The basement of Commons extends below the entirety of the building, but it lacks the first floor’s old-school grandeur and charm. Instead, the walls are made of concrete and cinderblock; white hallways tunnel through the space and wire mesh blocks off utility and storage rooms. Somewhere in the basement a machine emits a high-pitched drone that seems to get louder from room to room, and one woman on the tour that I’m on puts a hand to her ear to block out the noise.
Daniel Flynn, director of hospitality and maintenance for Yale Dining, who has worked at Commons for many years, asks the group of around 10 to “reimagine” the space. In 2020, after five years of planning, design and renovation, he explains, this space will be repurposed as part of the Schwarzman Center. As the PowerPoint at the current open house illustrates, the basement will be flooded with natural light and transformed into a place “where [students] can meet, socialize, eat, and/or make things.” Most of the people there were seeing the basement for the first time. They had to work hard to reimagine the fluorescent-lit “maze” as the projected palace of natural light.
Imagine All the People
Of course, the Schwarzman Center is not news to anyone at this point. When President Peter Salovey announced in May that Steven Schwarzman ’69, founder and CEO of Blackstone Group, was giving a historic gift of $150 million to renovate Commons and create a new student center, News, alumni publications and even the New York Times hastened to cover the story. The picture of the blue Commons sign being replaced with one that reads “Schwarzman Center” received 344 likes on “Overheard at Yale.” Rumpus published an article rife with creative misspellings of Schwarzman’s name, such as “$chwarzman,” “Schwarzwoman,” and “Schwarzmaneater.” On Wednesday, unidentified Yale students played a practical joke by covering up campus building signs with blue Schwarzman stickers (e.g. “Schwarzman Chapel,” “School of Schwarzman and Schwarzmanmental Studies”). It’s safe to say that Schwarzman, name and donation, has entered Yale’s collective conscious.
What most students lack is concrete knowledge about the project. Migs Grabar Sage ’19 said that, like many freshmen, she knew about Commons but nothing about the donation until very recently. Even some upperclassmen are unfamiliar with the details. When asked about the Schwarzman Center, Jillian Kravatz ’17 said, “I know very little.”
“Only what exists in my imagination,” added Zachary Schlesinger ’17.
Schlesinger was making a play on the “Imagine Schwarzman” campaign that launched last week. But the campaign is in fact a large component of the planning process. Members of the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee, which includes administrators such as Special Counsel to the President Linda Lorimer and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, undergraduate student leaders like Yale College Council President Joe English ’17, and representatives from the Graduate Student Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, have embarked on a “listening tour” that will last through September and October. The listening tour started with open houses in Commons and the Rotunda, and continues with information sessions in all the residential colleges and graduate and professional schools.
Assistant Secretary at the Office for Student Life Erin Johnson ’08 conducts one of these “listening sessions” in the Jonathan Edwards common room on a Sunday evening. She presents a thick pamphlet of glossy artistic renderings depicting the future Schwarzman Center: performances by student groups and star-studded events featuring the likes of David McCullough ’55, Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79 and other famous Yale alumni.
At each event, Yale staff or members of the advisory committee explain non-negotiable elements of the renovation — the basement, dining hall and upstairs rooms will undergo extensive alterations, while Memorial Hall, which honors Yale’s soldiers, will be “preserved and enhanced.” Committee members are careful to stress that lunch service in Commons, a concern of many students, will continue.
But a lot is still up in the air. Johnson said listening tours are meant “to collect ideas from the community that the advisory committee can use to give advice to President Salovey.” The “Imagine Schwarzman” PowerPoint asks viewers to “imagine” Commons as a performance space, the upper-floor hallway as a student art gallery and the basement as a billiard room or pub. Johnson suggested the potential for various new student events in the center, such as birthday parties for all graduate and undergraduate students born in any given month. Right now the Schwarzman Center is something of a blank slate.
Still, representatives say that all of these ideas are subject to student and community opinion. Attendees of listening sessions are asked to fill out a questionnaire that asks them what they would like to be included in the center, and what should be avoided. Ultimately, these thoughts will be compiled into a report to be presented to Salovey by Thanksgiving, which he and those who have the final say in the planning will consult in drafting final plans.
Members of the Advisory Committee say the response to outreach so far has been positive and encouraging. Johnson said that, because the Schwarzman Center is “a space that people know well,” most people can provide constructive responses when asked for ideas. Lorimer said it has been “extremely exciting to hear dynamic ideas from student groups.” Tyler Godoff SOM ’16, a member of the Advisory Committee, said he received a lot of input while sitting outside the JE dining hall. He added that his girlfriend, who went to Emory, said “not nearly as many people would have cared” enough at her alma mater to give their opinions about such a project, and that the level of interest is impressive considering that all current Yale students will have graduated by the time it’s completed.
What’s on the Program?
