With the announcement of a $150 million donation to transform Commons into the Schwarzman Center, Yale has promised to build a state-of-the-arts facility that will provide students from Yale College and the 12 graduate and professional schools with the opportunity to gather in a central space that has never existed before.
But perhaps the reason it has never existed is that it has never been necessary. Historically, the center of University life has been its four-year residential college system — a system which many have said eliminates the social need for a student center. Yet Yale is also poised to change its history. Major changes are coming to campus — and a student center may be the necessary staple to hold past and future together.
In early 2013, members of the Yale College Council, Graduate Student Assembly and Graduate and Professional School Senate gathered to form the Student Center Ad Hoc Committee. The committee authored a report, completed and presented to University President Peter Salovey in fall 2014, recommending that Yale form a central facility that would allow cross-school interaction. It pointed out that Yale is alone among its peer institutions in not having such a center.
The idea met with opposition. In a Feb. 7, 2013 opinion piece in the News, Nick Allen ’14 acknowledged the need for enhanced graduate and professional student facilities, but did not see the same need for undergraduates.
“The reason we have not followed other schools in spending millions on a student center is that we have spent hundreds of millions on 12 of them,” Allen wrote.
Indeed, the residential college system is the crown jewel of Yale’s undergraduate experience, according to the Yale Admissions website. “Residential colleges” is the first section under the website’s “Living at Yale” header, above both “The Campus” and “New Haven.”
“Far more than dormitories, Yale’s residential colleges have been called ‘little paradises,’” the website declares, emphasizing each college’s “spirit of allegiance and community.”
By contrast, at Harvard, students are not assigned to their houses, Harvard’s equivalent of colleges, until sophomore year. Princeton has a mix of four-year and two-year residential colleges.
But students are not alone in calling for a campus center. Administrators have spoken out in favor of the idea as well. John Gonzalez ’14, a former president of the YCC who helped conceive and write the 2014 report, said Salovey committed to making a student center a priority during his tenure.
“Our residential colleges are amazing and will always remain the ‘thing’ that separates us from our peers,” Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said. “However, the Yale undergraduate student body is increasingly diverse along any vector that one can imagine, and it has been increasingly difficult for the colleges to meet the ever-widening demands for spaces.”
Indeed, the report pointed out the many ways in which the residential college system fall short of students’ needs.
And with slated changes to Yale’s infrastructure, these weaknesses may become even more apparent. In 2017, two new residential colleges will open, increasing the student body by 15 percent — but the colleges will also be located on Prospect Street, far from the traditional locus of residential life farther south. Additionally, the Hall of Graduate Studies is slated for a major renovation that may transform it into a center for the humanities, and graduate students have voiced concerns that they will no longer have a central gathering place.
If any time in Yale’s history were right for a student center, it might be now.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether the center will actually meet students’ needs. At Harvard, Loker Commons, originally touted as a student center, has become a facility that is now “rarely traversed except for a bathroom run,” according to a November 2013 article in the Harvard Crimson. It now serves largely as a study spot. The Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center, set to open in 2018, is Harvard’s latest attempt, but community members have expressed doubts about whether it will achieve its purposes either.
The key to Yale’s success, Gonzalez said, will be student engagement, in both the planning and implementation processes.
For example, Gonzalez said he envisions one function of the center will be to provide a common social space, so that students are not driven off-campus in search of alcohol. But he acknowledged that attracting students is not as simple as providing a pub. He cited the student-run Graduate and Professional Student Center at Yale as an example of how students can help a facility cater to the needs of their peers.
“If it’s just run by administrators, and the framing and the naming of it aren’t done right, students may not go,” Gonzalez said. “That’s going to be a big task moving forward for student advocacy work, to frame how this is going to look. If we don’t do it the right way, it may not be as wonderful as we know it could be.”
That work has already begun. Thirty-seven students applied to the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee, YCC vice president Maddie Bauer ’17 said. Three students will be selected in the coming days. YCC president Joe English ’17 will also sit on the committee.
The center will also attract many outsiders to campus. Michael Kaiser — the former president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, who has been retained to advise Yale on the Schwarzman Center’s programming — said he would love to see the center play host to large-scale festivals for guests from around the world.
Still, he said, the “real constituency” is the student body.
It will be up to students to ensure that they remain so.