Twice a century, Yale College gets a chance to reinvent itself. In the 1920s and ’30s, the University created the modern Yale College and its hallmark residential college system, borrowing from the ancient Oxford and Cambridge model. In the 1960s, Yale built Ezra Stiles and Morse, with a design that seemed like a good idea at the time — “borrowing” land from New Haven’s public high schools but relying on a decision process that in retrospect suffered from its lack of transparency.

Today, Yale stands at its first key crossroads of the 21st century, yet its decision process still lacks transparency, serves undefined strategic goals and risks ignoring the vigorous educational innovation, ironically, at one of its original paragons: Cambridge. Yale may choose to eschew its forebear’s successful record, but it should do so after at least considering the merits of Cambridge’s opt-in — and partially themed college model.

A brief look at this modern medieval university is instructive, particularly since it is also pursuing a multi-billion dollar (in Sterling) capital campaign, pegged to its 800th anniversary in 2009, to fund its latest and largest expansion. For two decades, the “Cambridge Phenomenon” has energized both the University and the formerly sleepy city of Cambridge in an extraordinary, ongoing burst of innovation, intellectual growth and technology-enabled economic development — a Renaissance lesson not to be lost in translation for New Haven.

Today, Cambridge has rejustified a thousandfold, at least the original vision its founding scholars saw when they fled the then-stifling clerical bureaucracy of Oxford in the early 1200s. In many ways, Cambridge now leads its older sibling both in innovation and in providing a superior all-around educational experience, particularly at the undergraduate level. Much of that superiority rests in how it has, since the 1960s, refocused its residential-college system and transformed its undergraduate education, leveraging technology and, in Cambridge’s Vice Chancellor (former Yale Provost) Alison Richard’s words, “experimenting with innovation.”

When Yale first adopted the Oxford and Cambridge college model — including granting all degrees at the University level — it adapted the model with three key differences:

Application and admission is of course to Yale College — rather than to individual residential colleges as in the English system.

Yale has maintained broad homogeneity among the 10, now 12, colleges rather than the somewhat unique personalities and missions that many colleges at Oxford and Cambridge have developed over the years.

The individual English colleges feature their own faculty and courses of instruction, with varying breadths, and generally host a larger complement of fellows and graduate students than Yale.

But for many years, this ancient university has embraced change rather than resisting it, unlike some of its younger protégés. Starting in the 1860s, it created its first all-female college, followed more recently by a number of innovations — many intended to provide student-focused choice and diversity. Today, of Cambridge’s 30-plus colleges:

Three are all-female.

Four admit more “mature” (>21) undergraduates.

Two admit graduate students only.

Two host technology and innovation centers, including both a science park and start-up facilities — but with Trinity as the college of Lord Byron and Lord Alfred Tennyson, and St. John’s as William Wordsworth’s home, neither has abandoned its humanist legacy.

Though all colleges admit students from diverse backgrounds — 15 percent of undergraduates and 50 percent of graduate students are non-British — numerous Web sites, e.g. Pembroke’s, focus on attracting multicultural students.

Queen’s and King’s both emphasize arts and entertainment, with extensive theatre, performance, cinema and studio spaces.

Girton, the first college to admit women in 1869, recast itself by going coed in 1977, and capitalizes on its location two miles from central Cambridge by featuring the best athletic facilities, including the only indoor swimming pool, a croquet lawn, cricket pitches, and rugby and football (soccer to us) fields.

Gonville and Caius, though Stephen Hawking’s home, nonetheless splits its matriculants 50-50 among arts and science majors.

Lastly, all have their own pubs, reinforcing colleges’ core role as social centers.

In short, Cambridge has been able to effectively balance tradition and innovation, arts and science, the past and the future, in ways that have deeply enriched both the academic and non-academic lives of its students, at all levels, as well as the surrounding community. Yale last looked across the pond for inspiration 80 years ago — and sent its provost over five years past. It’s time to give another look to our Cantab cousins.

Alison Richard, currently Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, has said that her transformed university has been both “magnet and catalyst” to the “Cambridge Phenomenon.” Yale, with the new-colleges decision and the Yale Tomorrow campaign, is at the cusp of defining Yale College education for the 21st century. The question at hand is whether it takes a backward-gazing decision, preserving the homogeneous college system as defined in the 1930s — which has served generations of students, ourselves included, quite well — or whether it embraces the future, with a forward-leaning decision.

The name of the $4 billion campaign is of course “Yale Tomorrow” not “Yale Today,” much less “Yale Yesterday.” A key use of campaign proceeds would be to fund the two new colleges, purportedly to increase capacity both to relieve the annex housing problem and to expand class size to better match supply and demand for a Yale B.A.

Expanding undergraduate class size and reducing junior year overcrowding may well be important, but they are very cramped, myopic goals, hardly worthy of the transformative vision outlined in the glossy Yale Tomorrow brochure. Whether this will effectively eliminate an eight percent admit rate supply-demand imbalance is dubious. But if the goal is merely expanding capacity to widen access to an Ivy League education, rather than to help shape the world’s preeminent undergraduate education for the 21st century, Ithaca and Hanover have a lot more undeveloped real estate.

The other reported rationale for the new colleges has been the need to expand performance and meeting space: again, admirable, if not transformative goals. Perhaps there are other objectives that the new colleges are intended to address, but Yale’s deliberative process, and the decision criteria, have been kept in a black box, hardly reflective of an era of transparency in both the corporate and academic worlds.

Yale gets about two bites of the apple, each century, to fundamentally rethink itself. We should not waste this chance at least to consider a forward-looking definition of what a Yale College education is, or should be. The two new residential colleges offer — in the sense of “experimenting with innovation’’ — a unique opportunity to stage this rethinking, without risking either Yale’s core mission or the 12 legacy colleges. In fact, the bigger risk may well be to do nothing different, and simply recreate one-sixth more of the past. Indeed, a modest proposal to maximize return on investment while merely expanding capacity is to replicate times two my favorite college, Pierson, as redesigned by our classmate Steve Kieran ’73, and plant them south of Ingalls, saving millions in design costs.

Alternatively, we can expand our planning horizons, whether across the Atlantic or otherwise. Closer to home, the Yale School of Management has named Lord Norman Foster ARC ’62 to design its expansion, with a specific mandate to create educational facilities for the “management education of the future.”

Should we adopt a similar innovation model for Yale’s new residential colleges? If so, what decision criteria should guide us, and what are some alternatives that should at least be considered for 13 and 14?

Potential decision criteria could encompass, beyond traditional design factors:

— Environments conducive to rethinking undergraduate education

— Meeting and open spaces compatible with collaborative learning and research approaches

— Ability to offer new generations of students — whether high school, summer or international — improved access to Yale

— Modular or flexible design models conducive to experimenting with, and even changing out after five or 10 years, non-traditional educational ideas

— Flexibility of undergraduate research and technology facilities, to be reserved on some days for the college and on other days open to all

— Repurposeable performance spaces and creative studios

Ability to help return the colleges to their former role as the center of social life.

— If a decision were made to design themed, innovative colleges 13 and 14 — rather than just 12.1 and 12.2 — what might they look like? With the caveat that any theme would be applicant opt-in with random acceptance, and trialed with a term of, say, four to 10 years, experimenting with a choice-based might mean:

— An all-female or all-international college, although common arts or science facilities would continue to be open to all students at least on some days

— An innovation-themed college, like Cambridge’s Trinity or St. John’s

— An arts and entertainment focused college, with substantial performance and creative spaces open to all at least on some days

— A college designed to integrate more closely with high school students — both during the summer and in-term — and with New Haven more broadly

— A college for “older” students, like St. Edmunds and Wolfson, whether 22, or 62. (Why has centuries-old Yale not embraced “senior” education the way colleges such as UNC-Asheville have?)

— A dual “geeks and artists” model: If Hawking can welcome artists…

Some will argue that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Indeed, the “tyranny of success” is a strong deterrent to innovation, as another creation of the 1920s and ’30s that Alfred Sloan’s GM has come to rue. Once by far the world’s largest automaker, it is losing its title to Toyota — because it failed to innovate around its customers, or to give them the choices they wanted.

Yale Tomorrow should not end up as Yale Yesterday. Eight-century-old Cambridge understands how education, by definition, needs rethinking from time to time. The question is whether Yale does.

Craig Johnson graduated from Yale College in 1973. He was the Deputy Editorials Editor of the News.