When Stiles was King

Gray T-shirts branded with the guarantee: “100% Organic.” Maroon sweatshirts that read: “Gnome is where the heart is.” Blue baseball caps displaying “THE HOUN” on the back. Green T-shirts printed with “i like silliman” across the chest. When the students who own these articles of clothing leave Yale’s campus, no one in their hometowns will understand the significance of their apparel. No one will recognize the distinctive Morse axe or the rampant lion of Timothy Dwight. But all Yalies know that these symbols and slogans are not just fashion statements, but declarations of residential college pride.

The system is drawn from the ancient Cambridge and Oxford universities in England, where town blends with gown and the colleges are scattered throughout the city, each one maintaining a distinct personality. Yale’s residential college system was also influenced by the house system of Harvard, in which students choose their houses after freshman year. The residential college system was created to foster cohesion: giving students smaller communities where the faces are familiar, students dine together and the deans and masters work to ensure the welfare of each student. Each college was meant to have a different identity — architecturally, academically, and socially — lending richness to the overall college experience.

In many ways, the Yale college system has been a success. Almost immediately after the system was implemented in the 1930’s, President James Angell wrote, “The morale of the separate colleges as units was high. Strong esprit de corps had developed. Personal relationships between faculty and students had tightened measurably.” Thayer Addison, in a detailed review of Harvard’s house system, also noted the positive effects of this system of college housing in the early ’30s: “Thanks to the dining halls [of the colleges], eating has been sublimated from an irregular bodily function to a welcome opportunity for conversation and conference.”

This sense of community is certainly still prevalent today. But while most students laud the sense of community they receive as a result of the Yale college system, there is a definite current of resentment present in the undergraduate student body. There are those who believe that splitting the student body into 12 residential colleges can only lead to fragmentation and jealousy. The concept of residential college inequality — i.e. the belief that some colleges are just better than others, that there is an unfair distribution of resources across the colleges, and that the college experience in general is not equally enjoyable across colleges — is a popular and controversial topic of discussion among students. Two anonymous Ezra Stiles sophomores expressed their initial feelings of disappointment when they moved into their college. They saw yellow, dim hall lighting, general grime, backed-up shower drains: problems they believed could have been easily fixed without major renovations. The pair also lamented the lack of basement facilities and general college activities. Nevertheless, they assured me they enjoyed the college’s proximity to Yorkside and Science Hill, and they told me they believed their fellow Stilesians to be generally superior to the residents of any other college. Two Morse seniors listed similar reasons for resenting their own experiences of the college system. One noted that upon visiting the Pierson basement, he nearly drooled, gaping at the college’s multi-level gym. He then turned to me, “I mean … we should pay less.” He also mentioned that at the senior dinner for graduating Morsels, the Morse master had referred — tongue-in-cheek — to “the beautiful Morse College.” The seniors booed. Philip Falk ’06 also joined in the expression of dissatisfaction. The beautiful Branford common room, he said, is worlds away from the disheveled and dingy Morse common room. “Morse can make a couple of big steps: lighting, windows, overall feel.” Also, he explained, it’s impossible to play soccer or Frisbee inside Morse because it lacks any flat open spaces in its irregular courtyard.

Many faculty members and alumni see this sense of discontentment and perceived inequality as a new trend among Yalies. According to Berkeley College Master John Rogers, when he was a student at Yale and a member of Saybrook College, it never would have occurred to him that someone in a different college was more fortunate. “We all felt attached and committed. Residential college envy hadn’t settled in as a permanent [feature] the way it is now,” he said. The group of elite colleges of the moment seems to consist of Berkeley, Davenport, Pierson, Branford, Saybrook and Timothy Dwight, give or take a few depending on your source. Why these colleges? Most are completely or primarily Gothic-inspired in their architecture, they look pretty, they have good facilities and they’ve been renovated. In fact, 180 members of these particular colleges have formed a facebook.com group known as “Your College is Ugly.” Their mantra expresses a feeling shared by much of the student body: “We are the arbiters of beauty. You [i.e., the other colleges] live in putrescence. We have right angles, inspiring architecture, and renovated colleges. You have new windows.”

