In considering the transformation of the Hall of Graduate Studies into a central home for the humanities starting in 2017, the University — historically known as a humanities-focused institution — appears poised to reaffirm its emphasis on the liberal arts.
Still, the difficulty of the HGS refurbishment will not be found only in planning and carrying out the physical restoration and repairs. Rather, the greater challenge rests in whether the University can ensure that this “once-in-a-generation” opportunity for change will not go to waste.
The leading idea is to convert the complex, which was constructed in 1932 and currently houses 168 graduate students, into a center for the humanities. The building would no longer serve in a residential capacity; instead, the space would become, as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler described, a “hub for intellectual life.”
“The humanities at Yale have always been an area of extraordinary strength — as have social sciences and sciences — but we felt like one of the frustrations in the humanities is that the physical spaces that they have occupied were so widely spread across the University,” Gendler said. “Individual points of excellence were not connected in ways that allowed them to flourish as completely as they could, so the possibility to bring together departments and programs that could benefit from co-locating struck us as an unimaginably exciting prospect.”
In a Thursday email to students, faculty and staff, Provost Benjamin Polak described the proposed idea as a “strong statement about Yale’s enduring commitment to the centrality of the humanities”.
Meanwhile, the renovation, previously projected to cost $100 million and start in 2013, occurs in the midst of other major capital projects that Yale is currently undertaking.
It appears to be no coincidence that the push to strengthen the humanities is timed to begin in 2017, as the two new $500 million residential colleges are scheduled to open. The HGS project will also occur as the University begins its work on a new Yale Biology Building, slated to cost a quarter of a billion dollars, and the ongoing $45 million renovation of Hendrie Hall.
The renovation of HGS will do more than change the physical infrastructure of campus. Instead, the renovation will also revise the very purpose the building serves on campus.
“The renovation of HGS gives us a chance to make humanistic study at Yale even greater than the sum of its parts,” Morse College Master and Divisional Director for the Humanities Amy Hungerford wrote in an email. “Doing so, we hope, could help shape the future of the humanities on campus and beyond.”
Hungerford will lead a committee comprising 12 faculty members and one graduate student to explore if the center for humanities is feasible. The HGS Humanities Exploratory Committee will have to tackle major questions that may complicate the lofty mission of unifying the humanities through a centralized location.
For one thing, not all departments are interested in relocating.
Art history professor J.D. Connor said his department is “certainly not moving” given the recent construction of the new Loria Center, where it is housed.
However, the change may be more welcome for other departments. Many faculty have echoed the administration’s optimism, and have suggested that unifying departments under one roof may raise the quality of humanities at Yale.
History professor Valerie Hansen said history department offices are spread all over campus — a separation that “definitely cuts into collegiality.” Using HGS as a consolidated home for the humanities has the potential to solve problems like these, especially if significant funding is put into the renovations, she said.
Physical closeness has succeeded in facilitating interdepartmental connections in the past, according to art history professor Diana Kleiner.
Kleiner said during her tenure as deputy provost for the arts, the University brought the History of Art Department and the School of Architecture together in the Loria Center, including the shared Arts Library. Now, the School of Art, School of Drama, the YUAG and the YCBA all comprise a strong arts presence on Chapel and York streets.
“[That proximity] has led to what was intended — the kind of exciting and mutually beneficial programmatic interactivity among the arts units that that kind of proximity encourages and makes possible,” Kleiner said. “It’s a great model for the kind of thinking that seems to be about to take place for the humanities.”
Indeed, many professors said the opportunity to interact with their colleagues in other humanities departments, and even within their own would be welcomed.
Philosophy department chairman Stephen Darwall said he supports the plans to look into configuring HGS as a humanities-centric space, explaining that while current spaces like the Whitney Humanities Center are valuable resources, there are classroom, office and discussion space needs that are not being met.
However, there are some barriers to complete consolidation of departments. As history professor Paul Freedman noted, Yale has a tradition of housing some faculty offices in residential colleges in order to facilitate student interaction. The new committee will have to weigh the value in these traditions against the potential advantages of one communal space removed from residential dorms.
The role of the committee over the next few years will therefore be to solicit feedback and see which departments are interested in relocating.
“We have no sense that HGS can or should house all humanities departments and programs, but we will explore how a mix of those who would like to co-locate could benefit the intellectual life of the humanities,” Hungerford said.
Still, Hungerford added there is “substantial interest” in the idea of co-locating several humanities departments in HGS.
Another potential difficulty rests on whether the space — in its current layout of single-room dorms and suites — can feasibly be converted into a space for academia.
Polak said plans to renovate and return the hall to residential housing were deemed an “exorbitant expense.” It remains unclear, however, how renovating and converting the building to offices and classrooms will be any less costly.
“The radical change will be in how psychologically we conceptualize the building,” Gendler said. “The question of how we configure the offices, what are the common spaces, what are the private spaces.”
Hungerford said that she hoped imaginative configurations of repurposed living spaces and other parts of the building will create new areas for collaboration and individual or shared office spaces.
Ultimately, though, the $100 million may be more about affirming the importance of the humanities at Yale than reconfiguring offices.
“The larger issue is that clear signals are needed that Yale actually still cares about humanities,” said history professor Patrick Cohrs. “This may be one.”