Late one night this fall, University President Richard Levin sat at home with the telephone to his ear, talking to a News reporter about the prospect of building two new residential colleges behind the Grove Street Cemetery.

The conversation turned to athletics. The University will not admit an increased number of recruited athletes, Levin said, “when we get larger.”

Not “if,” but “when,” Levin said — a small slip, to be sure, but a telling sign nonetheless. In interviews over the last semester with two dozen current and former Yale officials, this much is clear: When the Yale Corporation convenes one week from today to decide whether to proceed with planning to build two new residential colleges, the decision it makes will be more of a formality than anything else.

Members of the Corporation say they want to expand the University, and two committees established to weigh the consequences of expansion will tell them next week that doing so will not harm Yale. And so on Feb. 22, the Corporation is likely to decide what many observers have long mumbled was inevitable: that the next generation of Yale students would live in a world of 14 colleges, not 12.

Just a week before that vote, there is little suspense to be found.

In the words of one senior University official familiar with campus planning, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the decision whether to build new colleges was not even a question worth pondering. “They will be built,” he said.

Years in the making

To most Yale students, the idea of expanding beyond the existing 12 colleges first became conversation fodder last February, when Levin sent a campuswide e-mail proclaiming that “this year, we will assess the desirability of adding two new residential colleges” to Yale College.

What Levin did not mention in that e-mail was that in recent years, University administrators had been charting the future of the Yale campus under the assumption that a plot of land needed to be set aside to serve as the eventual site of at least two new residential colleges, according to current and former Yale officials.

In fact, University documents drafted as early as 1999 hint at the site for the residential colleges — behind the Grove Street Cemetery along Prospect Street — as set aside for their construction. In April 2000, when the University released its long-awaited Framework for Campus Planning, produced by the New York firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, the location of the new colleges had already been decided.

The report was not commissioned specifically to find a site for new residential colleges, but the issue was considered throughout the firm’s planning work, said Pamela Delphenich, the University Planner at the time and now the director of campus planning and design at MIT.

“Part of the charge to Cooper, Robertson was … to find a place where we’d have the opportunity to build large-footprint buildings,” Delphenich explained in a recent telephone interview.

“And,” she added, “the residential colleges are large footprints.”

While the proposal for new colleges was not explicitly named in the document, it was heavily suggested. Among six “major initiatives” highlighted by the study was the construction of two significant developments — split by what was described as a “pedestrian corridor” — in an area behind the Grove Street Cemetery slated for “residential” use.

Yet not a single building that already stood on the site — from the home of the political science department, Brewster Hall, to Donaldson Commons, the School of Management’s dining hall — could be described as residential in nature. It was clear the University had drastic plans.

And it was not a coincidence that, one by one, the University constructed, or announced plans to construct, replacements for each of the buildings already contained on the Prospect Street site.

Getting the city on board

Behind the scenes, before the University established any committees or held any open forums to reach out to students on the issue of the residential colleges, Yale administrators like Levin and Bruce Alexander, the vice president of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs (whose title has since grown to include Campus Development), were selling the college proposal to an entirely different constituency — the city’s top officials.

In fact, before Levin went public with his plans to consider expansion, his first task was to get Mayor John DeStefano Jr. on board. After all, four decades ago, in one of the most famous chapters in a town-gown history that spans centuries, New Haven’s mayor, Bartholomew F. Guida flatly rejected the University’s attempt to build two new residential colleges that would have opened in 1975.

Now, Levin said, “we have a totally different relationship.” Several years ago — neither DeStefano nor Levin could remember when, though Levin described it as “before we even started to think about it publicly” — the president and his staff raised the question of building two new colleges in the exact location where they are now planned to be erected.

“It was the clear expectation,” DeStefano recalled in an interview this week. “It was understood that the University had to go through an internal process,” the mayor added, “but seriously that was the likely use.”

The plans grew increasingly firm two summers ago, when that internal process passed its only public hurdle thus far.

In August 2006, the city of New Haven agreed to abandon three streets in the area in return for $10 million in Yale-funded infrastructure improvements in the surrounding area. In its recommendation of the agreement, the City Plan Commission reported that Yale officials indicated the area was intended for “academic/residential purposes, including new residential colleges,” seemingly expounding upon that “residential” designation in the Cooper, Robertson plan years earlier.

Two years before that, Yale’s then-vice president for finance and administration, John Pepper, told the News that, even then, it was clear Yale would not remain at 12 colleges for very long but would seek to build new colleges.

“My own opinion is it’s a question of when, not whether,” Pepper said.

His question seems as if it now has an answer.

‘They want to see it happen’

At the time, Pepper was responding to comments made by Levin in a February 2004 interview with the News in which he said the University had been considering expansion “for some time” as a means to be able to accept more applicants.

“If Yale has a modest expansion,” Levin said, “we would be fulfilling our mission even more than today.”

It is that logic that remains the primary motivation behind the consideration today to expand Yale College, and one that members of the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, have come to embrace.

“The question is if one can, in a responsible way, make that experience available to a larger number of people who can be readily absorbed into the institution to strengthen it, while maintaining the fundamental values that have made Yale such a great university,” said Corporation fellow Margaret Marshall LAW ’76, the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

“Almost any responsible set of leaders would want to look at that very hard,” Marshall added. In a recent interview with the News, she called the Corporation’s view on the colleges “primarily positive.” Another fellow, former Palm, Inc., chief Donna Dubinsky ’77, described the Corporation as “excited about the possibility” of expansion.

“Certainly everyone agrees with the basic proposition: Can we expand the University and still keep the University a great place?” Dubinsky said.

What’s more, administrators seem content with their answer to that question. “Can the institution digest it?” Marshall asked in the interview, conducted about a month after Dubinsky made her previously-unpublished comment.

She paused, and then answered herself. “Yes,” Marshall said.

The two committees charged by Levin to examine that question will conclude as much in a report that could be released to the Yale community as early as Monday.

While the committees did not take an up-or-down vote, former Calhoun College Master William Sledge, the chairman of the committee that examined student life concerns, said members of his committee concluded that the University could responsibility expand, as long as it invests in the areas the committees recommended, ranging from campus-wide transportation to music practice space.

“I think the majority” — a “great majority,” he later said — “would be clearly in favor if certain things were done,” Sledge said, referring to the committee’s dozen or so recommendations.

But he said the members of his committee were not the most enthusiastic supporters of expansion that he had come across.

“I do believe the president, the officers of the University and the Corporation are enormously interested in this,” Sledge said, “and they want to see it happen.”

Sense of inevitability

The University’s fundraisers have gotten in on the act, too. In early 2006, in their conversations as part of the quiet phase to Yale Tomorrow, the University’s $3 billion capital campaign, officials from the Development Office quietly began asking donors what they thought of building two new colleges.

And last spring, administrators gathered some 150 of Yale’s most generous donors together in New York City to discuss the proposed expansion. One donor in attendance recalled that administrators conducted the meeting as if construction of the colleges was an absolute certainty, not something up for debate.

Others appear to have been given that impression, and today, that opinion seems to remain a popular one among University administrators, not to mention veteran faculty members, well-connected alumni and other watchful observers. In private conversations, administrators often slip into the habit of referring to the expansion as a matter of “when,” not as a looming hypothetical.

“It’s hard for me to believe it’s not going to happen,” said one prominent Yale alumnus, whose name adorns a Yale building and who spoke on the condition that he not be named.

The alumnus was not alone. Even some who have worked directly with the two committees have expressed a feeling that the colleges’ construction is a foregone conclusion. “It seems like it’s just being set up for a rubber stamp,” said one faculty member familiar with committee proceedings who asked not to be named. Another said she thought it was a “done deal” that the new colleges would be constructed.

The senior University official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there appeared to be little suspense heading into next week’s Corporation vote. “I have no reason to believe” — none at all, not even the slightest of doubts, he added — “[that] they’re not going to be built,” the official said.

Students, too, have expressed their own confidence that the colleges will be built. At a series of open forums held in residential colleges in the fall, administrators frequently found themselves on the defensive about whether the approval of the colleges was a forgone conclusion. In October, a campuswide poll of students by the News found that 68 percent of students believed that the Yale administration did not plan on taking into account student opinion when making a decision on whether to expand.

Administrators have stressed that they do value student opinion and that the Corporation’s decision is no certainty. Asked Thursday night about the colleges, Levin emphasized that no decision has been made. At their meeting Friday, Corporation members are unlikely to do anything more than sign off on administrators’ plans to proceed with planning for the new colleges, he said.

“We have the reports from the committee but we still need to develop a full budget and go through all the financial implications,” Levin said.

But earlier in the week, Levin conceded that if the Corporation votes to approve planning for the colleges, it is highly unlikely its members will decide later this year to abandon planning and scrap the entire proposal altogether.

And so in administrative offices, over dining hall tables and in circles of alumni, the era of 14 colleges seems to draw closer day by day.

“[Levin] realizes that students aren’t all behind this, but he thinks it’s a good idea, [and] he’s given the impression that the Corporation thinks it’s a good idea,” said another senior Yale administrator, who spoke on the condition that he not be named.

“To me,” the official added, “that makes it seem like this is something that’s going to happen.”