A little while ago, I participated in an activity in which a group of Yalies were asked to imagine a modern university. Armed with a theoretical endowment equal to Yale’s, we first jotted down ideas and then discussed, argued and formed coalitions. There were certain standard criteria to consider: What kinds of classes would be offered, and what academic requirements would be imposed? Where would the campus be located, what would the admissions office search for in its applicants and what would the university include in its rules and bylaws?
Then came the harder questions, touching on campus qualities that even the best policies cannot strictly control. What social pressures, politics and fashions would exist at our new, modern university? What kinds of students did we hope to craft? What world were we preparing them for?
The universities that we created seemed thrilling for the sheer freshness and variety of the ideas they embodied. These ranged from the classic — a Socratic system of mentorship, an oratory and rhetoric requirement, a mandatory DS-like core — to the brilliantly zany. One team proposed a university with two campuses, one located on a farm to teach practical skills and encourage physical exploration, the other in a city. Another group wanted to forbid its students from putting their extracurricular achievements on a resume in order to reduce competition and discourage them from seeking meaningless titles. Requirements that students work in dining halls or help the maintenance staff during their academic careers were instituted.
Still, I didn’t notice many consistencies between the various fantasy universities until I thought back to Yale itself, the essential point of comparison for all of our own institutional innovations.
Yale began to imagine itself as a modern university in the 1960s, when Kingman Brewster and his colleagues tossed out the stale, elitist admissions policies that kept old money in and merit out. The campus has gone through a number of transformations since then, and, as the scaffolding sprouting up everywhere attests, we are currently witnessing the school’s greatest period of reinvention in decades.
Yale’s approach to modernization has by now become immediately recognizable. The keyword is expansion: expanded physical space, a diversified student body, a wider course selection, increased emphasis on internationalization. The 21st-century Yale wants to establish itself as far more than an American academic institution. It wants to work its way onto the global stage, to be respected as a substantial player in world affairs.
We, the students, are apparently not so sure that this is such a good idea. When compared to Yale’s own model of modernity, it became clear that the universities that my fellow Yalies and I had proposed were united by a conspicuous absence of any drive to expand. Indeed, many of the models seemed downright traditional in comparison to what Yale is trying to achieve. This suspicion has only been confirmed by the student body’s consistently negative reaction to the proposal of two new colleges, which we worry will dilute the cohesive spirit of the existent college experience. Really, it seems that when we go about imagining a modern university for ourselves, we’d rather leave the modernity part out of it altogether.
No one can call Yale’s approach to a changing world inappropriate. If we want to keep our spot as one of the world’s top educational institutions, we must be willing to re-evaluate ourselves and update accordingly. But administrators must recognize the legitimacy of its students’ concerns.
The benefits of speedily modernizing can be great. So can the pitfalls. We will gain nothing if we don’t take the best parts of Yale’s past into our future.
Students did not come out in droves to participate in the planned discussions about building new residential colleges. But Yale would be remiss in believing that students are apathetic as to how Yale changes. I urge the administrators to find out what kinds of changes students would like — and what elements of the current college life they consider indispensable.Hold discussion groups that avoid focusing on specific policy questions and ignore realistic constraints. Ask us to design our ideal university. Try to find out what changes, even small ones, we believe could work on this campus. Even examine the bigger, outrageously impossible ideas to see what values and needs they express.
The University can only benefit by encouraging its students to think creatively and without inhibitions about Yale’s future.
Alexandra Schwartz is a junior in Saybrook College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.