At the Student Organizations Summit on Saturday, my friends in the a cappella community were forced to leave in the middle of callbacks to attend workshops on how to ensure their groups’ success in the coming academic year. Nobody complained out loud. I’m not sure what we were afraid of, although those of us who’ve read the undergraduate regulations know that “defiance of authority” can be punished by expulsion. So we kept quiet.
That summit, where hundreds of representatives of student groups attended meetings, workshops and info sessions, was the culmination of a story that begins in 1993, two years after the end of the Cold War, as the focus of American higher education was shifting from ideology — make better citizens than the Soviet Union — to business, with China emerging as a new competitor. Yale’s endowment would increase from $3.2 billion in 1993 to $20.8 billion by 2013. This exponential growth, seen across the Ivy Leagues, was accompanied by an unprecedented explosion in the size and scale of university bureaucracy, as liberal arts universities pivoted to fill their new role as corporations, first and foremost.
Yale was falling behind Harvard and Princeton; not enough students were entering the lucrative careers that would later fund the endowment. Something needed to be done to pull us up in the rankings, and Yale began the hard work of restructuring undergraduate life. Undergraduate culture was too rambunctious, too creative. Debate groups, singing groups and secret societies were carefully restrained, often with the help of ExComm. Spaces began to be more carefully regulated or shut down entirely.
The Summit is just the latest example of the systematic control over student organizations that has been developing for over two decades, taking away the spontaneity and soul of Yale. Look no further than Commons, once a communal space where professors, graduate students and undergraduates met at all hours of the day. In the 1990s, it began closing one meal at a time. This year, it finally completed its total shutdown. From a place of free association, it has atrophied into a manicured and curated brand-name space for the administration’s vision of “student life,” which will, as has become the norm, be developed by committee after committee of well-meaning students pressed into service in the amateur petty bureaucracy that expands the ranks of the Yale College Dean’s Office more and more with every passing year.
Meanwhile, residential colleges have become the focal point for a new experiment in artificial community. Money pours in, college councils meet, study breaks are organized. But the real elements of community are missing; the turnover rate of deans and heads of college ensures no real continuity, no sacred traditions (Saybrook strip excepted), and no real sense of family, except that which the students create themselves.
Our academic calendar has become cratered with odd events, attempts to fix the overwhelming sense Yalies have that our “community” is a waning mirage. A prime example is “Class Night,” the Old Campus gathering for the first years. It’s an innovation from last year that the administration is already calling “annual tradition,” as if two years a tradition make. An engineered ceremony complete with candles. Having consciously purged ourselves of many prior traditions, we forgot how traditions come to be in the first place.
Saturday was the first run of a nearly daylong workshop session for the several hundred student groups that decided to show up. In addition to a dramatically delivered regurgitation of several hundred pages of information available online, the summit included experimental sessions. In “Sexual Assault Prevention Training” (the assumption that this will help improve our campus culture is analogous to the assumption that raising awareness for breast cancer could help to cure it), group leaders listed values held by their organizations and were instructed to turn over their index cards and list ways to make these concrete. One envisions a day when the values and the steps to achieve them will be dictated by the YCDO. In fact, during the entire process I felt myself to be a guinea pig on which researchers, paranoid about culture, were testing methods of community creation. Everything has to be organized top-down. In this mindset, organic growth — and failure — is dangerous.
I have news for the YCDO: Community can’t be grown in a lab. Values can’t be workshopped. Good culture cannot be trained. Bureaucracy smothers; it doesn’t invite growth. I’d say we need to stop before it’s too late, but it’s probably too late. Some organizations are already joining the hordes of students moving off campus, and many more will follow. It may be the only answer.
Stephan Sveshnikov is a senior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .