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 firstname.lastname@example.org.