After a decade of planning, the University is finally set to begin in earnest the largest expansion of Yale College since women were admitted almost 40 years ago.

In June the Yale Corporation officially authorized the addition of two new residential colleges, setting into motion a project that will grow the size of Yale college by 15 percent. For administrators, securing that approval was the easy part. Now, the real work begins.

In an interview with the News this summer, University President Richard Levin shed new light on the behind-the-scenes discussions on how to proceed with the expansion — and what has already been decided. Most notably, he said, the University is close to selecting an architect for the project.

The approval

The official authorization by the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, amounted to little more than a formality, as Levin and Corporation members had endorsed the prospect of expansion in February, curtailing any suspense as to whether the plan would move forward.

“This expansion,” Levin wrote in a February e-mail to the community, “will allow us to make an even greater contribution to society by preparing a larger number of talented and promising students of all backgrounds for leadership and service.”

In fact, Levin and the Corporation decided to grow even more than they had earlier envisioned. Initial plans for expansion presented to the Yale community before the Corporation’s approval would have increased the College’s enrollment by around 10 percent.

The colleges, to be located behind the Grove Street Cemetery along Prospect Street, will allow the University to increase the size of the undergraduate enrollment while also easing overcrowding in the existing residential colleges, a step administrators said they hope will largely eliminate the practice of “annexing” some upperclassmen into housing outside of their colleges.

Students have criticized the expansion on a number of fronts, and in his message to the community about the expansion, Levin promised that the University would take those concerns to heart.

With the expansion, Yale will increase the size of its faculty, expand its advising system and add amenities like classroom space, a gym and a theater to Science Hill in an effort to make the location of the new colleges more hospitable, he said.

Levin said the expansion will have the dual purpose of better integrating Science Hill into what students today consider the central campus, a point administrators have seized upon in recent months in arguing in favor of the colleges’ location.

Controversy aside, the authorization nonetheless marks a historic moment in Levin’s 15-year tenure, the last 10 years of which the he has spent toiling behind the scenes to bring today’s announcement to fruition. With a $22.5-billion endowment and fewer than 10 percent of applicants gaining admission to the College — the lowest rate in its history — Yale is “well poised” to expand, Levin said.

In the message, Levin charted the rise in Yale’s selectivity over the decades and made the case that expanding access to the University is a prudent step to further its mission.

“The aim of this education is the cultivation of citizens with a rich awareness of our heritage to lead and serve in every sphere of human activity,” Levin said. “Today, we have a long queue of highly qualified applicants who collectively would allow Yale to make an even greater contribution to society if more could be educated here.”

$3.5 billion ‘within reach’

As expected, the Corporation also authorized an increase in the goal of the Yale Tomorrow capital campaign, bumping its aim from $3 billion to $3.5 billion to help support the expansion. The increase in the goal of Yale Tomorrow was not unexpected, as the campaign is already a full year ahead of schedule and did not include the new colleges among its initial fundraising priorities.

Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said after the approval that she expects Yale’s benefactors to react “not just positively, but enthusiastically” in supporting the residential-college expansion.

“Based on the experience of the campaign to date, and a careful review of the opportunities of the next three years, we are confident that a $3.5-billion goal is within reach,” Reichenbach said. “We believe we will be able to maintain the annual totals of about $500 million in commitments that will get us over the $3.5-billion goal.”

Levin said the University has already secured $140 million in gifts and pledges for the new colleges, a promising start considering the Corporation has decided in keeping with Yale tradition that donors will not be allowed to attach their names to the new colleges.

In fact, the question of what the colleges will be named is poised to become the great debate of the 2008-’09 school year, now that students can no longer occupy themselves arguing over whether Yale should be expanding in the first place. Administrators have promised that the community will be able to weigh in with suggestions for the eponyms.

What comes next

As the planning effort gains speed, much remains to be decided. The Corporation’s authorization does little more than set the ball rolling on what will be a five-year effort leading up to the expected opening of the new colleges in September 2013.

The question of the architecture of the new colleges is the most obvious, and the most urgent. Levin said the University has been discussing possible architects for several months with the expectation of choosing an architect in the near future. Unlike the case of Yale’s last major commission, the new School of Management campus, no design competition will be held; instead, the University will enlist an architect and then ask him to come back with plans for the new colleges several months later.

Levin would not comment on individual architects or say how many candidates remained under consideration.

As for naming the new colleges, Levin said an announcement would likely be made in the fall semester as to how the University will solicit ideas for possible names, although he emphasized that no details had been finalized and it was not yet certain when the Corporation would seek to make a final decision on the question of naming.

And the physical shape of the new-colleges complex still remains undecided, as does the nature of a third building to be built alongside the colleges behind the Grove Street Cemetery. That building could morph into several buildings. The residential-college site is planned to include an undergraduate theater of some sort, classroom space and a new building for the Sociology Department, whose current home will be razed to make way for the new colleges. Exactly how those different elements will fit into the site — and whether they will comprise one building, two or three — is still an open question, Levin said. In addition, a new academic building may be built on the other side of Prospect Street adjacent to Rosenkranz Hall, the new Political Science Department building under construction, he said.

The Sociology Department was believed to be the last remaining department facing impending homelessness because of the residential-college expansion. With its new home planned, it appears that the University has now secured future locations for all of the department and offices that will be displaced by the new colleges.

Levin said the plan is to admit students into the new colleges beginning with the freshman class that enters in the fall of 2012; those students will live in Swing Space for their freshman year. In the fall of 2013, when the new colleges open, they will house those students and a new round of freshmen. Upperclassmen will be able to enter a lottery to transfer into the new colleges, as was done when Whitman College opened at Princeton last year, Levin said.

A call for student input

Yale College Council President Rich Tao ’10 said he hopes Yale officials are giving student input more than just lip service. Students had long questioned whether the Prospect Street location of the new colleges would be isolated from the rest of campus and whether the expansion might shatter Yale’s intimacy or overburden its faculty.

“As opposed to treating the recognition of student opinion as a mere formality — as the administration has done at certain instances in the past few months — President Levin and others involved with the expansion need to sincerely and substantively incorporate the student body into the actual decision-making process,” Tao said after the approval.

“At the end of the day,” he added, “the crux of the expansion boils down to questions regarding how it will affect the day-to-day life of students, and who better to turn to regarding student issues than concerned and educated students themselves?”