This year, students filing into Yale’s dining halls for dinner have noticed something new: the familiar, ornate china bearing unique residential college imagery has been replaced by a simpler, uniform plate.
Though hardly significant on its own, the swap is illustrative of a larger trend towards homogeneity that many professors and Yale alumni have noted in the residential colleges. Though administrators say they are making changes to ensure that all students have an equally rich Yale experience, some long-time faculty feel this is an attempt to standardize the 12 colleges and undermine the freedom each had to be distinct. Masters today are being asked to serve shorter terms and have less complete control over their college’s finances, professors said.
Indeed, individuality has been part of the colleges’ DNA since they were built in the 1930s. They were always intended to play a major role in students’ lives, and to be “more than glorified dorm buildings,” according to Thomas Bergin, author of “Yale’s Residential Colleges: The First Fifty Years.”
University President Richard Levin said though he has sought to even out college budgets during his tenure so that every Yale student will have equal access to opportunities, he does not think this process has robbed these pillars of Yale life of their cultural quirks. Ultimately, he said he sees increased coordination of activities, consistent enforcement of Yale College regulations and other movements towards standardization a positive development.
The majority of students interviewed about the residential colleges said they were not aware of any shift towards homogeneity. While some said they were not particularly involved in residential college life, others said these assigned communities had defined their Yale experience in important ways.
Whether the changes facing the colleges will ultimately cause harm or good, professor of geology David Evans ’92 said they will always be one of the most vital Yale institutions.
“I think residential college life is one of the best aspects of Yale College,” he said. “That’s a lot of the glue that bonds Yalies together and contributes to lifelong friendships and connections to the University.”
KINGS OF THE CASTLE
Many of Yale’s colleges look like castles, and the masters used to be their kings. Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61, who also served as master of Pierson College from 1972 to 1981, said in his day masters were free to run their colleges as they saw fit. They reported only to the President’s Office, and this usually consisted of submitting a simple annual report. Lately, however, Smith said he has noticed a change in how the colleges are run.
“Recently, there seems to be a move on high to regularize the colleges, so they are all the same, and the college masters seem to have less authority over what goes on,” Smith said.
Today, the Yale College Dean’s Office also oversees Yale’s 12 residential communities. Smith said current masters are under stricter oversight, especially regarding college finances.
“This represents a demotion of the residential colleges,” he said.
Levin said in a Sunday interview that a survey on residential colleges conducted several years ago indicated that both faculty and students supported the increased involvement of the Yale college dean in college life.
“The dean of Yale College is really responsible for the life of the college in all dimensions,” he said. “It makes good sense to have the masters directly accountable to the dean’s office on a regular, day to day basis.”
But many longtime members of the faculty have mixed feelings about the changes in the colleges, including Steven Smith, who stepped down as Branford’s master after 15 years last spring. He said he thinks masters have “lost some autonomy” over time, adding that he hopes Yale’s colleges do not lose their unique identities and independence. Ever the political philosopher, Steven Smith said that, for him, the issue is one of a “philosophical belief in diversity over uniformity.”
Raleigh D’Adamo ’53, a former member of Silliman and an associate fellow of Davenport, said he is concerned that students will feel less passionately about their colleges if the small communities become less distinctive. He added that this trend could hurt alumni giving in the long run.
“I think that the University is … going to pay by having a diminution of loyalty and contributions over time,” he said.
Some professors said there has been a move in recent years to limit the long terms some masters used to serve, and reported hearing of masters who were encouraged to step down after two five-year terms.
Mark Ryan GRD ’74 served as the dean of Jonathan Edwards College for 20 years before helping to start the first residential college system in Latin America, at Universidad de las Americas in Puebla, Mexico. Ryan said he remembers that Yale used to have what he termed “career masters” who would serve terms that could last upwards of 20 years. Over the course of decades, their personalities and initiatives came to define the colleges that they called home, he said.
Saybrook, for instance, was led by Basil Duke Henning for nearly 30 years, and his imprint on the college is commemorated in Saybrook’s cheer, which includes the line “Basil Duke we love thee.” Timothy Dwight College still bears the mark of Robert Thompson ’55 GRD ’65, who was its master for 32 years until 2010.
Levin, however, said the average length of a term has lengthened during his presidency, and is over 10 years.
“It’s good to have some turnover after 10 or 15 years because there are actually a lot of people who are eager to be masters in our faculty population,” he said. “It’s nice to give other people a turn.”
Regardless of length of term, Ryan said masters will always be caught in the same tension: between their small kingdoms’ desire for autonomy and their need to fit in with the rest of the university.
BALANCING THE BUDGETS
Of all the changes Yale’s administration has implemented in the colleges, one is easy to quantify: the redistribution of the budgets.
One year ago, the administration announced that all residential colleges would have to operate with equalized budgets. Previously, certain colleges had managed to increase their endowments with gifts from alumni, while other colleges relied mainly on the operating budget Yale gave them.
The move was met with anxiety from masters, who were unsure how the change would affect their communities. Jonathan Holloway, who served as Calhoun Master and Chair of the Council of Masters before going on sabbatical this year, said the dominant anxiety was that the colleges were being pushed towards a “looming homogeneity.” But, he said, these fears proved unfounded.
“I think we all had the concern wondering what that would mean for our independence or for the range of different kinds of things we could do with our own colleges,” Holloway said. “I think that if you look at last year, the college culture remained obnoxiously and proudly independent and we all did fine.”
He added that he was still able to do all the programming he wanted in Calhoun.
Levin said that equalizing the budgets was an important move, and will not constrain the colleges’ individuality.
“We’re totally comfortable with the different colleges trying to introduce distinctive innovations in educational and social programming,” he said Sept. 12. “What didn’t seem appropriate was that some colleges have funding available that was three or four times larger than some of the other colleges.”
Others, however, remain skeptical of the budget redistribution and its implications for the residential colleges.
Gaddis Smith said he is concerned by the new management of the residential college master’s offices. Over the past few years, masters’ staffs have seen the addition of Operations Managers who report both to the masters and to the business office of the Yale College Dean’s Office.
“There’s a staff member who operates in the colleges now who sounds like someone running an automobile factory,” Gaddis Smith said. He added that, to him, this indicates that the colleges are being run more like parts of a corporation than autonomous parts of a university.
“It undermines the individual creativity in one college or another” Gaddis Smith said.
The impact of the budget redistributions has already impacted Pierson College. Over the years, Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt had managed to increase the college’s endowment through gifts from Pierson alumni, some of which covered an annual trip to Italy for a group of the college’s seniors.
But last year, those close to Goldblatt said clashes with the administration over budget equalization ultimately cost Goldblatt an additional full term as master. His term was renewed, but only for three years instead of the standard five. Levin said that Goldblatt was not forced out of his position.
Whether or not the administration’s changing approach to college budgets has hurt their individual cultures, former Deputy Provost Charles “Chip” Long, who retired in 2010 after 44 years at Yale, said he thinks the tradeoff is a worthwhile one.
“What you give up in terms of having a distinction for a college you more than gain by having quality among the colleges,” he said.
A HISTORY OF COMMUNITY
Yale’s residential colleges emerged in the 1930s as a way to bring small social communities back to the University. Ever since, they have been operating under two principles, whose tension we see continuing to the present day: the colleges must at once be both unique and alike.
As Yale became a larger school around the turn of the century, the familiarity and friendships that used to bind together each class started to disappear. Lost amidst hundreds of peers, students no longer felt they belonged to a community.
Edward Harkness 1897 was concerned about this trend, which he observed as an undergraduate, and worked with Yale to conceive of and fund the residential colleges, which opened in 1933.
The collegiate model was inspired to a degree by Oxford and Cambridge universities in the United Kingdom, which had such a system in place. But the Oxbridge model is one of extremely independent colleges — students apply to each college separately, and each makes its own admissions decisions and hires its own faculty.
Yale, which already had a centralized faculty and administration, decided to adapt the model and create college communities that focused mainly on the social life of the students, while also taking steps to supplement their academic experience. While not as independent as the Oxbridge colleges, each college at Yale was supposed to be unique and have a distinctive identity.
For the first 30 years of the college system, freshmen would enter Yale without an assigned college. At the end of the year they would choose the college whose culture best fit their interests, and masters were also involved in “recruiting” students they liked to their college, according to Gaddis Smith.
“Each college had a very distinct personality, which the master helped create,” he said. In 1963, Yale began randomly assigning freshmen residential colleges before they arrived on campus. Still, Gaddis Smith said that even after this, some colleges maintained strong personas: Davenport still had a large contingent of students from elite prep schools, and Pierson was for students involved in extra-curriculars, for instance.
Bergin, who served as the master of Timothy Dwight College from 1953 to 1968, felt this was a positive development, even though Timothy Dwight lost many of the engineering students who favored it for its proximity to that department’s buildings.
“This change was no doubt for the best, but a certain collegiate personality was lost,” he wrote in his book on the colleges.
