The Old College Try

Early last month, a Yale alumna agreed to take a quick meeting with a University development officer. The meeting, later described by the alumna as “very low-key,” was only one in an extended series of interviews currently being conducted by Yale development officers across the country. They are part of the “quiet phase” of a major University fundraising drive scheduled to be formally unveiled in September. Representatives are conducting a vast number of interviews with alumni to pinpoint topics that will make nostalgia flourish, hearts rush, and money flow, which will allow the Development Office to finalize its fundraising goals.

The alumna reported that the development officer had casually sketched the University’s hopes for what could be achieved and asked for her reactions. Nothing too innovative, the officer suggested: just expansions of current projects. Except for one thing: adding two more residential colleges. “Would you have a reaction to that?”

* * *

Alumni have heard this pitch before. From its 1933 inception, the residential college system has evolved to accommodate a growing student population. In fact, a swell in enrollment was the system’s original impetus. Old Brick Row, the alternating series of rectangular dorms and churches that housed Yale in its early days, could not even provide enough beds for the smaller student population of 1870. The current Old Campus, haphazardly built in the final decades of the 19th century, was also quickly outgrown. The 750 students who graduated in 1920 could have wiped the floor with their fathers’ class in a rousing (if not particularly suspenseful) game of Bladderball, for they outnumbered the Class of 1899 by more than two to one. Connecticut Hall, the last vestige of Old Brick Row, was preserved as auxiliary housing, but even its salvation could not forestall the pending crisis. Had such growth accrued today, Yale might have simply squeezed an unprecedented third bed inside a Bingham single. The students of a hundred years ago, however, would not stand for such indignities and began to move off campus in droves.

By 1925, the housing situation had grown untenable. That winter, University President James R. Angell submitted a plan for “dividing the student body into a number of groups somewhat resembling the English colleges.” With new students to fill the space and a donation from Edward Harkness, Class of 1897, to provide grist for the mill, 1933 saw the construction of new buildings and the birth of the first seven undergraduate colleges. As Yale’s student population continued to grow, new residences were quickly added: Berkeley in 1934, Timothy Dwight in 1935, and Silliman in 1940. Morse and Stiles followed in 1961, replacing a city public school.

The arrival of coeducation in 1969 presented Yale with a choice: scale back male enrollment or increase housing. For then-President Kingman Brewster, the decision was clear. Hoping to replicate the success his predecessor had enjoyed a decade earlier, he commissioned plans to construct the 13th and 14th residential college.

The plans had the three key ingredients: a donor, a site, and a stack of blueprints. A donation by 1926 alum John Hay would fund the colleges. They would be built on land just north of Timothy Dwight, bordered by Whitney, Grove, and Temple Streets—Yale on two sides, New Haven on two others. Mitchell/Giurgola Associates, the architectural firm hired to design the site, hoped the new colleges would serve as “a vital area where the University merges with the City, a crossroads for campus and community, a place of encounter.” To facilitate this town-gown bonding, the proposed nine-story high-rises bore little resemblance to traditional, courtyard-orientated academic enclaves. Commercial facilities and parking lots would occupy the building at street level. Though gates would restrict access to the small, sunken courtyards, public walkways would transverse the site to promote the sense of connection to the city.

Even the building’s aesthetic, featured in adjacent drawing, would join it with the city, combining the reds of TD with the white of surrounding city structures. To achieve this, the oversized, russet bricks of the façade would be punctuated by jutting, off-white plexiglass bay windows that seemed plucked from the set of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. These modules would be outfitted with desks so that students could contemplate the city while contemplating A Tale of Two Cities—a concurrence that might prompt them to apply their academic expertise on real-world problems.

The rooms were grouped into suites containing four to eight singles that shared a bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen. Together, these spaces were incorporated into three-story compounds, with half of the students living above the common area and the other half below. The plan abandoned the traditional entryway system even more decisively than Morse and Stiles, calling for hallways whose exterior walls would be glass, flooding the buildings with light and further emphasizing a connection with the city.

But the city, it turned out, wanted none of it. Brewster faced strong opposition from the Mayor’s Office, a stark contrast to the reception President Alfred Griswold had enjoyed when he oversaw the construction of Morse and Stiles. Richard C. Lee, the youngest and longest-serving mayor in the city’s history, had been replaced by Bartholomew F. Guida. This change of guard marked the end of amicable relations between the President and Mayor’s offices. Unable to collect taxes on land occupied by the University, Guida passed an amendment designed to prevent its expansion by requiring city permission for any Yale property acquisitions. Though Morse and Stiles were built on land purchased from New Haven, City Plan Director John McGurty refused to give up space on Whitney and Grove. “I do not feel,” he professed, “that such a crossroads can be achieved.” This statement epitomized opinion throughout New Haven.

The city’s objections, combined with a vague show of student opposition and some difficulties involving the relocation of a historic house on the proposed site, ultimately spelled defeat the project’s defeat. Originally due to welcome its first students in the fall of 1975, the current site of the planned Whitney-Grove Colleges is now an office block—a frontier in lieu of the envisioned crossroads.

