For its 50th birthday, Yale celebrated with a Latin discourse, recited at Commencement by Ezra Stiles Sr. 1746.
Its 100th birthday did not receive even that much.
Its 150th birthday was celebrated when Yale turned 149, and its 200th birthday featured a less-than-politically correct parade of stereotypes from Yale’s past.
For the past year, Yale has tried to create a grander celebration. As the University concludes its 300th birthday celebration this weekend, it will be with a little more pomp than a Latin oration and a little more circumstance than a forgotten anniversary.
Instead, the last hurrah in a yearlong birthday celebration will include a festival and showcase at the Yale Bowl, speeches by world leaders, including former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73, and a performance by the Counting Crows.
It will mark the end of a year of festivities that brought together a total of three presidents, generations of alumni, and scores of current students, faculty and staff.
And it will mark the end of a year of reflection for a maturing institution forever renegotiating its relationship with itself, its hometown and the world.
“I don’t overdo the importance of big ceremonial events like these — the real Yale is the Yale of every day,” Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead ’68 said. “But for all that, it’s instructive to think of the history of this place from time to time, and to see ourselves in relation to Yale’s past and future.”
The celebration began last October, with an “Opening of Yale” that featured large blue bulldog footprints painted on sidewalks around campus and a procession of students through Cross Campus. The weekend continued with a 300-pound cake in the shape of Old Campus, an address by Yale President Richard Levin, and 30 bulldogs courtesy of the Bulldog Club of Connecticut.
April brought another weekend of festivities, this time primarily for alumni. Former Elis from as far back as the Class of ’29 returned to their alma mater to hear speakers including Garry Trudeau ’70, Anita Hill LAW ’80 and former President George H. W. Bush ’48.
This final weekend was planned as the “party” event for students, who complained last spring about being left out of the weekends geared toward alumni.
In between the events, however, lay a year devoted as much to planning for the next 100 years as to celebrating the past 300.
In November, University officials announced plans to create the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, headed by former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott ’68. The center was officially launched in May at a celebration in Hong Kong.
That same day, the University announced that it would institute need-blind financial aid for international students. Designed to open Yale to students worldwide, the move was aimed at creating a truly international university, Levin said.
“When you look at the composition of the Yale class over the centuries, in the first century everyone was from Connecticut, in the second everyone was from the East Coast, in the third Yale went national,” Levin told the Yale Daily News in April. “It’s only natural that in the fourth century Yale will be international.”
The University also created an international scholarship program, the World Fellows Program, designed to bring students from around the world to Yale to study global issues.
As they eyed their role in the world, University officials also continued to change their image closer to home, in a city known for town-gown tensions.
Such changes were notably on display during last fall’s kickoff event, when Levin and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. fed each other pieces of the 300-pound Old Campus-shaped cake.
As it completes a year of celebrating the past and preparing for the future, Yale will roll into its next century with plans, potential and uncertainty.
There are the expected plans: the billion dollar investment in the sciences, the push for more global impact, and simultaneously an attempt to build a closer relationship with the city that houses it.
Then there are the possibilities and the potential watersheds already on the horizon. The coming months will see the expiration of major union contracts, a continued push by some graduate students for a union of teaching assistants, and the nearly unprecedented campaign of a local clergyman to win a seat on the Yale Corporation.
And there is the unexpected. If there was ever a moment when Yale’s future seemed to be coasting forward, that moment was shattered on Sept. 11. From then, the future of the nation and indeed the world lost a sense of certainty.
There was some question as to whether, in the wake of these attacks, the Yale celebration would go on. In the end, the institution that has weathered a revolution and two world wars will celebrate as planned.
For all the glances to the past and plans laid for the future during Yale’s 300th year, this weekend is for the present.
Said Yale College Council President Vidhya Prabhakaran ’03: “Happy birthday, Yale.”
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