A specter is haunting Yale: the specter of feudalism.
When Yale’s class of 2016 descends on campus next week, they will be told about the richness of Yale’s extracurricular scene. High school newspaper editors, debate captains and community service leaders will listen as an admissions officer tells them how friendly Yale College is to student-run organizations.
They will, in other words, be deceived. For Yale is an increasingly inhospitable environment for extracurricular organizations requiring space on campus. And the culprit of this problem is the Yale institution perhaps most unquestioningly accepted: the residential college system, which imposes a byzantine, feudalist structure on organizations wishing to reserve rooms.
The residential colleges control virtually all non-classroom space available to Yale’s undergraduates. Any group that wishes to watch television must go through one of the half-dozen residential colleges with a TV room. Organizations seeking to hold events in less formal atmospheres than WLH classrooms must seek out college common rooms. The residential colleges also provide the only public, on-campus space for groups wishing to host weekend social functions.
Ideally, college masters would understand and make it easy for organizations to reserve space. Instead, they enact policies that restrict groups’ abilities to hold meetings.
All college spaces are bookable only by members of that residential college. Some colleges impose additional constraints: The Branford Common Room, for example, is available only for one on-campus group. Other masters claim that their spaces cannot be reserved and must be used informally rather than for official meetings, an arbitrary distinction tailored to shut out extracurricular groups. (Those rooms, incidentally, are chronically underused.)
All college administrators pay lip service to the importance of student groups — they just don’t want them in their space. Like urban homeowners opposing much-needed infrastructure, the residential colleges tell student groups to do what they want, just “not in my back yard.”
This problem has become particularly acute this year: Many of my friends’ organizations have been deprived space they once were free to use, and my own college’s interim master has dramatically curtailed the use of common space. I belong to an organization with the unambitious goal of watching an hour of television every Monday — we have recently been told that we cannot reserve a residential college’s TV Room because many of us do not belong to that college.
That sort of thinking is terrible for Yale College. Certainly, residential college life is an important aspect of Yale: Many new students will find their social group in the college to which they are randomly assigned, and they will spend their time planning and participating in college social events.
Others, however, will not.
And for students who choose Yale because of the beautiful chaos of the extracurricular fair, who find their friends in activism or community service or debate, it is essential that Yale be able to accommodate their groups’ needs. Those organizations require access to spaces and rooms that — in the absence of the student centers found in most universities — can be reserved solely through residential colleges.
So masters and their assistants should be more hospitable to extracurricular groups in their residential colleges. Students who ground their lives in their residential colleges should recognize that not all of Yale will be like them. Student organizations should, in turn, be more respectful tenants of space than they have in the past. And candidates in the upcoming Yale College Council elections should propose measures that will satisfy the council’s various constituents.
But most of all, Yale College’s administration should act. The absurdity of the current regime cannot be lost on the Yale College Dean’s Office. If Yale truly takes seriously the flourishing of its extracurricular organizations, then its administrators should promulgate new rules to ensure groups’ ability to use space. Perhaps they could even create new spaces, outside of the residential colleges’ sphere, where groups can meet.
Yale is nothing without its extracurricular groups, some of which are centuries old and predate the residential college system. And yet, the colleges’ feudalism is quickly pushing organizations off campus or into extinction. If nothing is done, Yale will suffer as its extracurricular organizations find it more and more difficult to hold the activities that, for many, are the best part of the Yale experience.
Joshua Revesz is a junior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.