Subject to Change

Posted on 02. Dec, 2009 by in Criticals

The future of Yale College is spelled out in capital letters on a chart hanging on the plywood wall of Turner Construction Company’s field office. Above it is a colorful schematic of the Prospect-Sachem-Canal Street triangle where Turner will build Yale’s two new residential colleges after razing all the buildings currently on the site. In this office, information about Yale is presented without the prim typographic elegance characteristic of University documents, but no clarity is lost. “PHASE II ABATEMENT AND DEMOLITION” is scheduled for completion in 2012. In November of that year, construction of the new colleges will begin. And, at the bottom of the chart, in red letters, the date July 2015 is listed beside “CONSTRUCTION OF NEW COLLEGES COMPLETE.”

But since Yale’s endowment fell sharply in the fall of last year, the administration has been forced to postpone the project indefinitely, and University officials have insisted that there is no way to predict when Yale will be in a financial position to begin construction. No one connected to the project is willing to guarantee that the chart in Turner Construction’s portable predicts anything with certainty. The project manager there, who said he was not allowed to speak with reporters, described the timeline as a best-case scenario. The Office of Public Affairs would not confirm even the Turner project manager’s guarded assessment. A one-sentence email from Yale spokesperson Gila Reinstein explained, “There is no specific targeted completion date for the new residential colleges at this point.”

That may be the school’s official position, but on August 29, the Yale Daily News reported that President Richard Levin mentioned 2015 or 2016 as probable dates for the opening of the new colleges. Perhaps he and his advisors have a better idea of the timeline than they’re letting on. Despite the apparent uncertainty surrounding Yale’s fiscal position, alumni contributions have allowed Yale to begin the initial stages of the project. Gift money was used to complete the planning and design of the colleges and is now paying for the process of demolishing the buildings currently standing on the site.

Asked why Yale had decided to begin demolition right away even though construction might not begin for some time, Deputy Provost J. Lloyd Suttle wrote in an email, “We want to make sure that we are ready to begin construction as soon as gifts to cover the cost of construction are received.  Keep in mind that before we can begin construction, we will not only have to remove the existing buildings, but we will also have to expand and relocate a number of underground utilities, particularly steam and chilled water pipes.”

Not all were convinced by this explanation. When the Yale Daily News reported that demolition had begun, one online reader commented, “I don’t understand. Building for those egregious new colleges won’t even begin for several years. It shouldn’t take that long to do the utilities work, as they claim. Why is Yale rushing ahead to demolish the whole area so quickly? Are they worried that public opinion will finally get traction and circumvent their plans to take over the whole city?”

Provost Suttle’s explanation also does not agree with numbers from the Office of Development. Although design and demolition at the site have been funded by alumni contributions, the Office of Development’s $500 million fundraising goal will also go towards the increased expenses from faculty hiring and expansion of other programs made necessary by a larger student body. Fundraising, says Vice President of Development Inge Reichenbach, will ultimately need to be supplemented by endowment returns and probably by cash from selling bonds.

Since fundraising for the construction won’t materialize right away, it makes sense that Yale claims to be uncertain when construction will move forward. After all, the timing of the University’s decision to build will have to depend on the state of the global economy, the success of fundraising and how quickly Yale can recruit additional faculty. Finally, Woodbridge Hall will have to make a strategic assessment of just how important the new colleges are in the long term and determine what, if anything, the University should give up in order to see them come to fruition. “I don’t think anyone has a crystal ball to give you the specifics,” said Tom Conroy, Deputy Director of the Office of Public Affairs.

For some, the possibility that the school began demolishing buildings without a clear plan for funding the project is even more alarming. Joel Muraoka (ES ’81), for one, was “furious they didn’t set the money aside in bonds or something before the demolition was undertaken.” He added that he did not intend to make a donation to support the new colleges, because “the way the funding was handled was negligent and now other people are being asked to pay for the mistake. Sounds like the bank bailouts.”

But Vice President Reichenbach says that, in general, alumni have responded generously in support of expansion. Since June 2008, when the Yale Corporation formally approved the expansion of Yale College, alumni have contributed $168 million. Those contributions come during a difficult period for fundraising following the economic crisis in the fall of 2008. “You couldn’t even get an appointment in those days to discuss a donation with an alumnus,” says Reichenbach. Only recently have donors become more willing to open their wallets.

In her ninth-floor office across the Green from Phelps Gate, Reichenbach gestures out the window toward the buildings on top of Science Hill. “I feel like I can see the whole campus from here,” she says. Once construction is finished, she will probably be able to see the brick towers of the new colleges rising behind the greenish dome of the Rotunda as well. It is a clear October day, and New Haven is lit up with sunlight and autumn color. From here, it’s hard not to have quixotic thoughts aboutYale’s future.