* * *

The plan for a set of Whitney-Grove Colleges ended in public disaster and embarrassment. Today, President Richard Levin, who has devoted much of his tenure to revitalizing Yale’s infrastructure, has no desire to reenact past misfortunes. Groundwork for the renewed attempt will be laid as firmly as the buildings’ future foundations. This time, the early stages will be kept secret: Not since February 2004, when Levin divulged that the University was considering between two and four new residential colleges and had been “for some time,” has the issue surfaced publicly.

Meetings with alumni about financing these new colleges are conducted under the umbrella of the fundraising drive, even though Mark Reach ’02, a Yale development officer, certifies that “the building of new residential colleges is not part of the upcoming campaign.” Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach ignores Levin’s two-year-old announcement and does not acknowledge the discussions her staff conducts. “There are no plans currently to build new residential colleges,” she says, “and we therefore have no reason to include a discussion about this topic in any of our meetings with alumni.” Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander agreed with Reichenbach, writing that “there are no such current efforts.” Yet a recent alumni newsletter announced his assumption of new duties including the “management of facilities planning, construction, renovation and operations.” This suggests the University is gearing up for major “facilities” projects that will require the city’s cooperation.

Regardless of such denials, the increasing student body makes expansion inevitable. Former Vice President for Finance and Administration John Pepper agreed, telling The Yale Daily News in the days after Levin’s announcement that “it was a question of when, not whether, it will happen.”

With Levin’s on-the-record confession that plans have been mounting, why all the secrecy? Part of the hush is due to the time guaranteed to elapse before ground is broken; Levin and his team have other priorities before their attention can be fully directed to the expansion of the college system. Most pertinently, renovations to the existing colleges must be completed. With a recent confirmation that Calhoun, Morse, and Stiles are also slated for remodeling, construction of their new brethren is unlikely to be completed for at least a decade.

* * *

Levin’s announcement explicitly stated the motive for housing expansion. “There are so many outstanding students that we must turn down,” he explained. “If Yale has a modest expansion, we would be fulfilling our mission even more than today.” With this year’s acceptance rate of 8.6% once again setting a new Ivy League record for selectivity, it is clear that students must desperately claw their ways into Yale. Two new colleges comparable in size to the current twelve would allow the admissions department to make roughly 250 more high school seniors per year—and their parents—very, very happy.

Some current students, however, worry that the larger class size would threaten class unity. Also, unless new faculty positions were offered (necessitating, of course, new office space), the teacher-student ratio would plunge. This is a serious concern, but those wary of expanding enrollment are not necessarily against the creation of colleges. They claim that the University needs at least that many new beds to accommodate the students it already has; present crowded conditions have annexed as many as half of the junior class in some colleges. Still, a return on the investment calls for new students. And if Levin’s motive for construction is to give more high-school seniors a Yale experience, students dreaming of singles will be disappointed.

A different issue is likely to rouse more campus interest: Where will the new colleges be situated? Having learnt from its 1970s mistake, the University will likely build the future residential colleges on land it already owns—denying the city its veto. This restriction limits designers to a handful of possible sites, and the ensuing debate over which to choose is grounded in more than a century of Yale’s development.

The terrain of that debate, and of New Haven, was extensively surveyed in a 2000 report Yale commissioned from a New York architecture and urban design firm, Cooper, Robertson & Partners. The 193-page document, A Framework for Campus Planning, offers an illustrated examination of the University’s architectural legacies, realities, and potential—advising on policies regarding everything from construction and landscaping to signage and transit. As a framework rather than a master plan, it allows for deviation: Yale’s decisions can remain flexible.

A preponderance of evidence in the framework points to the area just north of the Grove Street Cemetery on Prospect Street—currently home to a cluster of three-story houses, the avowedly temporary silver “diner,” Brewster Hall, and the Art School’s Sculpture Department (already slated for relocation to Edgewood)—as the likely new home for eight hundred Yale students. In one of the report’s maps, an overlay suggesting future uses lays the word “residential” over the area—though no one lives there. Another diagram, detailing the 19 sites recommended for “major initiatives,” suspiciously bifurcates this triangle into 7a and 7c, as one would divide space between two colleges, and allows room for 7b—a pedestrian corridor like Library Walk that would lead students to Swing Space, the gym, and the burgeoning retail on Broadway. The location’s new neighbors are further proof of possible University designs for the area: Rose Security Center was recently constructed on Ashmun, and University Health Services’ proposed new home is on the corner of Canal and Lock. If these street names are unfamiliar now, they won’t be to the class of 2020; their distance from the currently perceived heart of campus is part of their appeal. Yale is moving to surround Grove Street Cemetery. Science Hill, the focus of renewed University commitment in the form of a five-hundred million dollar suite of construction projects, is alienated from the rest of campus. Bringing two residential colleges to the north axis would reinvigorate the area, moving the figurative center of campus north along College Street from the end of Cross Campus to the front doors of Woolsey Hall. The site is actually no further from Commons than Pierson.