In his donation, Schwarzman provided a significant budget for “a small dedicated staff” to coordinate activities and programming within the student center. What exactly the programming will be, and how it will differ from what is currently offered, is still undecided. The “Imagine Schwarzman” PowerPoint envisions a “virtual lunch” with Sotomayor, who last spoke in Woolsey Hall in 2014. Notable guests who give Master’s Teas could make second appearances for a large audience in the Schwarzman Center. “Foodie events,” perhaps modeled on last year’s Final Cut competition, could take place in Commons dining hall. Although administrators and members of the Advisory Committee cited these examples, they said that programming decisions are pending input and ideas from the Yale community.
Berkeley College Master Marvin Chun is the only college master serving on the Advisory Committee, and while he says he doesn’t officially speak for the Council of Masters, he represents the masters’ perspective. When asked if the Schwarzman Center will be able to provide truly innovative programming, he said, “If it’s not more than we have, we haven’t fulfilled our potential.” However, Chun also stressed that the Schwarzman Center will provide space for established activities the residential colleges can no longer accommodate.
The Center could serve members of the New Haven community, such as high school performing groups or visitors who need to “grab a cup of coffee,” in a way that no building at Yale currently can. While athletic facilities are already open to the New Haven community, Chun said there is “a whole cultural world out there we aren’t able to serve in the same way,” because Yale doesn’t have a cultural center comparable to its athletic facilities.
“As someone who’s a parent in New Haven, I would love for my kids to be able to come here,” he said.
At a meeting between the Advisory Committee and the Yale dance community, Eliza Dach ’17 said attendees discussed the necessity of more spaces where dancers can practice. Dancers “see and care how the space could change the future of the groups they are in now,” she said. She added that space is always a pressing need because “there are so many dance groups vying for the few spaces we have.”
Even if they can’t say exactly what kind of novel programming the Schwarzman Center will offer, those planning its creation are adamant about the necessity of new common student spaces, and the potential of the Schwarzman Center to provide them.
Currently, many student organizations meet in residential college spaces, such as Yogis at Yale, who meet in the Berkeley basement, or the various performing groups that use the Saybrook Underbrook or the Morse Crescent. However, these spaces are no longer sufficient to house student activities.
“Residential colleges are used to the maximum and we still don’t have enough spaces,” said Branford Master Elizabeth Bradley. Chun concurred that some kind of centralized space will benefit student groups that are not tied to a particular college, or that include both graduate and undergraduate students. “People congregate to space,” he said. “Open space will break down boundaries” between colleges or schools.
The Schwarzman Center won’t just give undergraduates space — many feel that it will bring together students from Yale College and the graduate and professional schools in a new way. “I think one of the biggest impacts will be having a place where it’s not just grad students,” said Elizabeth Salm GRD ’18. In most places at Yale, “You see only grad students in your department.”
Events at the Schwarzman Center will be open to all University students, unlike some University spaces, and students who belong to different schools will be able to come together in a common space that belongs to everyone.
“All students will feel welcome,” said Lauren Tilton GRD ’16, who is also a member of the Advisory Committee.
Tragedy of the Commons?
But not all students are welcoming the arrival of the Schwarzman Center.
Fifteen of 16 students interviewed did not think the Schwarzman Center was necessary, and 13 said that the money could be better spent on financial aid or research, two areas which students often feel are underfunded.
Hannah Schmitt ’18 said she was skeptical of the fact that Schwarzman donated money for infrastructure to a university that already has state-of-the-art facilities.
“There’s a universe of better things you could do with that money,” she said, noting that it might be better spent on initiatives that help underprivileged or minority students at Yale.
Another qualm voiced by some students concerns Blackstone Group’s business practices following the housing crisis. In 2013, Blackstone, an asset management group, purchased about 50,000 foreclosed homes. After renovating the houses, they rented them out, and are currently expanding their role as a commercial landlord. An Occupy.com article on the subject, which accused Blackstone of “capitalizing on the housing crisis” surfaced on “Overheard at Yale” in May and sparked a lively discussion, during which students both criticized and defended Blackstone’s actions.
However, Christine Anderson, the managing director of Blackstone Group’s public affairs arm, said that, while certainly profitable to Blackstone, the decision to buy the houses, which were “sitting around vacant, falling into disrepair,” has actually helped many communities. She drew attention to Blackstone’s hiring of 10,000 local contractors to renovate the homes, which has helped to raise property values in their communities.
“[It’s] great for these local communities,” she said.
Tyler Blackmon ’16, a staff columnist for the News, said the project shows that Salovey is cultivating “a legacy of expanding Yale physically,” through the two new residential colleges as well as the Schwarzman Center, rather than expanding access to Yale. Yale tuition has risen since Salovey took the reins.
