VAZQUEZ: Keep our colleges alive

Our residential colleges still function as microcosms of Yale.

Without the residential colleges it’s unlikely that I would have lived with a Sigma Alpha Epsilon rugby player, a former Dramat board member, a Yale Daily News editor or two members of Mixed Company. I probably would have lived and interacted with the people that do the same extracurricular activities and take the same courses as me. I never would have been exposed to members of the student body that are now some of my best friends.

Some say that the colleges are divisive and inefficient. But this misses the more accurate criticism of our residential colleges: they are losing their distinctiveness.

The colleges are increasingly becoming devoid of their value — becoming little more than glorified dormitories. First, Yale eliminated independent college endowments. By removing a direct connection between residential colleges and their alumni in the form of donations, Yale has created a disconnect that removes the college from its history. As of 2010, alumni now can donate to a general fund that is then distributed to all of the colleges. The anonymity present in this system will surely hurt long-term fundraising for the colleges. Since then, Yale has worked to equalize the spending that each college has allocated per year.

We have allowed this to happen — we failed to resist homogenization when our residential college plates were taken from us. These were the last vestiges of autonomy, of separate college identities that have slowly disappeared.

There was a time when residential colleges were vibrant communities of student activity — some colleges printed weekly newsletters, and IMs and college-wide events were widely attended. This reflects our responsibility to the colleges. We must show up if we also want to ask for more.

As a result of the evened spending, residential colleges no longer can hold events that were intended exclusively for the members of that college. Pierson no longer holds its trip to Italy; senior happy hours have become a rarity, and the actual events that a college can hold have become less appealing.

Although these events were for a particular college, our communities grew from these smaller collective experiences. Guests from other colleges were often welcome.

But residential college life shouldn’t stop with social activities. In decades past, seminar rooms in residential colleges were filled with students in sections exclusive to that college. Who wouldn’t want to take their economics section with their residential college friends?

We are slowly going from having 12 vibrant communities with distinctive colors and traditions — Branford’s green, gold and blue or Timothy Dwight’s bright red and white — instead moving toward a monolithic grey.

As Yale proceeds with plans to develop the 13th and 14th colleges, we must be wary of the type of identity that they are likely to develop, if any. How can we renew the residential college system, when our masters and deans seem to be leaving so rapidly and appear to have less autonomy than ever before?

The masters are the most empowered in making each college a true community rather than a physical building that we only pass through for four years. In her second year as the master of Branford College, Elizabeth Bradley has begun a weekly senior colloquium with 18 Branford seniors. We discuss issues of life after Yale. Over the course of the last five weeks, many of us have been able to establish a much deeper relationship with her and our college community.

At Oxford and Cambridge, the models we have emulated for our system and our architectural style, the colleges are all encompassing because students also take their courses through the colleges.

We should strive for residential colleges that are equally central to our experience, rather than relegating them to a simple housing system. The college system can go a long way toward enriching our education along a breadth of disciplines and interests, through the Teas, conversations and activities that they can provide.

When Edward S. Harkness donated the funds to establish the first eight residential colleges close to 80 years ago, his mission was to further the British model on American soil.

Our colleges are the reason many of us chose Yale over other peer institutions — we must demand that they become a priority for our administration. Then we must make the colleges a priority for ourselves.

Christian Vazquez is a senior in Branford College and a former production and design editor of the News. Contact him at christian.vazquez@yale.edu.

Comments

  • phantomllama

    It would also be delightful to see an end to the cringeworthy false communities that certain college administrators are so keen to foster. I couldn’t care less about endless babblings about colours and mascots, and I’d prefer not to be treated like a five-year-old and wooed with messages telling me how proud I should be…

    • Dowager

      You’ll have all the time in the world for “grown up pursuits” after college. Try to enjoy the journey, you will arrive at your destination either way. People like you tend to complain their way through life….my boss is a jerk, my neighbor is too loud, my kid’s teacher is a dolt. You actually SOUND like a 5 year old.

