During a September interview on the News’ “Everybody Has a Story” program, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway offered one assessment of the College’s institutional culture. “Yale is really good at providing resources to do all these different kinds of activities, from academic to purely social,” Holloway observed. “It’s really not good at — itself or asking of students — to ask the question: Why? Just because we can, does that mean we should?”
In the segment, Holloway had been speaking about the relationship between academics and extracurriculars in undergraduate life, a discussion prompted in part by William Deresiewicz’s controversial new book “Excellent Sheep.”
Holloway’s criticisms, however, also work well as a searing indictment of the University’s behavior in light of the upcoming Yale College expansion. Thanks largely to a $250 million donation — the largest ever in the College’s history — from Charles B. Johnson ’54, Yale will open two new residential colleges in the fall of 2017, eventually increasing the total undergraduate population by 800 students.
But just because we can, does that mean we should?
Increasing access to Yale’s body of knowledge and resources is a noble goal, but any push to increase the size of the college must be weighed against its consequences, from educational costs of increased course sizes to social costs of larger clubs to literal cost-cutting measures. The 2014 Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Yale College Expansion emphasized the importance of cost neutrality in economic terms when committee members wrote that because the 800 new students will generate a yearly revenue of “roughly $30 million,” the “increased operating costs associated with supporting these additional students cannot exceed that amount.”
While University President Peter Salovey has called the $500 million expansion “modest,” his rhetoric understates the potential impact of a project marred by inherent uncertainty. “The skeptics are correct to view this move as a big and risky one,” wrote the members of the Study Group to Consider New Residential Colleges in their 2008 report. “And of course no one of the present generation can be certain whether this is the right move.”
The current state of many aspects of Yale College suggests that, even if growth may one day prove desirable, the time is not now. Expansion will exacerbate preexisting crises of faith over faculty size, access to physical resources like dance studios and study spaces and the relationship between students and administrators more broadly. That’s not even mentioning the elephant in the room: The fact that the existing residential colleges vary wildly in the quality of services they offer students.
Worse yet, the faculty’s recent decision to bring Harvard’s introductory CS50 computer science course to Yale sets a troubling precedent as to how sustaining the college expansion may change the character of the College. The 2012 Report of the Committee on Online Expansion cautioned against policy changes that would dilute the quality of Yale’s educational offerings. But similar changes have been proposed by the Ad Hoc Committee on Expansion’s 2014 report, demonstrating that the political demands of expansion have eroded formerly principled stances.
Standing athwart the residential college expansion will not stop the inevitable, no matter how much students yell. Our only recourse now is to embrace every possible resource we have been given to voice our opinion in the process and to demand additional avenues of representation. We also must, as soon as possible, begin conversations within the study body about areas of expansion that administrators have not, will not or cannot focus on. In just a few years, today’s freshmen will be tasked with determining how their publications, societies, teams and clubs will adapt to the increase of the student body. Making these transitions as smooth as possible will require careful preparation.
Campaigns to name the new residential college after esteemed alumni like Grace Hopper have seen unprecedented levels of student involvement. It’s time to carry that passion over to asking meaningful questions about what the college expansion will mean for the student body, and how those answers mean we should adapt. We cannot wait for administrators to take the lead. As Holloway has suggested, if we don’t ask and respond to “why?” no one else will.
Marissa Medansky is a senior in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.