Reichenbach is certainly optimistic. Alumni, she says, are excited about the new residential colleges for many of the same reasons current students love the existing twelve. “It’s not just housing,” she explains, choosing her words thoughtfully. “It’s the intensity of relationships and friendships, the education that takes place when people are thrown together and start talking. It opens up minds and views.”

Yale’s online giving catalogue gives some idea of how that fundraising goal will be reached. Although the new colleges themselves will not be named for donors, prices have been set for most of the smaller spaces within the college. A dining hall is five million dollars; a library is two. Each college will have its own TV Lounge, at a quarter of a million apiece. A Servery will cost you the same.

But as exorbitant as the online catalogue of rooms may seem, the Development Office’s methods have proven effective. On the site map in their field office, several buildings are marked with bold black X’s. A solid red square in the nose of the triangular site represents 86 Prospect Street, a medium-sized house sitting at the intersection of Trumbull and Prospect.

Or at least it was until October 28. That morning at 86 Prospect, a large backhoe sat on its treads amid a heap of lumber in a deep pit, loading debris into an idling dump truck.

Professor Amy Hungerford, Director of Undergraduate Studies in the English Department, thinks it is a positive sign that no promises have been made. She would see cause for alarm if Yale clung too tenaciously to “definitive statements about what’s staying and what’s going and what’s getting built.” Hungerford is cautiously optimistic about construction, even though her department, like most others, is already struggling with a constrained budget.

She notes that the economic situation has created a strategic opportunity. It is probable not only that building costs are much lower now than they were two years ago, but also that they may increase again before the endowment regains value and fundraising goals are met.

Furthermore, while budget cuts are always difficult, Professor Hungerford sees a chance for Yale to reassess its priorities. “A recession like this is an opportunity to look at the intellectual landscape – what fields seem less important now than they did twenty years ago. That’s a necessary process, and a really hard process,” she says. Perhaps, she suggests, there are programs the University could afford to eliminate or scale back in order to allow construction to begin sooner, to take advantage of low building costs.

Professor Christopher Udry, chairman of the Economics Department, looks forward eagerly to the construction of the new residential colleges. “The university getting bigger means on balance a better educational environment for students and a better research environment for faculty.” But unlike Hungerford, Udry thinks that Yale isn’t ready to start building yet. “They cannot go ahead and build the colleges until they push forward with faculty expansion and curricular development,” he insists. He says his department would need five years to hire enough new faculty to accommodate an expanded student body. It is expected that demand for economics courses will increase by more than ten percent, since international students, whose numbers continue to grow, tend to be more interested than American students in the social sciences, especially economics. But he expects the administration will cooperate in helping his department expand.

Jonathan Dach (JE ’08) has always been a committed supporter of expansion. While he was a student, Dach was a member of the study group directed by President Levin to explore how the plan for the expansion of Yale College could be best implemented. But he agrees with Udry. “In the midst of cutting other operating expenses, dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on gothic mansions for our students is bad PR for the nation as well as for faculty. The University should wait,” he says.

But if faculty are upbeat about the project, students seem to be either opposed or apathetic. A Yale Daily News poll in February 2008 found that only about a quarter of students supported expansion in principle, even fewer liked the idea of building the new colleges at the Prospect-Sachem site. “Everyone thinks that their Yale is the best,” Dach explains. “There is reluctance on the behalf of current students to innovate or change what works so well for them.” Time will tell whether students’ skepticism is misinformed or well-placed.

Asked to explain the difference in opinion between students and faculty on the question of expansion, Hungerford says, “I think it’s because students are here for four years. For us, Yale is subject to change. We see things that seem so close to the hearts of students – four years later, they’re gone.”

The story of Hammond Hall is a demonstration of the University’s capacity to evolve and change over time. During September and October, preservationist groups such as the New Haven Urban Design League particularly objected to the demolition of Hammond Hall, both because of its architectural significance and its age: it has stood on Mansfield Street since 1904.

The Hall was in Alderman Greg Morehead’s ward, Ward 22. Regarding objections to its demolition, Morehead said he thought most residents liked the idea of the new residential colleges. Then he added, “Yale has been good about trying to do whatever it is the residents want, because they want to be a friendly neighbor. But when it comes to Yale, things are still going to get done, no matter what.”

Events bore out his prediction. On the evening of October 30, a ruined façade is all that remains of Hammond Hall after a day of demolition. Birds fly in and out of the empty windows, and the sun sets just inside the main double doors, which had been burst open by a flood of rubble. Large blocks of brick and cement lay on the porch on the sidewalk, as if Hammond Hall had built been of Legos and someone had been interrupted in the middle of taking them apart.

Perhaps in another hundred years, this spot will be covered in the debris of the fourteenth college. No matter how important the new colleges seem to us and to President Levin, all the controversy and hope that surrounds them today will one day be forgotten and discarded, as was Hammond Hall, in favor of something newer.

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