It seems that most students believe there is inequality among the colleges. Nevertheless, the measure of this inequality varies depending on the observer. For some, this disparity is primarily an inequality in resources; for others it lies in the quality of food or housing, the size of the endowments, the convenience of the location, the beauty of the architecture or the extent of the renovation process. These standards of judgment are not new. In 1933, the first year of the residential college system at Yale, it was expressed in the meeting of the Council of Masters “that in this initial year of the plan, geography, location, quietness, and architectural popularity played a large role” in determining which colleges were desired by applicants. Most students seem to combine these factors in order to generate their assessment that some colleges are objectively better than others. Their theories on why this is so are varied.

For Carina del Valle Schorske ES ’09, an Ezra Stiles resident, the college system is positive “as a whole” since it provides smaller microcosms of Yale, but is at the same time “dramatically unequal.” She cited Davenport as an example of a “better” college: “It’s well-located, it has good architecture, a good dining hall.” She theorizes that because colleges like Davenport are better, their students will be happier, creating what Carina sees as “a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Happy alumni will give to these colleges, causing the colleges that are “better anyway” to blossom further. An anonymous student from the freshman class of Ezra Stiles also expressed reservations about the equality of the system of residential colleges: “The inequality also comes from the legacy [factor]. Certain colleges are more legacy dominated.”

According to Silliman College Master Judith Krauss, who is the chair of the Council of Masters, the reasons for differences between the colleges’ endowments “are better explained by history than by any measurable contemporary differences. Early in the residential college history, students could choose their college. … This meant that each college had a more homogeneous culture — the artists, scientists, jocks, musicians. … This also meant that there was more of a social class difference among colleges, with certain colleges attracting students from wealthy families. These early days laid the groundwork for differences in donations and the eventual size of endowments.”

In speaking with Branford College Master Steven Smith, I learned that the masters do recognize that there are significant differences between the colleges. Each has different advantages: “Some have deeper pockets …. Berkeley is at the top of the food chain.” But Master Gary Haller of Jonathan Edwards College, the wealthiest college, assured me that college masters are not ignoring this fact. According to Master Haller, the Council of Masters is making “a real effort to try to make the residential colleges more equal. Those colleges with a lot of money don’t get general appropriation sums. It used to be that one-twelfth [of the sum] went to each college, but a few years ago, [it was decided] to take into account the discretionary funds of colleges [the endowments of the individual colleges]. This decision went a long way to making things equal.” Master Krauss, the chair of the Council of Masters, corroborated this statement, noting that this redistribution of general funds has “pretty much leveled the playing field when it comes to being able to fund activities and the like.” As the master of the wealthiest college, Master Haller “has tried to use those funds across colleges.” He cited the $4,000 summer traveling fellowships funded by JE each year that can be awarded to any student in Yale College. Master Haller is also often approached to underwrite operas or plays, even though they may not be produced by JE students. He often approves the proposals of students and faculty and has even collaborated with the Yale University Art Gallery in hosting exhibitions.

But many of the masters said they feel that so-called residential college inequality is not a problem that merits as much attention as students seem to think it does. Many said that the bitterness between students of different colleges “seems to be a recent feeling,” despite the fact that today it “seems [that] there is much more equality.” In fact, Master Smith referenced Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of “Democracy in America,” noting that “the more equality there is, the more people feel grieved by minor inequalities.” As I learned from the master, in the past, the colleges were not only more unequal in terms of the level of their facilities, but it was difficult for a student to even get access to a college that was not his or her own as recently as two decades ago. The renovation process has opened up the colleges and led to “greater awareness.” Students are now more knowledgeable of the facilities of each college. Master Smith also stressed that the colleges are now more equal in terms of their student makeup, not just in their physical makeup. “Each college in the old days had a certain identity: artsy, jocks, music, blue-blood.” Though vestiges of some of these characterizations survive today, “every college is [now] a microcosm of the Yale class.” The random assignment process “has made them much more similar. [It has been] a great force of equalization.” He hypothesized that students tend “to focus on the much smaller remaining differences.” In reality, “the struggle today is very much on maintaining diversity among the colleges and retaining the local options” that so characterize the Yale college system.

