When speaking about the renovations of Commons and Memorial Hall, many currently on campus may be unaware of the history and needs that have been taken into consideration in the planning. It was the students, in the form of the Yale College Council, the Graduate and Professional Student Senate and the Graduate Student Assembly, who issued a joint report in 2014 calling for a University-wide student center:
“A student center will provide new opportunities for collaboration, mutual learning and connection between students … The formal and informal relationships nurtured in such an environment will make Yale a more creative, healthy and unified community.”
Yale is fortunate to have excellent facilities for student interaction within its residential colleges and some of our professional schools, but Yale has historically lacked a place that, as the student report puts it, “bridges the boundaries between undergraduate, graduate and professional students.” As faculty and staff who work closely with students, we too believe that the University needs such a space.
Over the years, the Yale Daily News has printed multiple editorials calling for a central place on campus for student activities. Commons and Memorial Hall, opened in 1901–02 as part of the celebration of Yale’s bicentennial, have always been beloved spaces, but in recent years have fallen into disrepair and are in desperate need of renovation.
Hearing students’ concerns, University President Peter Salovey in 2015 approached one of Yale’s most generous donors, Stephen Schwarzman ’69, with a proposal to renovate these buildings in ways that would also satisfy the need for such a center. Schwarzman agreed wholeheartedly, saying at the time of the announcement, “The education I received at Yale changed the course of my life. It is now a pleasure to give back by creating something on campus that will be transformational for all members of the Yale community. Future generations will utilize the Schwarzman Center in innumerable new ways and, in so doing, keep the Yale experience at the cutting edge.”
Subsequently, the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee, chaired by Lynn Cooley, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and Jonathan Holloway, then dean of Yale College, and consisting of 12 students, seven faculty and nine senior staff, held over 50 listening and consultation sessions in the fall of 2015. Their report, available on the Schwarzman Center website, outlines five main principles for the Center:
1) Vibrant programming that draws students to the center night and day will be the linchpin of its success.
2) Food and dining are key ingredients of a successful center.
3) The arts can and should animate much of the life of the Center.
4) Space for meetings should be flexibly configured and made widely available to student groups throughout the University.
5) Both professional staff and student leadership are crucial to the Center’s success.
Over the past two years, architects and planners have worked to create a compelling plan to renovate the buildings so as to put these principles into practice. In addition, faculty and students are actively involved in the search for a founding director for the Schwarzman Center.
As deans and vice presidents who have been involved in the efforts to bring President Salovey’s vision of the Schwarzman Center to life, we are excited about its role in the Yale of the future. Last academic year, as a way to test out the space and the concept and to envision the future of the Center, the University hosted three major events in Commons: “Jazz: A Celebration of America’s Sound,” “Blackstar Rising & The Purple Reign: Celebrating the Legacies of David Bowie and Prince” and “Food Conversations,” featuring four world-renowned chefs. All three events were well-attended and hugely fun.
When complete, the Schwarzman Center will include venues for flexibly designed performances, including Commons itself, a small dance studio, the beautiful dome room and a bistro ideal for spoken word events. A pub will cater to students over the age of 21. Gallery space outside the current President’s Room will allow for art exhibitions. We can envision students and professional artists sharing their performances, their creations and their innovations throughout the Center. There will also be plenty of space for meetings of student groups and for more informal interactions.
We understand that despite efforts to inform and include faculty and students in the planning processes, many may not be familiar with the goals of the Schwarzman Center. We will continue our efforts to be inclusive in our planning before the renovated Center opens in three years’ time. Those who have been involved in the planning so far recognize the great opportunity that the Schwarzman Center presents to achieve the goals proposed by Yale’s three main student government bodies: a place for “collaboration, mutual learning and collaboration at the heart of the campus.”
Marvin Chun is the dean of Yale College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lynn Cooley is the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Contact her at email@example.com. Kimberly Goff-Crews is secretary and vice president for student life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Pericles Lewis is vice president for global strategy. Contact him at email@example.com .