A second proposed site, the east border of Cross Campus, is closer to the current campus center. The old brick frat house at 451 College occupied by the Literature and Religious Studies Departments is slated for demolition, despite recent restoration. Parking Lot 51, which occupies much of the block’s interior, will be torn up and moved across Temple Street or underground. Hendrie Hall could stay or go. Either way, acres of land will become available in the very heart of Yale, and everyone is fighting for the privilege of building on it: Departments want more offices, aesthetes hope for open space, and the Music School would always love a larger concert hall. Were it given to the Political Science department as a replacement for Brewster Hall, Yale could simultaneously recognize the discipline’s increasing popularity and clear the final barrier to the construction of new colleges on Prospect Street. On the other hand, centrally-located new colleges could trump all of those concerns—no student could complain of being exiled to the hinterlands of campus.

Much less likely candidates are the current location of YUHS on Hillhouse, the awkward corridor now occupied by GPSCY and the Af-Am House, or the site of Davenport and Saybrook’s new annex at Harrison Court. Location will certainly affect the aesthetic of the new colleges, but they will undoubtedly follow the planned renovations of Cross Campus Library in reverting to Yale’s traditional courtyards and Collegiate Gothic.

* * *

Harvard recently issued a conservative estimate for its expansion across the Charles River that placed the cost of three new dorms at $173 million. While not astronomical, it’s hardly pocket change. To attract a donor, Princeton recently agreed to name its sixth college after eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who financed the construction. Whether alumni donors will demand naming rights and whether Yale would grant the request is hard to predict. Yale has long avoided bartering naming rights in exchange for donations. Not one of the existing twelve is named after the donor who paid for it. Even Edward Harkness, whose donations funded more than half of the colleges, was rewarded only with a tower. Vice President Reichenbach would not speculate on whether the University would continue its current tack or echo Princeton’s. The latter policy would certainly ease the process of locating donors to cover the project.

If the alumna the development officer spoke with is an accurate litmus test, the bribe may not be necessary. While not eager to see another Morse or Stiles, she hoped for expansion. Like Levin, alumni are keeping track of record-breaking rejection rates. Those wealthy enough to be substantial donors are often old enough to have kids, whose chances of a large envelope dwindle each year. “From the point of view of alumni,” the alumna commented, expansion seems like “a good thing because it has been so hard to get your kids in.”

If that enthusiasm inspires donations without the stipulation of naming rights, the names of these new colleges may be up for grabs. Kingman Brewster is a slightly stodgy option, but an appropriate one, especially if Brewster Hall is demolished to make way for the new structures. Sinclair Lewis, Class of 1908, could also deserve a college on merit; John Hersey ’36 would be an appropriate counterpart. Both have a certain ring.

Brewster jokingly proposed naming the Whitney/Grove colleges “Harry” and “George.” New York Times columnist John Tierney ’75 suggested “Man” and “God.” Everyone throws out “Bush” and “Clinton”—or “Bush” and “Bush.”

With two existing colleges (Saybrook and Branford) named for Connecticut towns and ten for white men—including John C. Calhoun, the intellectual progenitor of the Confederacy—there may be pressure to consider female and minority namesakes for the 13th and 14th college. Maya Lin’s name is often dropped in that regard.

Annie Talbot ‘75 facetiously described the onerous burden of living in Calhoun, saying that she “frequently had to apologize for living in the college named after a slaveholder. So I guess it would be wise to stay away from luminaries whose subsequent reputation may be tainted by political incorrectness.” Talbot suggests Meryl Streep, arguing that enough is enough on Maya Lin—she has a Yale memorial already. But other options arise. “All of the current college names are so WASPy—there should be one with a Jewish name. How about Levin? What other Jews are associated with Yale?” Could future students live in Wendy Wasserstein College?

Tierney also suggests naming them after fictional Yalies, who are currently as underrepresented as women and minorities. Crotchety Simpsons overlord Montgomery Burns ’14, Bonfire of the Vanities anti-hero Sherman McCoy, and Fitzgerald’s violent, adulterous Tom Buchanan ’15 are among those who might have the means to buy the honorific out from underneath those more deserving, like fake alumni Nick Carraway (a member of Buchanan’s secret society) and Michael Doonesbury who, like his creator, began as a lowly Yale undergrad.

Whoever the 13th and 14th colleges are named after will secure a place in Yale’s history. Contrary to Talbot’s joking suggestion to name them after Levin, there is no need to commemorate the Yale President so explicitly—as the overseer of the planning and construction of these edifices, he will have left a large mark. The 13th and 14th residential colleges are a fitting feather in the cap of a President who renovated the first twelve. Opening the University he has rebuilt to the denizens of new colleges is a worthy endeavor, and one whose time, if still only in secret, has come.

Jonny Dach, a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College, is Managing Editor of TNJ.