Members of Yale’s present freshman class were sent a mailing this summer by the Dean’s Office, exhorting them to read “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria,” the subject of this year’s freshman address, delivered by psychologist Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum. Yale has a plethora of race-related “cohesion-promotion” activities; among them: counselors, forums, awareness programs and cultural houses. Yale — as with all college campuses — has problems with race. Yet the creeping and often-hidden apartheid here at Yale is the nefarious economic divide that is unwittingly perpetuated by the University administration.
The idea of engendering friendships across socioeconomic divides is one of the great and, hopefully, universal ideals of any modern academic community. The Yale of the early 21st century goes to some extent to fulfill this: need-blind admission, generous and somewhat flexible financial aid packages and a culture that cares more about who you are than whether it is out of necessity or choice that you wear a classless piece of clothing, such as a T-shirt. The divide, though, is clear. An exemplar of this apartheid is manifested in the wonder that is the new Bass Library Cafe in the former Cross Campus Library.
In theory, it is a brilliant and, in the most conservative sense of the word, leveling concept: to attract students to what is essentially a student center with hours and location that parallel the library. Whereas before the renovation, the poor kids sat and drank their Coca-Colas in the wilderness of “Machine City” and the rich kids went to Starbucks, now rich and poor alike can sit together in organic and sustainable harmony.
In recent weeks the “hot-place-to-be” Bass Library has looked rather like steerage class on the R.M.S. Titanic, but, in fact, it has the opposite effect. Some smart cookie decided that it would be a good idea to have the projected Library Cafe cater to the trendy “sustainable” crowd. So for that finals-busting midnight snack, a sandwich at the Library Cafe will set you back $7 but a slice of pizza at A1 on Broadway will cost less than $2. A “diabolo mocha” at the library will cost you something around the cost of a coffee at Starbucks, but at Yorkside on York Street you will pay only $1.50. So the rich kids will eat at the library, and the poor kids will go to McDonald’s, where a rather substantial Big Mac will cost them $3.22.
Yale has a myriad of silent endorsements of the economic divides of this campus. Its policy of insisting that all undergraduates who live in on-campus accommodation must subscribe to an expensive meal plan is but one. The result is not that everyone, regardless of income, eats exclusively in college dining halls. Rather, it is that some students frequently eat out, and “middle-class” students eat in.
Surely, a better solution would be to give students the flexibility to eat at Ivy Noodle rather than Commons, thus creating healthy competition between dining halls and local restaurants and allowing students to savor the company of their friends, whether or not they can afford to eat with them. Undergraduates would still eat in dining halls — for their convenience, aesthetic and atmosphere — but the poor kids would eat with the rich kids more often. Rushing between classes, poor kids go hungry or arrive late for class; rich kids buy $6 burritos or paninis at Au Bon Pain. Yale’s policy of issuing $50 fines to students who are tardy in handing in their schedules at the start of the semester has a similarly divisive effect. The result is that it is more punitive to some than to others. Effectively, some undergraduates have an extended shopping period.
Certainly, Yale has made vast strides in the direction of making inevitable economic differences matter less than they used to. Yale’s offer of tutoring in practically every academic subject, free at the point of delivery, and of access to high-quality but vital basic medical services are among the innovations that make this campus a more equitable community. Still, though, Mother Yale has a long way to go.
Think of the student in your class who didn’t buy the textbook and is instead fumbling with photocopies. Think of your suitemate from California who didn’t return home for winter break. Think of the kid who stayed behind when your debating club went to New York or Washington, D.C. to meet with prominent leaders in our national life or the jock who didn’t join the frat. Life is full of economic inequalities, but whether you pay $45,000 a year or your summer wages, Yale oughtn’t be thus.
F.E.E. Mocatta is a sophomore in Branford College.