A university has a powerful ability to shape the minds of its students. It must responsibly create a world within its boundaries that approximates its idealistic vision for the world at large. While Yale has done a commendable job fulfilling its mission to provide students with a balanced liberal arts education, in one distinct area the University’s mission statement and the reality of University life do not harmonize. Yale’s campus design contradicts its mission to cultivate a “sympathy of spirit” among its undergraduates, whom the University hopes will “learn to live with those different from themselves, to appreciate their gifts, and to tolerate their flaws — [to be] forced, by proximity, to develop their social and civic skills.” Instead, Yale’s campus design and buildings promote a culture of privilege, exclusivity and segregation antithetical to the University’s mission.
Yale’s built environment reflects a history of Balkanization. The secret societies littered across campus since 1832 display the ideals of exclusivity and privilege most overtly. Cloaked by the massive stone walls of windowless tombs, societies are designed to fortify and protect inhabitants from the 90 percent of Yalies who will never join their ranks. The tombs’ central locations and pristine maintenance indicate their primary significance to the University.
Meanwhile, fraternities at Yale have been relegated to the campus fringe. In 1838, Psi Upsilon, one of Yale’s first fraternities, was founded off of York Street. Over the years, however, the frats have been forced off campus, mostly towards Lake Place (behind the gym and near a public housing development) and Lynwood Street, the dark, dangerous area beyond Pierson. While at many other universities (such as Vanderbilt and Wake Forest) fraternities are housed in centrally located, university-sponsored buildings, the location of Yale’s fraternities emphasizes their peripheral importance and separates them from the rest of Yale.
Other forms of residential and social separation have been literally built into Yale. In 1852, the Sheffield Scientific School began its roughly 100-year tenure at Yale, and with it began 100 years of competition between “Sheff” students and members of Yale College. The degree of rivalry and condescending attitudes between the students prompted one Yale administrator to call the schools “two separate countries on the same planet.”
Despite all of its advantages, the residential college system, begun in the 1930s, also promotes a culture of exclusion at Yale. Students become possessive of their dining halls, gated courtyards and basement amenities as if they have a special right to them. Every college participates in a rivalry, which breeds spiteful competition on the intramural fields. At the most basic level, students may feel that they have less in common with Yalies from different residential colleges, making it harder to form friendships outside of the college.
As recently noted by the Committee on Yale College Education, the Yale campus also segregates academic fields. Since the 1950s, the psychologically and literally distant location of Science Hill from Yale dorms has contributed to the serious intellectual divide between humanities and science majors. While the trek up Science Hill discourages students from attending class there, many others decline the voyage to the art buildings on the other side of campus, making it difficult to take classes in both science and art at Yale.
Finally, the location and condition of Yale’s cultural houses betray the lamentable cultural and ethnic division common to Yale. Most cultural houses since their inception in the late 1960s have been exiled to Yale’s dangerous perimeter, much like the fraternities. While white students are often invited to ethnic food parties, cultural shows and speaker events at the houses, many choose not to attend, mainly because of the houses’ distance from dorms. In addition, the houses have a history of maintenance problems (in 1996, for example, the roof of the Asian-American Association collapsed) to which the administration has been slow to respond.
Yale’s disinvestment in its cultural houses and fraternities, the polar locations of its science and art facilities, and the residential college system and secret societies have all contributed to an atmosphere of division and exclusion on campus.
Everyone knows that Yalies are destined for positions of power, ones in which they will have a very real ability to shape the world itself. The decisions that they make will be a reflection upon their time spent at Yale, where they molded their ethical and ideological mindset. Right now, Yale produces graduates who, consciously or not, have lived their critical college years in an atmosphere of intellectual, residential, social and ethnic division, caused by the design of the University’s campus.
If the University really wants to promote a “sympathy of spirit” between all of its students, it must make a concerted effort to change its campus. First, Yale must reinvest in its cultural houses and fraternities. Most importantly, however, I call on Yale administrators to create a true student center where Yalies of every affiliation can come together. Common to most other colleges in the United States, a centrally located student center would be an essential first step towards ending exclusion at Yale. Including meeting spaces, a performance space, entertainment facilities and a kitchen, a student center would promote a culture of inclusivity and integration currently lacking here, mainly thanks to the residential college system of which Yale is so proud.
David Gest is a senior in Silliman College.