      • chandlerpv

        There is a large percentage of the students that don’t like the college system. It forces many to leave campus their junior and senior years and can be stressful for those who can’t find people to live with. Lets be honest, when was the last time a STEM kid and a DKE bro were happy being forced to share a room. Why should anyone be forced to fake it in the college community for four years, a potentially amazing four years, and detract from the experience they could be having? If you want to meet varied types of people, go out and be social with them… the administration shouldn’t force it on us because Yalies may not know how to socialize themselves. Thats the real coddling that exists. The colleges just protect students from being risky with their social life by babying with a safety net.

      • River_Tam

        > You’ll have all the time in the world for “grown up pursuits” after college.

        Yale students ARE adults. They’re not children.

        • Dowager

          …And college is the real world. Sure thing.

    • yalie13

      cynics and naysayers make this world colder

  • ldffly

    Well done.

    Some months ago, I jokingly suggested that certain members of the administration be run out of town at the head of mobs bearing torches. It was mainly for this very reason, for the denuding of the college system. Remember that these developments occurred under the captaincy of Richard Levin, when the university’s endowment rose to unprecedented heights. The “we didn’t have the money excuse” won’t work. Indeed, many of the the great features of the college system were sustained when I was a student during the 1970s, now seen as the great decade of penury. I can’t imagine the administration getting away with pulling the college china in those days and, in any event, it’s hard to see how that saved one stinking nickel..

    “As Yale proceeds with plans to develop the 13th and 14th colleges, we must be wary of the type of identity that they are likely to develop, if any.” Let’s hope that the money for these new colleges never materializes.

    • ldffly

      Sorry, I meant to finish with this sentence. Yale doesn’t need two more super fancy dormitories.

  • MB2014

    Backed 100%. What’s absurd is the that it’s the minor stuff that folks don’t care about (i.e., private dining hall hours, no common dining space) that the university stands up for for residential colleges on, and then they gut them on everything else. Waiting to see the life expectancy on the last of the residential college party suites – my guess is those days are just as numbered.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “We have allowed this to happen — we failed to resist homogenization . . .”

    ABSOLUTELY TRUE ! Now what are you going to do about it/?

    Take that sham student government of yours and start ramming a few demands down Woodbridge Hall’s throats.

    DEMANDS—————-NOT REQUESTS.

    Paul. D. Keane

    M. Ed. (Student Personnel Services and Administration in Higher Education)

    M.Div ’80

    M.A.

  • grumpyalum

    Thank goodness for the death of the Residential College! Nothing caused more consternation in my time amongst my friends than the stupid system and its restrictions.

    Bring forth a student union and a common hangout space for all!

    • morse_14

      Those aren’t mutually exclusive. I’d like both distinct residential colleges and a student union/hangout space.

      • grumpyalum

        I think any system that seriously promotes alternatives is going to undermine the residential college. That’s a good thing.

    • phantomllama

      I think the underlying point of this article isn’t that the restrictions are being lifted — if anything, there are more being introduced (Morse / Stiles dining, Silliman public areas to mention a couple) — but that they are becoming increasingly homogenised, restricting opportunities for external socialisation whilst offering very few advantages over student dormitories.

  • anthro13

    I think this point could be made without the multiple references to donors and money.

    It just makes the author sound bitter that his college is no longer able to host huge extravagances that other colleges couldn’t. (The tuition is the same for every student, why shouldn’t the benefits and opportunities be the same?)

    I support the equalization of the budgets for the residential colleges, and I don’t think that the budget changes really affected students’ loyalty to their college. You don’t give Yalies enough credit, if you think that we’re all so materialist that we’ll only like feel affiliation with our college if given enough cash.

    • Branford73

      I agree that the article’s excellent point about the excellent criticism of homogenization of the colleges is not well-served by mention of individual college donations. There shouldn’t be a marked difference in financial resources among the colleges. However, equal funding does not have to mean destroying the individual characteristics of each college.

      For people who don’t like the college system, I wonder why they came to Yale in the first place, since it is a salient characteristic of the undergraduate experience. A number of other excellent American universities have emulated the college system or have explored the possibility. Duke has explored it but concluded the individual infrastructure changes needed (individual dining halls and other decentralized facilities) would be too expensive to implement.

