Deniz Saip

In planning the development of the Schwarzman Center, the University has presented students with many opportunities to involve themselves in the process. But while some students have become intimately involved, it appears that the student body as a whole remains disengaged.

Set to open in 2020, the center — made possible by a $150 million gift from Blackstone Group founder Stephen Schwarzman ’69 — will transform Commons into a University-wide student center. University administrators and members of the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee have said the need for student input in the planning process is key. As a result, students have been presented with many ways to get involved, including thorough listening tours conducted last semester and a Thinkathon that took place on Feb. 20. Nevertheless, few students seem to be actively engaged in the center’s development.

“It is a self-selected group of students who are really interested,” said Martha Highsmith, senior advisor to the president and a member of the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee.

Last weekend, the University presented students with yet another chance to share their thoughts on the Schwarzman Center, offering a new incentive: cash. During the Thinkathon event, teams of undergraduates and graduate and professional school students offered ideas for the use of the space to University President Peter Salovey, Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews and Michael Kaiser, an advisor on the center. The team with the best idea received $2,500, the runner up received $1,500 and three other teams received $1,000 under different categories. The other 52 teams registered walked away with $100.

But of the 20 undergraduates surveyed by the News, none said they had been interested in taking part in the Thinkathon, though some said the cash prizes did appeal to them. Those undergraduates, as well as eight graduate students interviewed,  all said they had not actively engaged in the center’s planning. Regarding the Thinkathon, one undergraduate said it was not feasible for her to give up five hours on a Saturday, and another said the only factor pushing him to sign up was the $100 award, which he said signified “desperation” on the part of the University.

But Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor said the cash prizes were meant to reward innovation, and Jeffrey Brenzel — a research associate for the president who took the lead in organizing the Thinkathon — said the cash prizes incentivized participation and made the event “interesting and exciting.” Highsmith added that there is precedent for cash awards, citing a reward for participating in an Association of American Universities campus climate survey on sexual misconduct roughly one year ago.

Still, many said busy schedules and a hesitancy to engage halfheartedly deterred them from participating.

“I don’t have the time,” said Jennifer Cha ’18. “I know this [center] will be around for decades, and if I’m not going to put everything into it I’d rather not be involved.”

But the students who have decided to substantively participate in the center’s planning said events like the Thinkathon facilitate collaboration and investment in the space. But administrators must determine how to balance the preferences and interests of students from across the University. Students from Yale College and the graduate and professional schools naturally have different visions for the center: Undergraduates often think of it as a place for student organizations to meet, while graduate students are attracted to the development of a central social space. It is not enough for just one of these student groups to be involved, because none is representative of the whole.

“Graduate and professional students want this [center] more than your average Yale College student,” said Tyler Godoff SOM ’16, a representative on the advisory committee. “Graduate and professional students are looking forward to this [center] because currently we don’t have the same community dynamics [as the undergraduates]. I don’t think it will detract from any existing traditions, but will instead enhance them.”

The strategy behind the University’s publicity of the center appears to be rooted in reaching various audiences in different ways. This way, conflicting and complementary perspectives will eventually be sorted out and all interested voices will be heard.

Gretchen Wright SOM ’17 DRA ’17, a member of the winning Thinkathon team, said the University has rightfully provided many opportunities for student involvement. One example is through the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee, which includes a total of 12 undergraduate, graduate and professional students. With the exception of student government leaders from across the University, students were required to apply for a position in the group.

“In my opinion, this is a center for students, so what a great opportunity to also have it be by students,” Wright said. “Student participation is key so that we feel an ownership of the space. With that sense of ownership will come good care of the facilities and passionate engagement in its activities and programs moving forward.”

Currently, there are only a few spaces on campus dedicated to graduate and professional students, including the McDougal Graduate Student Center in the Hall of Graduate Studies and the popular student bar, GPSCY. However, Wendy Xiao MD ’17 GRD ’17 noted that HGS is being transformed into a humanities center in 2017, and will no longer be the home of the McDougal Center. While the McDougal Center will continue to function at a temporary location during the renovations, Xiao added that the destination of its new home is still unknown. Additionally, Xiao said that as a bar, GPSCY is only open at night and offers a limited set of activities. For example, GPSCY does not provide room for graduate and professional students to study, work on projects together or bring their families.

More broadly, students from across the University questioned if their opinions would matter at all in the shaping of the center.

“Part of the reason why I don’t want to participate [in the planning] is because I think important decisions are made by the administration already. It would be a waste of students’ time,” Chloe Lin GRD ’16 said. Lin added that many graduate students are more concerned about the HGS renovation, since the elimination of the space as a graduate hub threatens to dissolve the current sense of community among graduate and professional students. She said she does not think the Schwarzman Center would be a good replacement.

To University administrators, however, the Thinkathon and other outreach events have been very successful in their efforts to engage with as much of the Yale community as possible.

Dean of the School of Drama James Bundy, a member of the advisory committee, said he is confident student involvement “accurately reflects student interest.”

Salovey said the Thinkathon furthered his efforts to engage the student body: He heard from almost 200 participants that day, many of whom had not been present at previous events.

The Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee released its report on recommendations for the development of the center in a University-wide email on Feb. 11.