Last fall, a taxi driver remarked to me that Yale’s Thanksgiving break was only one day long when he started driving in New Haven in 1968. It was only later that I realized the significance of his quip. Back in 1968, the vast majority of Yale students would have come from the Northeast, making a longer break unnecessary.
In the past half-century, and particularly in the last decade, Yale has become more diverse on many fronts: race, gender, geography and socioeconomic status. We ought to celebrate this diversity. Since the mission of the University is not just to produce, but also to diffuse, knowledge, its composition must extend beyond a narrow elite.
But diversity should not lead to complacency, for it can create new challenges. And as the controversies of last fall demonstrate, diversity alone cannot answer some of the most pressing questions about inclusion and equal opportunity.
Although diversity is undoubtedly a force for good, it can create new cleavages within the student body. As such, new efforts are required to sustain a sense of solidarity. At the inaugural Sophomore Brunch last Saturday, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway commented on the importance of new traditions in forging common experiences amongst an ever-more-diverse class.
While few attendees paid attention to Holloway’s speech, he made an important point. Without fresh attempts to build a shared identity, Yale College runs the risk of fragmenting, especially when the new residential colleges open. Because old assumptions and practices are no longer shared by all students, as they once were when most Yale men (yes, they were all men) came from a handful of prep schools, Yale’s esprit de corps may progressively weaken over time.
One indicator of this phenomenon is the expansion of Greek life at Yale. To be sure, the growth of sororities and fraternities is a national trend, and I disagree that there is anything inherently unhealthy with them. But their rise speaks to a pent-up desire for a sense of community, which is no longer as readily available in the residential colleges.
More students are living off-campus, undermining the centrality of the residential college to the Yale experience. And because students are specializing earlier in their academic careers, and extracurriculars are taking up more time, they are increasingly boxed in to tiny subcultures throughout their time at Yale.
None of these trends are catastrophic. But they do have the potential to fundamentally transform Yale’s culture, segmenting and homogenizing everyone’s social universe.
This shift raises an even bigger issue: How can Yale empower everyone to fully participate — and feel welcome enough to participate — in the life of the college?
The hallowed institution of the Saybrook long table illustrates this conundrum. Sure, everyone can technically sit in the dining hall and talk to whomever is across the table. And this happens at start of freshman year. But after a while, fewer and fewer Saybrugians come to the table. Even if they are physically present, people get left out of conversations.
Let me reiterate: Diversity is a positive good, to appropriate John C. Calhoun’s infamous line. But its power can’t be harnessed if students from diverse backgrounds don’t interact in meaningful and substantive ways. That is Yale’s big challenge, both now and in the years to come. Unless we tackle the problem of fragmentation head-on, diversity will become just another piece of corporate-speak, concealing the fault lines which divide Yale and society at large.
The good news is that there are historical precedents for coping with this challenge. In the 1920s, a rise in Yale’s enrollment alongside the growth of fraternities led to a decline in the social cohesion of Yale’s undergraduate body. There was a need to “prevent [Yale] from becoming an amorphous mass,” the then-University Provost Charles Seymour wrote. With a little copying from Oxbridge, and a generous donation from Edward Harkness, class of 1897, Yale received the residential college system, as we know it today.
Just as Yale has confronted social fragmentation before, it can do so again.
Jun Yan Chua is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .