With little fanfare, the blue plaque that labeled the building on the corner of Grove and College streets as “Commons” was replaced this summer by another sign reading “Schwarzman Center.” But administrators are planning far more publicity for the next steps of the building’s transformation, which will turn it into a massive student center by 2020.
The Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee — a 27-member group of students, faculty and staff formed last semester at the request of University President Peter Salovey — has organized a series of “listening tours” and feedback mechanisms for the next few weeks, during which it will actively seek out student opinion surrounding the $150-million renovation of Commons and Memorial Hall. Administrators say the goal is not only to ensure that the center meets the needs of all campus community members, but also to convey that beloved University traditions, such as the residential college system, will be augmented, not diminished, by the center’s creation.
“It’s important to respect our traditions, but we also need to be thinking about ways to improve who we are,” said Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, adding that the next month will be “the most aggressive moment” of soliciting feedback.
The renovation, which was made possible through a gift in May by Blackstone Group founder Stephen Schwarzman ’69, will result in a student center that is intended to bring together undergraduates and graduate and professional school students in a central space. Students have advocated for such a place before, such as in a 2014 report by the Yale College Council, Graduate School Assembly and Graduate and Professional Student Senate — the first time all three groups had worked together.
The center will serve as a crossroads for students across the University to collaborate both professionally and socially in a way that has never been possible before, said Senior Counselor to the President and Provost Linda Lorimer.
But despite all the center’s potential, Holloway said, it will fail without student input. That was the problem at Harvard University, where various student centers have been largely underutilized because the administration did not seek student feedback, he said.
At a two-day retreat on Sunday and Monday, committee members met to discuss ways to ensure that students’ voices are heard. They are planning meetings in every residential college dining hall, as well as with diverse student organizations, ranging from the Yale Drama Coalition to the athletic Captains Council. They will also meet with the deans of all the graduate and professional schools, alumni and even leaders from New Haven government.
The University will also offer tours of the Schwarzman Center to showcase the basement and second and third-floor areas that will be converted for student use.
The goal is to compile student recommendations by the end of September and then to present a report to Salovey by Thanksgiving, said Skyler Ross ’16, one of the student representatives on the committee.
Once the information from the committee has been received, Salovey said, the next step will be to bridge the recommendations with what the architects will actually design. He described this process as “crucial” and “maybe the most important part” of the process. Once mapping is complete, plans will be drawn up and a contractor hired.
“I think we’re going to try and be very creative,” Salovey said. “And the real creativity in this project, from an architectural point of view, is, How do you honor the fact that this space is of a historic nature, while innovating in ways that enable it to be used differently than it has ever been used before?”
University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews noted that the architectural design will also be shaped by the way students want to see the space used. For example, she said, many students have voiced a desire for performance and common spaces instead of study spaces, which may result in a less constricted design for the building.
For this reason, she said, the University will not have a clear sense of what the building’s interior will actually look like until more student input is considered.
Yale is also currently in the midst of interviewing architects, and Salovey estimated that a decision will be made “within the next month or so.”
Though most students interviewed were positive about the idea of a new venue where undergraduates, graduate students and professional students will be able to connect, four out of six undergraduate students interviewed said they could think of areas in which $150 million could be better spent.
“I think that it’s important for Yale to have an area where students can meet and interact, much in the way that Cross Campus has functioned in the past,” Benjamin Marrow ’17 said. “This is increasingly important as Yale expands in numbers and in breadth with the construction of the new colleges. Similarly, the diminishing role of Commons as a dining room and social space is a shame, and a symbolic renovation is needed.”
However, Marrow added that he does not think a sum as large as $150 million is needed to develop a new space for students to socialize.
Holloway emphasized that the money is not only for physical renovations but also for programming. Additionally, the money could not have been allocated elsewhere, he said, as Schwarzman specified that he wanted the gift to be used for a student center.
Benjamin Steinberg ’17 said he loves the idea of graduate students becoming more integrated into the undergraduate community, and vice versa.
Still, though many students liked the idea of a space in which all members of the Yale community have an opportunity to interact, some complained that the current plans for the center are too nebulous.
“What will the center have inside?” Esther Portyansky ’16 asked. “Who will be able to use it, and when? The only concrete information that the student body got was the amount of money someone paid to have the building renamed after themselves. I can’t say whether or not I think it’s a necessary addition to campus because I don’t know exactly what kind of addition it is.”
But Yale College Council president Joe English ’17, who also sits on the committee, said that uncertainty is part of what makes the process exciting.
“I think there’s a misconception that it’s already decided what’s going in to the Schwarzman Center,” he said. “It’s truly a pretty wide-open project. I’ve been extremely impressed that the administration is so receptive to student opinions.”