This past Saturday, I met a student from the School of Management for the first time. I also met my first would-be actor from the School of Drama, and first future doctor from the Medical School. The context for all these encounters? A “random dinner,” organized bythe Graduate and Professional Student Senate, at which students from various Yale graduate schools came together for a potluck meal — as well as the opportunity to meet other graduate students from across the University. Not surprisingly, everyone at the random dinner had a wonderful time. The people were interesting and outgoing, the topics of conversation rich and varied, the range of backgrounds and interests spectacular (and even the food was palatable). In the end, we all left the dinner with a heady, exhilarating feeling that this was what University life is all about.
Unfortunately, events like the random dinner are the exception rather than the rule at Yale. Within the graduate student community, the various schools (GSAS, Law, Medicine, etc.) resemble medieval fortresses, self-sufficient and isolated from the outside world, occasionally deigning to exchange emissaries with neighboring duchies. I know no more than a handful of graduate students outside the Law School — and that is considered being well-connected by the standards of the Yale graduate community. If anything, the gulf between graduate and undergraduate students is even wider. The few graduate students who serve as RAs and TAs get to know undergrads, but many Law and Medicine and Management School students blithely spend years in New Haven without even setting foot in a residential college.
The most frequent response to this situation is: So what? Who cares if business school students don’t mingle with med students, or if undergrads ignore the more mature (and, some would say, more boring) grad students? The only answer is the earnest one: By failing to meet and engage their peers across the University, students at Yale are being deprived of the essence of the liberal education. Law students never fully face the implications of medicine or economics for their profession. Business school students do not temper their entrepreneurial spirit with the humanist values of the philosophers. Graduate students as a whole, to quote the Guide to Yale & New Haven, “feel that they are not part of the ‘real Yale.'” And undergraduates lose the opportunity to consult with grad students about their academic and professional goals, and to profit from the experiences of people who were in their shoes not too long ago. As a result, the ideal of the University — scholars of all subjects coming together to learn from one another — is tarnished. And Yale’s different schools become little tubs standing on their own bottoms, rather than interlocking parts of a dynamic whole.
One radical solution is for Yale’s residential colleges to become more like the Oxford and Cambridge institutions on which they are supposedly based. At Oxford and Cambridge, the colleges house not only all the undergraduates, but also all the graduate students and many of the professors. Students still go off to their separate schools and departments for classes, but return home to a college community composed of students of all interests and ages. This system allows graduate students of all disciplines to interact constantly with one another, and also encourages undergrads and grads to mingle — in the dining halls, at college parties, on intramural sports teams, etc. Were Yale to adopt the Oxbridge collegiate system, many of the problems I have identified would disappear in one fell swoop.
It is not very likely, though, that Yale will upend its entire institutional structure any time soon. In the absence of drastic change, a variety of smaller steps should be taken. The residential affiliate program should be dramatically expanded, so that each college houses dozens of graduate student affiliates instead of only a handful. Student groups should open their membership rosters, and publicize their activities and events, to all interested members of the Yale community. Far more extensive structures for undergraduate advising by grad students should be established. The various graduate schools should organize many more community-wide academic and social events. And, of course, the random dinners initiated by the Senate should become a staple of graduate student life.
President Richard Levin often makes Yale sound like a brand, or like an especially ambitious multinational corporation. Its “goal is to become a truly global university,” and it seeks “to contribute mightily to domestic and global prosperity.” Levin should remember, though, that the University’s strength does not ultimately stem from its prestige or its endowment or even its contributions to the world. It arises, rather, from countless little events like the one I attended last Saturday — each one creating ties that were not there before, and helping to build a common foundation on which Yale’s many separate tubs can stand together.
Nicholas Stephanopoulos is a first-year student at Yale Law School.