Here is one way to examine whether Yale should build two new residential colleges — a question that has taken center stage recently, with President Levin’s long-awaited official call to study the issue:
How can Yale open its experience to more young people without changing the experience?
Put differently: How can Yale expand its student body without expanding its physical campus?
Opening Yale to more students is wise and laudable. Yale’s applicant pool has almost doubled in the last decade. This growth is part of a broader trend: the swell in the pool of people who can and want to go to college, who dream of a few schools and who spend high school preparing assiduously to be qualified applicants to them.
Ultimately, this trend will create one of two situations. The first is what we have now: a ratcheting-up of the academically corrosive, spiritually unhealthy pressure on our teenagers. Levin told the News in February 2004 that he rued how “many outstanding students … we must turn down.” Anyone with siblings or friends in high school knows that only three years later, it is already significantly worse.
But in the second situation, the expanding of the worldwide college applicant pool would trigger the expanding of undergraduate populations. Without altering the souls of schools (Yale need not morph into UC Berkeley), subtle expansions would move the college process closer to the “American Dream”: a world in which all people get the wonderful experiences they deserve.
Yale could lead this democratization. Offering the Yale experience to about 175 more students per class is significant — but not so much as to alter Yale’s culture. Yale would remain a school where one can never know everybody, but where one can always know enough people to feel at home. Assuming Yale also committed to hiring enough new faculty to preserve Yale’s traditional focus on the student, the school’s culture would hardly change.
What would, however, change the Yale spirit is if the campus expanded along with the student body. That would be the effect of what many students fear is the frontrunner site for new colleges: the land Yale recently acquired behind the Grove Street Cemetery.
Then, Yale would truly be a “big school.” Consider the eight- to 10-minute walk, particularly unsettling in the dark, from Sterling Memorial Library to the site near Prospect and Sachem streets. Compare it with the two-minute walk from SML to Branford, or the four-minute walk to Timothy Dwight, which is already considered the most distant college. Either these new colleges would be too far from Yale’s center, or, as new classroom buildings and restaurants grew up around the new colleges, Yale’s campus would not really have a single center anymore. We would essentially have two undergraduate campuses, separated by the Grove Street Cemetery. We would lose the feeling of all going to school together.
Alternatively, we might decide we want to be a big school — or more precisely, that we are already a big school, as Science Hill attests. Whereas now, the fact that the campus feels centered around Cross Campus leaves science students to trek to an enclave, new student life near Science Hill would unify what is already de facto a large campus. The cost would be diluting the coziness at the heart of the Yale ethos.
We should enlarge our campus only if we want to, not as a side effect — or worse, a necessary evil — of enlarging the class size. If we do want to expand our campus, adding new colleges offers the perfect opportunity. But if we do not, then we must make a plan to expand the student body in a way that specifically avoids expanding our campus and upsetting its dynamic.
This way to expand will inevitably be the hardest. We should not resolve to enlarge in theory, and then settle for the easiest, not necessarily best, way to enlarge in practice.
The best plan would be to transform the Hall of Graduate Studies into one or two new colleges. The ideal location of HGS does more good as undergraduate housing than as a graduate facility. Undergraduate colleges need to be close to the ones that already exist, but graduate students can feel unified anywhere on campus.
Some HGS facilities could remain for graduate students, just as current colleges house fellows, masters and guest professors. A new graduate-student building would supplement this plan.
Other potential sites might include the space between Au Bon Pain and Stiles, the parking lot between the School of Music and Temple Street, and the area between York and Park streets next to Pierson. Yale would have to ensure that what occupies any of these spaces would be given a new home that would be just as good. Although difficult, this process would be well worth having the new colleges on the main campus.
At first, changing a building we already have into a new college may seem strange. But the original 10 colleges were built in a similar way. Silliman, for instance, includes facilities that previously served Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School for religious and social life. Saybrook’s dining hall is unusually long and narrow because it had previously been three stories of dorms.
There can be no halfway. Yale is not obligated to expand. But if we do, we must do so in the right way. The inconveniences in the present of doing so are well worth sparing ourselves the troubles that, by acting otherwise, we would build into Yale’s future.
Noah Lawrence is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.