When Yale describes undergraduate life to prospective freshmen, it explains how residential colleges provide a new home for students without preventing them from experiencing the rest of the campus. And when students sign up for a meal plan upon enrolling here, they are told that they are eligible to eat in all 12 colleges — not just the one they were assigned to.
In principle, that is how the residential college system is supposed to work: Students eat most of the time in their own dining halls but maintain the freedom to go elsewhere when they want to visit friends, meet new people or simply experience a change in scenery. In practice, though, a very different system has emerged. The change began when a few dining halls decided they were too crowded and closed their doors at peak hours to students in other colleges. In recent weeks, this practice has spread, making open dining halls the exception, rather than the rule, on Yale’s campus.
It is easy to see why the restrictions have been put into place. The primary reason is the sometimes vast disparity in quality and convenience of the different dining halls, which naturally makes some more popular than others. Berkeley, centrally located and blessed with organic food, presents the most obvious example, but nearly all the recently renovated dining halls have now imposed some form of restrictions. The policies are also becoming more and more strict, with some colleges refusing to allow residents to bring in guests at some meals.
The result has been an domino effect — one dining hall closes its doors to the outside world and, soon afterward, others follow to prevent the overflow from being diverted into their kitchens. Colleges choosing to remain open to all students become the biggest losers in this race to the bottom, with their students shut out from the rest of campus even as they become more crowded.
Dining hall managers cannot do the impossible. Sometimes, a dining hall is simply too crowded, and we understand that colleges feel the need to act when a shortage of food or space could mean turning their own residents away. But when a college decides to close the doors to its dining hall, it affects the entire campus. Currently, though, no incentive exists beyond sheer goodwill for residential colleges to forgo restrictions.
For us, the solution lies in looking at the problem as one that affects all of Yale College, not just the individual residential colleges. If, on a given day, a dining hall fills beyond its capacity, it should have the right to temporarily turn away students from other colleges as an emergency measure. But if colleges are going to create an established policy of exclusion, they should do so in consultation with the masters of other colleges, Yale University Dining Services and the Yale College Dean’s Office. When a college decides to close its doors, it should be required to explain to the rest of Yale exactly why restrictions are necessary, and how its policies will place the least possible burden on students in other colleges.
On a campus undergoing continual renovations, some dining hall restrictions may be inevitable, but that does not mean colleges should take them lightly. Yale prides itself on creating an open campus where the walls of its colleges are never confining. A few busy tables in its dining halls should not change that.