Master Rogers reminded me that the preferences of the student body are fickle and subjective. In the ’80s, Morse and Stiles were new and in vogue: “They were enviable [for] the number of singles, by far the best food and the newest kitchens, but better food didn’t translate into a profound resentment.” Master Rogers was implicitly referring to the widespread envy surrounding Berkeley’s implementation of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. As I learned from Grace Hsieh ’07, this bitterness on behalf of non-Berkeleyites was not at all anticipated when the program began. When Alice Waters, the famous chef and owner of the Chez Panisse restaurant, came up with the idea of introducing the Sustainable Food Project to Yale’s dining halls, Master Rogers and his wife Cornelia were excited to take on the risky experiment. Master Rogers and his wife had already been working with Berkeley’s dining services, and Cornelia had created a “recipes from home” program that brought the favorite family dishes of the students to the dining hall. In fact, Master Rogers told me that it was not considered certain that the project would even be successful: “There was no student majority support. They would have fewer options. We had a conviction.” The tasty, organic food in Berkeley is not the result of unfair favoring but is rather the well-received product of a daring venture taken by the administration of the college.

In response to the Gothic obsession consuming Yale’s current undergraduate population, Master Rogers said that it was really quite silly to say that “some faux medieval buildings built during the Depression are necessarily better than the magnificent structures of Morse and Stiles.” He concluded: “The differences among colleges that used to be universally seen as key to the success of the entire system are now seen simply as inequalities and not as differences. This is unfortunate. … It is not remotely demonstrable that a college with a big endowment has happier students. … If it were really the case that architecture and quality of food really determined the happiness in the colleges, there is no way that Stiles would always be the intramurals leader. Their students would be so undernourished and unhappy that they wouldn’t even be able to bring themselves to the game!”

Ezra Stiles College Master Stuart Schwartz also provided a realistic view of the differences between the colleges. He and the other masters do not want the colleges to be identical. What they want to ensure is “some kind of rough equality across the colleges. What we are looking for is parity.” Master Schwartz also pointed out that the rivalry between colleges is “a construct. Styles change; opinions change. There is nothing inherent about opinions and styles.” He also stressed that the colleges are there to create a sense of community that comes from the personality of the master and dean and the simple closeness of the students living together in the college. “Ultimately, what makes the college is your friends. That’s what you’ll remember at your reunions.” He suggested that the current angst regarding the differences between the colleges should be tempered: “The residential college system does a lot of positive things. It is not given by God. It is not part of the natural order of things. It needs to be kept in perspective.”

In addition to the more positive perspectives of the college masters cited above, the students of Yale College have also demonstrated that they can rise above petty feelings of residential college envy. It is clear that most Yalies nourish a fierce love of their own college, despite its particular flaws. Intramurals are intensely competitive, and each team wants to bring glory to its own college. More importantly, Yalies love their friends, regardless of where they live, and for most of them at least some of the students in their college end up becoming their friends. Once again, facebook.com proves to be a remarkable indicator of student feeling. The site is bristling with groups dedicated to the propagation of college pride, like the widely popular “Stiles: We Produce Tyng Cups” group, which boasts 289 members. One student apparently became fed up with the bickering of his classmates over the relative merits of the colleges and started a group called “Morse and Stiles Are Actually Kinda Awesome.” His creed: “I’m sick of hearing all about the ‘good’ colleges versus the ‘bad’ ones, especially Morse and Stiles. These colleges get slammed the worst because they look different. This is racism. Personally, I think they fuckin’ ROCK, that the architecture is cool, that cool people live there, and that the food in Stiles is actually good. AND I’M IN SAYBROOK.”

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