Unless you have been under a rock for the past month, you will undoubtedly have heard that Yale has begun the process of looking into the construction of two new residential colleges. As the vice president of the Yale College Council, I have been close to some of these discussions. For full disclosure, my role has been limited to choosing students to serve on the two standing committees — the Committee on Academic Resources and the Committee on Student Life — that will assess the feasibility of going through with the plan. I have also followed the discussion in this newspaper, at the Yale Political Union debate last week and informally among friends, waiting for someone to bring up what I see as a glaring omission in these talks: the effect of the new colleges on the New Haven community and, specifically, on the Dixwell neighborhood.
The discussion of the colleges thus far has been nothing short of giddy. How could Yale ever function without that magical number of 12 colleges? And can you imagine walking more than five minutes to get to the library? Or living in your college freshman year like those miserable students in Silliman or TD? And just what would this do the competitiveness of our a cappella groups? In a word, the debate has been exclusively Yale-centric.
To be honest, it is hard to think outside the bubble. Yale is our world, after all. The effect that the new colleges would have on the Yale community is certainly important. But as important is the impact they would have on Dixwell. I hereby propose the creation of a third standing committee in this exploratory process: the Committee on Community Engagement.
Have we even asked anyone in Dixwell what they think about this? I raise this question because I simply do not know the answer. I do know, however, that a unanimous nod from the Board of Aldermen does not equal unanimous approval from the Dixwell community. In President Levin’s Feb. 8 e-mail to the campus about the colleges, he offered just one sentence about New Haven and did not mention Dixwell. He wrote, “A larger enrollment would have positive and perennial benefits for the economy of New Haven, arising from the expenditures of students themselves, the University’s expenditures on their behalf, and new employment opportunities.” My question is, have we considered or are we planning on considering what the negative aspects of this expansion might be, if at all?
It seems odd to me that the debate surrounding the effect of the Yale-New Haven Hospital Cancer Center’s construction a few blocks south of Dixwell in the Hill neighborhood was so much more widespread. Perhaps it was the ensconcing of the issue in last year’s Ward 1 aldermanic campaign, but the fact is that significant consideration was given to making sure the jobs the center created would go to New Haven residents, the environmental ramifications of its construction and the now defunct unionization process.
University expansion is not a phenomenon unique to Yale. About 75 miles down the road in Morningside Heights, Columbia University has addressed (perhaps by necessity) the impact its own campus expansion project — Manhattanville — would have on Harlem by devoting a section of its Web site to “Community Engagement.” Likewise, we should be sensitive to what New Haven residents in Dixwell think about Yale’s plans. As a university with a history of iffy town-gown relations, we have a responsibility to consider this aspect early in the debate.
In this vein, a discussion of crime has also been noticeably absent. While I would be the first to admit that New Haven, like most cities, is safe if you keep your wits about you, a 20-year-old New Haven resident named Robert Bennett was killed on Ashmun Street a few blocks away from where the colleges would be built. In a separate incident that weekend in November, Yale University Chaplain Rev. Frederick J. Streets’ son was shot. You may have read about the shootings in the News, but I for one have been hard-pressed to find follow-up articles either in this paper or in other local ones. At the very least, students who might live in Dixwell in the future should know how the shootings have been handled. I personally would like to know. The Yale Police Department’s new headquarters near where the colleges would be is not enough to address the incidence of crime in the Dixwell community, and we must do so before we build colleges, academic buildings or whatever else ends up on the Prospect Street plot.
Just as the new colleges would triangulate the campus geographically, so must we triangulate discussion of the new colleges by creating an additional Committee on Community Engagement. We need to involve the Dixwell community directly in this discussion. If the administration plans to consider or has already considered this dimension, it should tell us. So far, nothing has been said about Dixwell. The construction of the YPD’s Rose Center and the adjacent Dixwell-Yale University Community Learning Center are certainly good first steps, but much more needs to be done to engage the neighborhood before we even think about breaking ground in Dixwell.
Steven Engler is a senior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.