“It’s on Yale,” Blackmon said, “because Yale isn’t soliciting [large donations] for financial aid.” He notes that Access Yale, Yale’s financial aid initiative, is less publicized than enormous gifts such as those of Schwarzman and Charles Johnson ’54 to build the two new residential colleges.
Administrators say that Schwarzman and Yale are still committed to serving a diverse population of students. Christine Anderson of Blackstone Group said that Schwarzman sees the student center as a “transformative” project that will “help a huge population of students for decades to come.” Lorimer added that Schwarzman also contributes significantly to scholarship initiatives, including a $40 million gift to the Catholic Diocese of New York’s Inner City Scholarship Fund, announced on Tuesday.
Administrators pointed out that although the Schwarzman Center is an infrastructure project, it will promote educational initiatives, just as funds dedicated to scholarships .
“It’s hard to imagine that the Schwarzman Center won’t have vibrant educational, intellectual and cultural programming,” said Lorimer.
Making the Grad(e)
The Hall of Graduate Studies is in use almost every part of the day. Classes meet there daily, the dining hall serves lunch and dinner and the Blue Dog Café is usually occupied by coffee-drinkers tackling papers. Perhaps most significant and least evident to undergraduate students, the McDougal Center for Student Life is located there, and 168 graduate students live in the building.
However, all this is slated to change in the next few years. In January, Provost Ben Polak announced plans to renovate HGS, and beginning in 2017 significant changes will be made to the building, which is the closest thing graduate students have to a student center. The students currently living in the building will be relocated to a dormitory that will be built in what is currently a parking lot on Elm Street, as well as to apartments in Swing Space. The McDougal Center and its associated functions will also be relocated, but its new location has not yet been announced.
Graduate and professional students have experienced a number of unfulfilled needs which undergraduates tend to take for granted. For example, HGS does not serve meals on weekends, which means that in order to use their meal plans, the graduate students living there — who do not have swipe access to the residential colleges — have to wait outside the gates of a residential college for an undergraduate to go in and then enter with them, a process many have said is tedious and frustrating. Students at the medical school who live on campus face similar predicaments come the weekend.
Graduate students also lack round-the-clock access to libraries and study spaces that undergraduates have in residential colleges. Tilton pointed out that humanities graduate students studying at Sterling Memorial Library have to leave earlier than law students at the Law School Library. GPSS President Elizabeth Mo GRD ’18 added that at the law school, student groups often have to book study rooms months in advance, and that the Schwarzman Center will do much to alleviate the need for space. The combined population of the various graduate and professional schools is far larger than that of the undergraduate student body, yet they lack access to many of the on-campus resources that undergraduates enjoy.
“I think one of the things we tried to highlight was that there’s different access to different spaces at different times of day for the different schools,” Tilton said. She thinks this problem could be solved by one student center providing shared space with a common schedule for all schools.
To that end, in 2013, the YCC, GSA and GPSS joined together to create a report advocating for the creation of a student center. The report, presented in 2014, recognized the need to create a space where students could “meet, learn, eat and congregate,” and compiled a list of similar universities that already had student centers. The ad hoc committee formed to create the report was the first group that combined student leaders from the three assemblies.
Graduate students say that opinions about the Schwarzman Center are both informed and complicated by the upcoming renovations to HGS. While they hope to gain much from a new student center, some are “alarmed” that discussion of the Schwarzman Center is a distraction from concerns about where the McDougal Center will be and what exactly the housing options will be for graduate students after 2017.
“With all the focus on the Schwarzman Center, there’s less talk about what’s going on with HGS,” said Salm. Even with a student center, a graduate-specific space is still crucial to many. Amanda Lerner GRD ’18 compared concern about the changes to HGS to the feeling that undergraduates might have if a residential college were taken away. “[I’m] very eager to learn exactly what will happen with the location of the McDougal Center, [and to] know where our one dedicated space is going to be,” she said.
“It’s not a viable option to maintain HGS” as is, Salm added. “We just want to know we’re being heard.” That’s why, said Mo, “it’s important to get this planning phase perfect” and to acquire ideas and feedback from all of the graduate and professional schools. Mo feels that concerns about graduate-specific needs, such as weekend dining at the Schwarzman Center, are being received well by other members of the committee and the administration.
“I get excited about having a place that’s a central convening spot,” said Godoff. Most graduate students seem to agree.
How the Cookie Crumbles
Daisy Massey ’19 stopped by a table outside the JE dining hall where members of the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee were soliciting student opinion. “I just wanted a free cookie,” she said, but the food offerings drew her in. Massey filled out a questionnaire and left with several “Imagine Schwarzman” stickers. Her opinions, and those of the other students, will influence the course of a project that as yet only exists in artistic renderings, and will only be fully realized once she, and all current students, have left Yale. Most student groups try to rope people in with Insomnia cookies every so often, but this might prove the most influential batch yet.