      There is no particular reason, except the trends under Levin, that the new colleges have to be glorified dorms instead of genuine residential colleges with characters of their own.

      I would suggest the new Yale president allow donors to contribute to the college system, i.e. instead of going to the general Yale fund, allow contributions be made to the college system, do be distributed to and managed by the college masters.

      • grumpyalum

        Because Yale is a top-tier research university with amazing resources, students and extracurricular opportunities as well as great academics?

        • Yalie

          Well sure. But so are many other schools. If the res colls were a major disqualifying factor then, again, why choose Yale?

          • grumpyalum

            I mean, honestly, I thought I would like them. I didn’t see them as a net positive or negative, just sort of a neutral possibility. I saw all the other cool things about New Haven (plus happier students!) compared to Harvard and chose accordingly.

            No regrets, truly. STWC 4 LYFE! But…screw residential colleges.

      • yale_senior

        The first point to make is that when one of these needless extravagances is cut out I don’t think other students ever see the money. Especially in residential colleges, a lot of this money has been redistributed to hire “operations managers” in addition to the two secretaries, master, and dean that already work there – a frivolous use of money.

        The larger point is that this discussion of “fairness” sounds good on paper, but in practice just limits the quirkiness that makes residential college life worthwhile. I am thinking of events like Davenport’s fresh-squeezed orange juice day, or Pierson’s jello wrestling, etc. Is it unfair that Trumbull doesn’t get fresh-squeezed juice? Hardly. It is just a quirky tradition that builds college spirit. I doubt anyone in Trumbull feels particularly wronged. The problem is that when you make a blanket rule that says that colleges can not accept direct donations, even these fairly minor events are cut or not funded in the first place.

        This is especially critical now that the drinking age is twenty-one. Colleges used to rule the social scene by throwing really boozy parties, which is now hard to do, and even if done legally most masters don’t put up with it. Therefore you need to have other traditions, but let us make one thing very clear: almost every tradition known to man requires spending money, everything from the turkey on thanksgiving, to the fireworks on fourth of july, to the robes of commencement, require expenditures of money. If colleges cannot raise money, it means that cannot fund new traditions. Usually these sums are not particularly large, so perhaps a better rule would be not allowing any donation of over $100,000 to a single residential college (which is on the university level the smallest donation one can make to endow a program is his or her name).

        There is also the historical point. Colleges were originally built to compete with the fraternities that ran the campus but were far more exclusive than the colleges. Indeed, colleges were one of the major reasons the hyper elitist frat system existing at other schools (I am thinking of Finals Clubs at Harvard, or the list-only frats at many large state schools) is largely gone from Yale. Could you imagine, for example, Yale making a rule that any alumnus of DKE must also donate equally to all of the other Yale frats? By not allowing colleges to raise their own money, you are essentially conceding that frats with eventually return to their prior prominence in time.

        Fight the good fight Christian, and I hope you take advantage of the presidential search to bring up this point with whoever will listen.

        • ldffly

          “Could you imagine, for example, Yale making a rule that any alumnus of DKE must also donate equally to all of the other Yale frats? By not allowing colleges to raise their own money, you are essentially conceding that frats with eventually return to their prior prominence in time.”

          Here here. I suspect the administration will be dealing with this unintended consequence in a few more years.

        • anthro13

          Fair point, but the author mentions the Pierson trip to Italy as one of the victims of the budget equalization. While jello-wrestling, etc. is quirky, fun and involves the entire college, an all-expenses paid trip to Italy for the lucky [sub-group of the class] does not support that same quirkiness and character.

  • jorge_julio

    meeting diverse people is fine, but no one can honestly think the superficial conversations which happen outside college entryways are comparable to friendship. One of the easiest ways to waste four years at Yale is to let a sorting hat and the outcome of a housing form dictate your social life.

  • The Anti-Yale

    All this medieval drama fostered by shields and banquet halls and dinnerware is FUN.

    What’s wrong with fun, especially when you’ve got a billion dollars worth of architecture in which to stage your play?

    Nothing.

    Absolutely nothing.