That same year, the position of college dean was also introduced. The dean was a resource for students and helped the Yale College Dean’s Office carry out administrative work that had previously been handled solely through its central office.
Bergin wrote that since the inception of the residential college system, there has been dialogue and disagreement over how uniform and how unique each should be — discussions which continue to the present day.
LEARNING IN THE COLLEGE
Though Yale’s colleges have never been academically autonomous like their English counterparts, intellectual life has always played some role in these communities.
Jay Gitlin ’71 GRD ’02, who teaches “Yale in America,” said that from the start the colleges were intended to serve some educational purpose. In 1952, Yale introduced college seminars — at the time, discussion sections for popular sophomore courses. Then, in 1968, residential college seminars were recreated as the distinct course offerings that still exist today. Gaddis Smith said the program was once much bigger than it is now.
Long, who was hired to teach English before joining the Provost’s Office, taught some of the English sections that were offered in the colleges. He said he would like to see the college seminar and college fellows programs strengthened since they allowed him to create unique bonds with students during his time as a professor. Locating more faculty offices in the colleges, as was once the case, would also encourage faculty and students to interact, he said.
“It was really one of the most effective uses of the colleges … it blended the curriculum with the social interactions,” Long said. “The question has always been how to make the colleges more than just dormitories and living centers.”
While the college seminar program may be smaller than it once was, the Mellon Forums, in which seniors share their thesis work with others in their colleges, has increased the academic component of residential life, Gitlin said. He called the forums “wildly successful,” adding that he wished they had existed during his time as a student.
More than a platform for academics, Ryan said that the colleges have always served to cultivate what he termed “collegiate values”: personal development, civic participation and social skills that could be overlooked in an institution as large as Yale. And though colleges play minimal role in most Yalies’ classroom educations, many students interviewed said these communities provide a wealth of opportunities for civic involvement and leadership.
Lara Fourman ’13 said the college council system allowed her to get involved in the life of her college as an underclassman. During her freshman and sophomore years, Fourman chaired the Saybrook College Council’s community service committee, and also served as the council’s secretary last year.
Being on a college council allows students to give back to their community, Nate Zelinsky ’13 said, adding that he has gained a lot from his involvement on the Davenport College Council.
“People come to Yale because of the appeal of the residential college system,” he said, adding of his work on his college council: “You can make a lot of people very happy, and it exponentially increases the quality of life in the college.”
STILL ‘A ROCK’
For many undergraduates, residential colleges are not only a source of community and comfort, but also of identity. It is said that the first thing two Yale alumni ask each other on meeting is which college each was in. As the colleges continue to change, it remains to be seen if they will continue to define students’ lives and sense of self.
D’Adamo said that when he was in Silliman, residential college life and spirit were of central importance to him and many of his friends.
“I think there was a lot of college identity, a lot of pride, and a lot of rivalry in a really good-natured way,” he said. As a student, D’Adamo started the Tang Cup, a popular beer drinking competition between colleges, which he said illustrates the enthusiasm he and his friends had for intercollegiate competition and the spirit it inspires.
“There has been and there still is a good deal of devotion to a residential college,” said Gaddis Smith, adding that if the colleges keep becoming standardized, “that may diminish a bit.”
Today, an increasing number of factors compete with the colleges for students’ allegiance. The number of extracurricular organizations has grown to a record 448, and Gaddis Smith said the role these groups play may have diminished the importance of the colleges’ social function.
Another trend that may be contributing to changing college loyalties is the tendency of students to live off-campus. In the 1950s and ’60s, the percentage of students living on campus hovered around the 4-percent mark. This year, almost 13 percent of students live off-campus. Several professors said that they think the increase in off-campus living has made the residential colleges less significant to students.
But there are those who feel that the colleges have become a more significant part of student life over the years. Many pointed to the fact that nowadays the colleges and their masters and deans are expected to provide significantly more services to students.
Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Stephen Stearns ’67 said that because of the popularity of fraternities, the colleges were less central to student life when he was an undergraduate here. He said that over time, as the colleges have provided an increased number of activities and programs to students, they have played an increasingly important role in student life.
Gitlin said that to him, one of the most important parts of the colleges is their ability to connect students with a community and a shared history. Though their characters may be in flux, the basic function of the colleges remains the same. They are still part of the fabric of Yale’s traditions and a source of stability in the lives of many of the University’s students.
“It’s nice to feel like you belong to a place with a history,” Gitlin said. “I think the reason people want to go to a place like this is it’s a rock in an unsettled world.”