Street. Alumni that were to give to their colleges will give instead to places where they found community — the house of their respective fraternity, a cappella group or team.

I have a small prophecy. As alumni networks ripen, we can expect the quality of off campus offerings to improve. Chabad at Yale just bought the Palmer house. Today’s hipster abode will be tomorrow’s Edgewood Elizabethan Club. Next thing you know, even the News will snag a multi-million dollar renovation …

Maybe there will be a fantastical Record building like the Harvard Lampoon’s. Maybe the Whiffenpoofs will build a castle. We will get more faceless tombs. But it will not be good for the community. We will risk losing spaces that foster an egalitarian mixture of interests and backgrounds, of faculty and students.

Let’s keep the dirty, big room party on campus — and the community with it.

Nicolas Kemper is a senior in Pierson College.

Comments

  • MatthewGerken

    Great column, Nick. More interesintg and relevant than almost everything else published on the opinion page this year.