Imagine you’re a high school senior. Imagine you want to come to Yale. Imagine you come up to New Haven with your mom, and you’re midway through your tour when suddenly someone asks: “Is the residential college system isolating?”
Easy question, right? The answer is a slam dunk for a tour guide — or anyone else trying to sell Yale. It goes something like this: “Yale is like a small town. The residential colleges are like your own neighborhood in that town. It gives you a built-in sense of community. And you can always visit any friends in the other neighborhoods, just like in your hometown.”
But these days, it’s getting hard to visit other neighborhoods. In fact, half the residential colleges restrict outsiders in some way from eating in their dining halls. This means, in essence, that when you are assigned to one residential college, you are also implicitly excluded from a host of others.
The problem is this: One college dining hall has been offline for each of the last few years — and will continue to be for the next six as colleges undergo renovations. The result is a perennial influx into the other dining halls, especially the renovated colleges that tend to be in higher demand. When Berkeley’s dining hall became swamped after instituting its Alice Waters-designed sustainable food project, it began limiting transfers. One by one, other colleges slowly followed suit. The sum total of these individual decisions is a mish-mash of policies that makes it difficult to know exactly where you can eat at any given meal.
Masters of colleges with restrictions claim to regret having them, dining hall workers detest enforcing them, and the majority of students find them to be an annoyance. This problem won’t just persist — it will get progressively worse. See, it’s in the interest of every residential college master to make sure his or her dining hall isn’t overcrowded. But if every residential college works purely in its own self-interest, the whole system is hurt. The residential college system is not supposed to filter the collective resources of the University into exclusive channels that only some students can benefit from. At its best, the residential college system works because it’s a great supplement to the larger University we attend.
This week, the Yale College Council passed a resolution calling for an end to all dining hall restrictions. Today, it will be given to the Council of Masters at their closed meeting. The economic rationale behind our proposal is that every residential college is an equal part of the Yale University Dining Services — which is where all our money goes. Pierson students pay the same amount as Calhoun students, but they’re not getting the same dining experience.
We’ve exempted Berkeley from the resolution, because it’s subsidized by the Berkeley Parents’ Fund and Berkeley College Council. That said, there is no reason why Berkeley cannot create a more reasonable transfer policy that protects its sustainable food project but also acknowledges that the college is part of a much greater whole. The best solution we’ve heard would be to allow a number of students from each residential college to swipe into Berkeley once every two weeks. Doing this on a rotating basis gives everyone a shot to eat in Berkeley without unduly straining the college’s resources.
If the Council of Masters agrees to abolish restrictions, we know the short-term result would be overcrowding in several dining halls. So here we must anticipate two logical complaints: First, what incentive would students in the “have” colleges have to submit themselves to this for more than a few weeks? And second, the hope is that the dining halls would reach an equilibrium after several weeks, but there is a possibility that they won’t. So why stay restriction-free even after that?
The answer to both is that this not about the food, or even the five or 10 extra minutes you have to wait in line. It’s about the fact that an arbitrary division has come to separate the Yale community as a whole. We know that this is the greatest place in the world to be a college student, but we also know that the dining system we have right now is far from ideal. The greatest college in the world shouldn’t have dining hall segregation of “haves” or “have nots” based on random assignment by the admissions office.
We came to Yale to be part of a residential college with an intimate environment that was a seamless part of a greater Yale. The current mess of dining hall restrictions threatens that experience. As the Council of Masters considers our proposal, we hope there will be a fundamental shift in how we look at this issue — a shift away from the individual and temporary, and toward the collective and the long-term. Restriction policies for one dining hall have ramifications for every other college, so these shouldn’t be made in a vacuum. And with renovations far from complete, we need to acknowledge that this isn’t a problem that will just go away.
If the status quo remains, the dining hall frustrations that so many students feel now will be the norm for years to come. Rather than running away from dining hall problems, it is long past time to turn and confront them head on. And there’s no more direct way to disentangle the maze of dining hall transfer policies then to end restrictions and end them now.
Steven Syverud, a junior in Branford, and Ryan Atlas, a sophomore in Branford, are members of the Yale College Council.