Debate is swirling about the proposal for two new residential colleges, but the point of the debate is unclear.

Is it whether new colleges should be built? Or is it how?

In 2004, President Richard Levin suggested building two to four new colleges, and John Pepper, then Yale’s vice president for finance and administration, said to the News that he though the expansion would be inevitable, provided the Development Office could line up appropriate donors. “It’s a question of when, not whether,” he had said.

More recently, Levin announced in a Universitywide e-mail that he would form two committees to study expansion so that he “will be prepared to make a recommendation, one way or another, on the advisability of expansion.”

Which is it? Is it a question of “when, not whether,” or is it a question that can be answered “one way or another”?

The answer takes on immediate significance this week, as Levin prepares to name the committees tasked with discerning expansion’s impact on student life and academics.

Yale first planned for two new colleges in the early 1970s, but a hostile City Hall stymied that attempt. Wiser now, Yale secured the land and then announced its likely use. Yale’s Framework for Campus Planning suggests developing the western side of Prospect Street to link Science Hill with central campus, and a map outlining the campus’ suggested “uses framework” earmarks the proposed home of the new colleges for “Academic Residential” usage. This report was released in 2000, four years before Pepper called the colleges a “question of when,” and seven years before Levin organized committees to discuss the wisdom of expansion.

President Levin’s reasons for wanting to expand the college are very valid; the space and enrollment pressures that led the University to explore expansion in the 1970s have multiplied exponentially since then. But Levin’s claims that the job of the two committees is to determine the wisdom of expansion are disingenuous. It seems rather that the two committees will determine not whether, but how the University can expand the student body without sacrificing Yale’s academic integrity or unique campus culture.

This distinction adds importance to the committe’s estimate of expansion’s costs, both of the financial resources needed and of the intangible impact on the campus’ atmosphere. The two committees need to be forthright in their reports to ensure that any expansion that happens does so in a community that has not whitewashed or minimized the project’s long-term effects. The News would suggest that the committee consider surveying the undergraduate population to learn students’ concerns about expansion; three students cannot be comprehensive in reporting on and weighing the impact of two new colleges on the Yale experience.

The addition of new professors and a more global student body could surely benefit the College. But no one will benefit from understating the impact of building residences so far from central campus. Honestly exploring how to mitigate that change will be more productive than being disingenuous about whether that change will happen.