LIBRESCO: Focus on small clubs

When I come back to Yale for alumni events, I usually get a fuller tour of the campus than I planned. Often times, the debate I’ve returned for has to shift rooms at the eleventh hour because a class has preempted a reservation or because the strategic loitering to lay claim to an unreservable room has failed.

While many, including those in these pages, have argued that students should take more responsibility for their extracurricular expenses (“Bring back the bake sale,” April 17), the undergrads I know have asked me for contributions in order to rent off-campus space for discussions of politics and philosophy. It turns out that paying landlords for space is easier than persuading Yale to make it available for student use.

When I hosted prefrosh or sit down for alumni interviews, I used to single out Yale’s generosity toward student groups as the trait that best distinguished it from its academic peers. I can admit that Harvard also has intelligent, interesting undergraduates, but Yale did more to let students make the best use of each other.

Yale’s generous funding is the reason I was able to craft my own sword, using the materials bought for the Freestyle Dueling Association, or co-direct a production of Iolanthe my senior year, with the modest sets and costumes covered by Sudler funding. The easy accessibility of Yale’s funding and support made it easy to turn an idle conversation into a fully realized event (and to learn a little bit about how hard it is to turn theory into practice along the way).

One of the student organizations I joined as an undergrad, Point, could be a poster child for Yale’s previous profligate approach to extracurriculars — and the way that the investment can pay off. Point was yet another literary magazine, which, like most of them, died after my friends and I graduated. But, while it lived, Yale subsidized our printing costs (the tea and cookies, to my recollection, we bought or baked ourselves).

I got more out of that intimate, friendly editing circle than I ever did from a writing tutor (or the writing seminars I wouldn’t have won admission to). I got to observe other pieces being edited and brought in some not-for-class writing that I never would have troubled Yale’s official resources with.

But Yale has been using financial and logistical pressure to put the squeeze on student groups. The extracurricular groups I belonged to, which form the ties that draw me back to campus, are having a harder time getting material support, from funds to access to Yale’s rooms and resources. College common rooms become unbookable, ostensibly to keep them free for everyone’s use, with no alternate spaces provided. While I was an undergraduate, Commons dining hall stopped its dinner service, leaving some of my clubs without a place to eat together. Our large groups were scolded when we tried to claim tables in the residential college dining halls.

I don’t doubt that Yale still spends an enormous amount of money on undergraduate life, but that money does less good when it’s channeled into generic activities, run through the residential colleges. A college study break, however delicious, does less to bring students together than many small pizza events thrown by specialized groups like the Objectivist Study Group at Yale or the Save the World Club’s “Pizza and West Wing” on Bulldog Days.

Yale’s student funding works best according to a model of subsidiarity, where money and rooms are preferentially allocated to the smallest and most decentralized recipients possible, since they’ll have the best understanding of their own needs. This will certainly produce more “waste” but I prefer to think of it as overhead costs. In order to let small, particular, and peculiar groups flourish, I’ll spend some money on groups that do nothing or fall apart after a semester or so. That seems like more profitable waste than bureaucratic support for college-wide events that remain predictably bland.

Leah Libresco is a 2011 graduate of Jonathan Edwards College and a former staff columnist for the News .

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the club that has hosted a “Pizza and West Wing” study break.