It’s time for Yale to build its first graduate residential college.
As the construction of the new undergraduate residential colleges comes to completion, now is the time for Yale to make the next bold move in reclaiming its leadership in graduate education by building its first residential graduate college.
I first came to Yale 20 years ago as an undergrad. From what I see, residential graduate life at Yale hasn’t improved much since then. The highlight of Yale’s efforts to improve graduate living was the repurposing of a decades-old space nested between the power plant and the graveyard. Is that really the best Yale can do?
Before returning to Yale, I spent time at Oxford, Harvard and Stanford. In all three universities, I witnessed dramatic efforts to improve residential graduate life. Given its traditional residential college system, Yale is in a unique position to make similar strides, ensuring it attracts the best graduate students in the world.
Today, the unionization of teaching assistants threatens to transform graduate students into employees. Many remain concerned that such a change endangers the quality and the purpose of graduate education. The establishment of a residential graduate college at Yale would serve to build an alternative model for the future of graduate life at Yale — one that emphasizes a supportive residential intellectual community rather than transforms graduate education into an office job defined by union contracts.
A new graduate residential college would also serve as a social experiment in building a free and vibrant intellectual residential community in a time of great discord over safe spaces — the situation that many leading intellectuals have equated to a crisis of higher education in America itself. In the 1960s, the great liberal philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin established Wolfson College at Oxford with a vision of building a graduate community that was “modern, open, democratic, multicultural, interdisciplinary, international, free of unnecessary hierarchy or rusty rituals.” The college’s motto became “Humani nil alienum,” an idea championed by another great humanist, Maya Angelou. The motto holds that we all have an ability greater than the conditions we were born in, to stretch ourselves and embrace our shared humanity. A graduate college at Yale would serve this purpose.
Other successful examples of graduate residential colleges include Nuffield College at Oxford built in the aftermath of the two World Wars to promote the study of the social sciences, St. Antony’s College at Oxford which promotes international development and cooperation and Darwin College in Cambridge, which was established by the family of Charles Darwin and became the first college in Cambridge to include women as both students and fellows.
Establishing a residential graduate college would allow Yale to deepen its commitment to advancing science and engineering as well as its master’s programs, including those at the newly expanded School of Management and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. The major trends in higher education over the past 50 years have been a rise in students pursuing postgraduate degrees and a growing need for advanced training in the sciences and engineering. While Oxford and Cambridge have used residential colleges to strengthen their commitment to graduate education, schools such as Stanford and Harvard have invested in constructing state-of-the-art residential housing that today helps attract top candidates to these schools’ Ph.D., M.S., M.D. and M.B.A. programs. By establishing a graduate residential college, Yale will bolster its ability to compete with these schools for top applicants. It would also provide Yale a means to raise funds and endow scholarships for graduate students. In return, fees from students living on campus would provide a modest revenue stream, making a graduate residential college financially independent and profitable.
Finally, establishing a graduate residential college would allow Yale to lead in promoting diversity and meeting new challenges of evolving social and cultural norms. The new college should include accommodations for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, for families with young children, for students with physical disabilities, for transgender students and for students with various religious and cultural practices. College facilities should also include spaces for physical exercise, artistic performances and other social activities which enrich intellectual life. Such innovations would promote quality of life and increase participation of minorities in higher education, both as students and as future faculty.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s totally understandable for Yale to put building more on-campus graduate housing low on its list of priorities. Anyone who comes to Yale would rather see money invested in research and teaching. But this is why investment in graduate housing should be part of a larger effort to strengthen intellectual life at Yale. Building a residential graduate college would make Yale a leader other universities in the country would strive to emulate.
Marcus Alexander is a scientist in the Human Nature Lab at the Yale Institute for Network Science. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .