After months of speculation, Yale officials confirmed this weekend that administrators are quietly conducting a study on the feasibility of building two new residential colleges.
Within the last few weeks, President Richard Levin has personally coordinated updates to an old study exploring the financial implications of adding new facilities and students to Yale’s roster, several officials said. While there has been no formal decision on the expansion, Levin has been working with Associate Vice President for Finance Janet Ackerman to gather input on the issue from various University departments ranging from Dining Services to the Financial Aid Office. The study will take a few months to complete, Levin said, and a final decision on the expansion is a long way off.
“This is a necessary first step even before opening the issue to wide public discussion,” Levin said Sunday evening. “We need to know what the costs are, for facilities, for operating them, but also to try to determine the related program costs, what departments need to expand, what facilities need to expand.”
Two years ago, Levin said the University was considering the addition of two to four colleges that would be built after the completion of renovations to the existing 12 colleges.
“There was some planning done several years ago when the idea first came about, but it’s been within the past month or so that the University has revived its potential interest,” said Ernst Huff, Yale’s associate vice president for student financial and administrative services.
Some high-level administrators said they were not aware of the study’s existence, and Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said the new colleges are not currently part of Yale’s fundraising priorities for its incipient capital campaign. But those participating in the study said it is broad in scope. Among the questions being asked are how staff levels might increase and how much funding would be needed to cover financial aid for additional students.
“The University is studying the proposal to build new colleges in all its aspects, including the effect on financial aid and student financial services,” Financial Aid Director Caesar Storlazzi wrote in an e-mail.
Those conducting the investigation are nearing a point at which they will be able to determine the colleges’ populations and internal design features, Huff said. The new colleges would house their own dining halls and otherwise stay consistent with Yale’s current residential model.
Huff said he did not know where the dormitories might be built or how many students they would house. But Physics Department chair Ramamurti Shankar said an administrator recently approached him about the possibility of a 10 percent spike in physics enrollment. A 10 percent increase in the undergraduate population would add about 530 students.
“I know that there was a talk, and I was asked by somebody in the administration whether the increased population could be managed by the Physics Department,” Shankar said.
The answer to the administration’s question, Shankar said, is that a larger student body would require more physics teachers and classroom spaces — an example of the major logistical hurdles Yale would face in bolstering its ranks.
The complications include enlarging everything from facilities to numbers of sports teams, Deputy Provost Charles Long said, which is why Yale might want to be discreet about raising the possibility of an expansion.
Long said he has not heard of the study, and has not noticed a recent increase in the level of discussion about new residential colleges. But alumni have expressed interest in the idea for years, he said, and Yale would not want plans for an expansion to linger in the public’s imagination without a clear understanding of the costs and benefits.
“Once the idea is in the air, you want to work on it quietly and quickly,” Long said. “You don’t want to create expectations that you do not want to fulfill.”
The last time the University tried to expand was in 1972, but New Haven officials thwarted its plans for two new colleges because they did not want the proposed site to fall under Yale’s tax-exempt status. Town-gown relations are much improved since then, as evidenced over the summer when Yale acquired development rights to a section of the Dixwell neighborhood behind Grove Street Cemetery. In exchange for contributing about $10 million to improve infrastructure around the area, the University was authorized to utilize the space for academic or residential purposes — including new residential colleges.
That addition to campus is near one of several areas identified in a 2000 study as possible sites for residential use. The study, called “A Framework for Campus Planning,” speculated about locations in which the University could expand but did not include the cost analysis involved in the current study.
Karyn Gilvarg, who heads the New Haven City Plan Department, said Yale is a long way from drafting permit applications detailing how it will develop the newly acquired property.
“Whatever use they put the land to, they have to design it first,” she said.
Long noted that the land offers extremely valuable expansion space for a variety of purposes, including social science buildings.
Provost Andrew Hamilton said he was not aware of the study, but that the University is “constantly” investigating possibilities that may or may not come to fruition.
“There is always the question of how might we as a university respond to that great pressure on our number of undergraduate places,” Hamilton said. “The goal of any study at a university like Yale is to look into what the possibilities are.”
Increasing the size of the student body is an attractive proposition, Long said, because it would extend Yale’s opportunities to more students and allow for a larger breadth of faculty.
“It’s always a temptation to say, ‘Is there an advantage to getting bigger?’” Long said. “The answer is almost always yes to that. The question is how much bigger, and where?”