In the early 20th century, Yale faced a vast civic crisis, or, rather, a vast civic crisis by Yale standards. As the student body grew and diversified, many students fled for the socially cohesive comfort of residential fraternities and societies, a trend that carved the campus into fiefdoms of social interest and class-based exclusion. The solution was one only Yale could dream up: to build obscenely expensive residential colleges, small enough for social coherence, large enough for heterogeneity and ostentatious enough to compete with Harvard.
I expect the proposal of the Student Center Ad Hoc Committee (“University-wide student center considered,” Feb. 5) aims at the ideals that founded the residential college plan: promoting unity among students, offering sufficient social space and creating a prominent locus of student life. I agree entirely with these aspirations, but I can imagine no worse remedy than an undergraduate student center.
It helps to look beyond Yale when assessing space needs, and “total building square feet per student” is a helpful inter-campus standard. By this measure, according to Columbia University statistics, a Yale student has about 30 percent more space than a Harvard student, 50 percent more than a Berkeley student and 160 percent more space than a Columbia student. When compared to our peer campuses, we look like space hoarders.
There is a common maxim among transit planners and two-year-olds: Activity fills the space it is given. Usually the problem is not a lack of space, but a poor optimization of existing space. Lengthening building hours, expanding access privileges and reconfiguring rooms to allow for multiple uses will go a long way to relieving our space crunch, all while lowering costs and minimizing our campus footprint.
All this is not to deny that a center for graduate and professional student life is badly needed. MacDougal offers a pittance of graduate student services, and no renovation will ever make that poky corner of the Hall of Graduate Studies into a dazzling social hub.
But Yale undergraduates do not experience similar neglect, and, in fact, a student center threatens to upend the balance of familiarity and dissimilarity in our residential colleges. As the residential college planners realized 80 years ago, 5,400 undergraduates do not suffer for some subdivision. Though student unity is never an unworthy cause, it can’t be called camaraderie unless it is cohesive.
There is a good deal of value in the surfeit of small social spaces found in our colleges. They bring about unbidden interactions and unexpected friendships. They offer refuge and spontaneity alongside activity and order. Most of all, they let us briefly tune out from our regularly scheduled programming. With these virtues in mind, I fear the gravity of a large student center pulling us out of the orbit of our colleges and into the traction of our calendars and extracurriculars. The only difference between societies cloistered in tombs, fraternities huddled in houses and small groups gathered in a student center is that the last arrangement permits the illusion of togetherness.
Though the Ad Hoc Student Center Committee says its greatest obstacles are a lack of a site and funds, I think the greater obstacle is a lack of need. The reason we have not followed other schools in spending millions on a student center is that we have spent hundreds of millions on 12 of them. The long-time lack of a student center on campus speaks to the persistent strength of our residential colleges. There are certainly unkind things to be said of them — that they are stuffy, inward-looking and old-school (perhaps the last is too literal) — but students have always been their great corrective. Better to reform what we do best than to invent the center anew.
Nick Allen is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .