Years of closed-door strategizing, months of committee deliberation and weeks of student speculation will culminate today when the Yale Corporation convenes to cast its most important vote in nearly half a century: whether or not to endorse President Levin’s proposal to build two additional residential colleges.
At first glance, at least, that is what the proposal is all about — two simple residential colleges to be erected in the Prospect-Sachem Triangle on Science Hill. But the reality is something more. In expanding its residential repertoire — and, in turn, its student body — Yale would experience positive transformation in all the areas that need improvement most; an academic and cultural revival, particularly in the sciences; and, most important, a period of renewed institutional reflection, even pride, that is necessary throughout the course of a great university’s life.
To be sure, the Elis are many who worry that the chosen location — across the street from a graveyard, around the corner from, well, virtually nothing — could prove disastrous for the geographical and cultural cohesion of Yale College. That much is true: It could. But, if executed well, the extension of the undergraduate campus could achieve what is otherwise impossible — namely, the integration of Science Hill and the advent of new spaces that we direly need, and have needed for some time.
Although the details of execution are still (and rightly) unsettled, our conclusion after interviews with administrators, conversations with students and a review of the report released this week is that an expanded Yale will make for a better Yale.
But there are two caveats to our otherwise-unadulterated endorsement. Current students, we are disturbed to report, have been flatly misled on this matter since the beginning. Never were they given a straight answer to an honest question: Was it possible that Yale would abandon the proposal upon determining that it just might not be right for Yale?
The answer, of course, was no from the start. Yet the message conveyed was decidedly more ambiguous. Such deception is discouraging, particularly as the University considers moving forward with a project in which student input would matter more every day. Plus, the official line that the reason many undergraduates have opposed expansion is because they love the current Yale experience so much so that they don’t want it to change is not only wrong, it is patronizing and alarming. (Carried to its logical end, after all, that argument could conceivably be employed to dismiss student opinion on every matter, large or small.)
We urge the Corporation to thoroughly address this matter during its deliberations, resolving the student-input question once and for all. As for how — no undergraduate here is myopic enough to purport that students should be polled on every long-term decision. But especially given that many of the top decision-makers either did not attend the College or have spent most their Yale days physically closer to the proposed site than the majority of undergraduates, it is essential that students make substantial contributions to the development as it proceeds.
The Corporation should not move on the larger question today unless it has President Levin’s assurance that a committee, consisting entirely of students free to speak their minds publicly and to directly inform high-level decision making, will be jumpstarted with as much urgency as fundraising is by the Development Office.
Second, and closely related, is our concern that although administrators have approached the expansion question carefully for the most part, they made a fundamental misstep in answering the “if” question before answering “how.” A more appropriate delineation would have been to consider “if” only if “how” proved realistic first. All this, however, is in the past. Moving forward, the Corporation owes it to the future of the University to impel President Levin to more clearly air out the potential downsides to residential expansion on Science Hill. While we endorse the proposal on its own merits, its execution would benefit from a leader willing to acknowledge both pros and cons equally — and openly.
In short, the Corporation today should demand that students, however short-sighted administrators consider them, will carry real influence, and that potential pitfalls are more thoroughly addressed. But at the end of the day, its 19 members should enthusiastically embrace the proposal to build two new residential colleges.
The opportunity before our community today is truly awesome. So, too, however, is our collective burden to seize it correctly; an exploration of this challenge follows.
The greatest challenge, perhaps, of expansion is to ensure that Yale College’s historically unmatched academic program does not suffer.
Properly administered, expansion could revitalize and propel forward academics. More students necessarily means more faculty, and more faculty will mean more options and reduced overcrowding in many departments — history, political science, English and biology, for example. The proposal would mean Yale inching closer to becoming the leading research institution, and increased resources could lead to more robust advising and more vibrant intellectual discourse.
But we are unconvinced that the University has yet truly considered the potential harms expansion could have on the quality of academics here. Competitive seminars will prove more difficult to get into; a reduction in the number of sections would be a loss for many students, particularly those who spend most of their time in large science lectures. More important, hiring so many qualified faculty members — and timing it with growth of the student body — could prove more difficult than anticipated.
In order to ensure that quality is not lost — and that quantity breeds more of it, and not less — the transition must begin earlier rather than later. Faculty and courses must be phased in gradually, and not added at once. And the massive fundraising campaign to accompany expansion should direct abundant resources to the purely academic.
Bringing life and energy to Science Hill is an admirable goal of expanding Yale College up Prospect Street. But the sciences at Yale must have a revamping of their own if they are to be on par with humanities and social science disciplines.
First, the location of the proposed new home for the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department must be rethought. The tentatively named Yale Biology Building will push the department — the most common one for undergraduate science majors and popular among undergraduate researchers even from other departments — to Whitney Avenue, further away from the hub of life and activity that the new colleges would hopefully generate.
Space in the area is admittedly limited, especially for a large footprint building like YBB, but the continued outward push of the sciences (already seen with the class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building even farther up the Hill) will likely not lead to the kind of energized campus administrators expect.
As with other disciplines, science departments will need individual reviews to determine new faculty and staffing requirements to address increased enrollment numbers. But some problems are endemic across the sciences.
Particular attention must be paid to laboratory courses. Simply adding more sections to these courses runs the risk of allowing “cookbook” labs (where the procedure and end results are pre-defined) to proliferate. The University’s commitment to turning Sterling Chemistry Laboratory into a center for teaching labs is a step in the right direction, but absent from the proposal has been the increase in instructors and funding to allow for the expansion of more independent labs, which paradoxically often require more staff to run. Engineering, too, should not be overlooked. Found primarily on Hillhouse, the engineering departments should have a presence on Science Hill to more fully integrate them into the University as a whole and with Yale College specifically, especially as interdisciplinary work becomes more important in the sciences.
The Freshman Experience
The fact that the Report reached no conclusion on the future of the freshmen experience is evidence that current options on the table — housing freshmen within the new colleges, as Levin has suggested he would prefer, or, alternatively, on Old Campus — are insufficient.
Planners would thus be wise to consider an alternative: a second Old Campus or, as one might put it, New Campus. Located closer to the proposed site, it would house freshmen from Silliman and Timothy Dwight colleges as well as the two new colleges — and, perhaps, a fifth. Admittedly, this would require further exploration and brainstorming; but it could prove effective in balancing otherwise mutually exclusive ends.
To be sure, the litany of student-life concerns raised by expansion is too long for any one editorial (even this one). But the underlying principle that should guide expansion can be stated: so many students here chose Yale because it offers such a robust — even magical — extracurricular scene.
The construction of the new colleges should be paired with the erection of a student center and the creation of at least a half-dozen more spaces for performances and club offices. In fact, the third building that would be built at the proposed site should be saved exclusively for student life, not classrooms. And in order to establish a new locus of campus activity, the surrounding neighborhood must experience a proliferation of retail and eateries.
This would help create community, preserve intimacy and prevent stigma from forming around students placed in the new colleges.
Security and the City
Between the ominous cemetery wall and the darkened classroom buildings, the current void of bustle near the proposed location can, at times, seem daunting, especially to those students who don’t frequent Science Hill. While an influx of several hundred students — and the proposed “stepping stones” — could provide a first layer of security, this alone will not be enough to temper the real security risk that haunts the proposed site.
The Report is wise to call for a “robust” security plan that would likely involve adding surveillance cameras and additional lighting, providing for more reliable transportation and introducing a 24-hour security presence. However, just as recruiting qualified professors will prove challenging, expanding the Yale Police Department may not be as simple as it sounds, particularly given the city’s recent struggles with successful law-enforcement recruitment and the fact that up to 10 officers become eligible for retirement at the start of every summer. (The YPD currently boasts 83 officers.)
Security in the new location should rank as a foremost priority for the University if expansion is approved. The Report spells out sound ideas. What is left is for campus police and administrators to announce a major security initiative that incorporates student experience and begins now, not several months before the colleges open.
On a related matter, while the expansion will likely lead to a great boom in the economy of the neighborhoods adjacent to the site — a positive, to be sure — the University still has work to do to ensure that residents are aware of the extent to which property values may skyrocket, or to provide a plan to make sure they will not rise unreasonably.
As the Report notes, rethinking Yale’s transportation network is an important prerequisite for expanding Yale College at the proposed location. But it does not go far enough, we think. It fails to note how inadequate past improvements to transportation have been, making us wonder how it can be successfully reworked and expanded concurrently. Even transportation on Science Hill alone has been fraught with missteps, such as the abrupt cancellation of a trial route down the Hill timed to the end of classes that was nearly always full.
Improving transportation is not as simple as adding more buses and routes (though admittedly doubling or tripling the number of buses operating at any one time wouldn’t hurt). Passengers should be able to know exactly how far away the next bus is if they are expected to wait for them — especially when the system is incapable of running on a tight schedule as it is now. This change could be as small as installing screens that display the existing bus-location Web site in the lobbies of more buildings or as expansive as a series of sheltered bus stops along the route with the next bus’s arrival time.
More innovative thinking is needed in the type of transportation itself, taking rider habits more into consideration than they are now. Buses and vans are acceptable, but limit opportunities to jump on and off the shuttle route. Replacing buses with streetcars or other forms of transportation where the driver does not have to open a door each time someone gets on or off should be explored.
Increased enrollment would mean extending the undergraduate experience to even more students across the world — applicants who are of truly equal caliber to those accepted. And with its ground-breaking financial-aid announcement last month, the University moved closer to its goal of allowing for all admitted students, virtually regardless of family income, to choose Yale.
In short, the College is likely to see an influx of applicants — an influx that will only exacerbate a process that sadly turns away several hundred students each year who are qualified but for whom no space is available.
Yale now has the opportunity to accept at least 150 more students each year without lowering admissions standards. Congress’ recent push for universities to spend more of their endowments can be realized in a way that will mean more than just construction; if done correctly, expansion could result in an influx of would-be Yalies eager to fill the corridors of shiny new Eli enclaves.
“Cinderblock” is a dirty word on Yale’s campus. And for good reason. As an institution that has held a key stake in the direction of architecture over the past century, Yale has a unique responsibility to design buildings that inspire in the next one — and to consider aesthetic matters carefully. New buildings on this campus should contribute in no small way to the architectural discourse shaped by the world’s most brilliant designers. The colleges should be no different.
In a sense, the designs of many of Yale’s buildings embody the abstract virtues of academic enterprise. Some — like James Gable Rogers’ Branford and Saybrook colleges or Eero Saarinen’s Morse and Stiles — are almost impractically whimsical, stretching the imaginations and subtly prodding the attitudes of the scholars living and working in them.
Others ground us: The pronounced geometry and exposed materials of Louis Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art connect us to the structure itself and offer a sense of order. Some even dispense words of wisdom: In a nook on the Wall Street facade of Sterling Memorial Library a carving exhorts “Festina Lente” — Latin for “make haste slowly.”
Our new colleges must continue the vibrant dialogue that began when its oldest standing building, Connecticut Hall, was completed in 1752.
Yale ought not to make the mistakes of her sister school Princeton. That university’s campus is gorgeous. But its new undergraduate residential college, a monstrous nouveau Collegiate Gothic edifice, overwhelms the senses and yet fails to satisfy.
Let’s not kid ourselves. A new Branford is out of the reach of modern craftsmen. It may well be time to acknowledge that the era of Gothic buildings at Yale is passed. To be sure, the unity of our campus is important, but that need not limit us to the tried.
The new residential colleges must be bold and thought-provoking. To demand less would be to endorse the dilution of a value that has carried Yale so far in its 300 short years.
It is common sense that Yale should resist all donor attempts to name colleges after themselves — $300 million checks aside. Thankfully, the President’s Office has indicated it shares this philosophy.
For his many contributions to diversifying the student body — and transforming the University for the 20th Century — former Yale President Kingman Brewster deserves one college named in his honor. The second, however, is anybody’s call.
The expansion proposal is imperfect — and the process by which it has unraveled so far has been disturbing at times. But in the end, expansion is somehow inevitable; to remain the same as the world changes is to devolve.
And the timing is right, too: Given his years of successful fundraising and renovating — and his continuous pursuit of a global university — no president in recent memory is more equipped than Levin to carry out such change. Not to be lost is the fact that the University is richer than ever, which will ensure that other necessary reforms to the campus are not forgotten.
Expand, Yale, but carefully and transparently. Your history — of striving, always, for greatness — demands no less.