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It was 1925, and Yale’s enrollment was growing. Dormitories that had for years been merely crowded were beginning to overflow, and the squeeze was forcing more students to move off the campus. For decades, College officials had worried that Yale was gradually losing its identity as an intimate community, and that the small-town institution of the 18th and 19th centuries would eventually deteriorate into an impersonal place where students would be no more than faces in a crowd. Now the scenario was becoming a reality.
So President James Rowland Angell went to the Yale Corporation with a plan. Yale would divide its student body up into units to be housed in quadrangles, where the students would be provided with spacious residential suites, as well as their own libraries, dining halls, sports facilities, and common rooms. Modeled on the system that had flourished for centuries in England at Cambridge and Oxford, the reorganization would create small communities within the larger world of the University. After five years of discussion on the subject, Edward S. Harkness, Class of 1897, donated $15.7 million to establish eight “residential colleges,” each of which would house between 200 and 250 undergraduates. (Harkness also contributed the money to establish a similar system at Harvard.) By 1934, the eight colleges were complete, and by 1962, four more had been added. Together, they made up what has been widely regarded as one of the most successful housing experiments in American higher education, adding a further measure of esprit to the Yale undergraduate experience, and serving as the model for other colleges and universities across the country. Only this fall, a task force at Duke proposed a Yale-style “residential quadrangle” system to help unify the now-dispersed student body and increase its “intellectual rigor.”
But time and changing social patterns have taken their toll on Yale’s own original college system as envisioned by Angell and Harkness. Deferred maintenance during the 1970s and 1980s allowed the physical condition of some of the buildings to deteriorate to an alarming level. The growth of the student body following the admission of female undergraduates in 1969 produced severe crowding in some of the colleges. Meanwhile, the increasingly informal lifestyle of recent generations has strained traditional assumptions about the ways men and women interact, and even what and when students like to eat. And Yale’s efforts to diversify its student population have proved frustrating to some students who, unlike their predecessors, are unable to find enough neighbors of similar backgrounds. In fact, seven decades after President Angell envisioned them as a way to consolidate the undergraduate experience, Yale’s residential colleges may well be contributing to its fragmentation.
The most provocative evidence of this is the steady increase over the past few years in the number of undergraduates who have been abandoning the residential colleges for apartments off campus. In 1970, a small fraction of undergraduates—many of them married—were housed in New Haven apartments. For most of the 1980s, the number hovered around 10 percent. But by this fall, the percentage of off-campus residents had topped 15. The possibility that the trend might continue has sparked concerns that Yale College, once a largely homogeneous society based on a shared residential experience, might become an institution divided between campus-based collegians and voluntary exiles.
Students and administrators agree that a major factor contributing to the off-campus trend is the physical environment presented by the colleges. Across much of the campus, plaster is peeling, and heating is sporadic at best, forcing some students to keep their windows open through the winter while others study in parkas. Plumbing is balky, and stories abound of showers that run very hot or very cold, but rarely in between.
Such woes are primarily a function of age and the failure to maintain the facilities over decades of tight budgets, and the University is now addressing the issue with considerable zeal. Five years ago, Calhoun College was totally renovated at a cost of more than $6 million, and is now as spiffy a setting for student life as it was on its completion in 1932 (except that it is now fully wired for computers). This past summer, Yale spent $8 million on Jonathan Edwards College—rewiring the entire complex, renovating the bathrooms, and replacing the heating system—and $1.8 million on face-lifts of Davenport and Pierson. All of which is only the start of a long-term plan to renovate all of the remaining colleges. (A total of about $7 million has already been spent over the past six years on the Old Campus dormitories.) In a letter to the Yale community last year, President Levin wrote, “I am firmly committed to the goal of bringing all of Yale’s student residences to a level that provides a comfortable, safe, secure, well-maintained environment in which students can live and work.” In addition to the financial expenditures, Levin has also appointed a committee chaired by the Yale College dean to oversee undergraduate housing. Nevertheless, concedes Betty Trachtenberg, the College’s dean of student affairs, “It’s going to take a long time before we can renovate all the colleges.”
But the physical condition of the accommodations turns out to be only one factor in the decision undergraduates make about whether to live on or off the campus these days. After two years in University housing, Dan Koloski, a junior, this fall moved into Kelly House, an apartment building two blocks from the Old Campus on the corner of Crown and Temple streets. The building is one of the more expensive such facilities near Yale, but Koloski will pay no more than he would have to live in Davenport, with which he is affiliated. In return, he and two of his classmates will share three spacious bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a large combined living room-dining room. In Davenport, Koloski and three other students would have had to divide up three small rooms and sleep in bunk beds. “At 20 years old,” he says, “I’m deciding I want my own bedroom.”
The situation is similar in other colleges. Over the years, doubles have become triples, and, in some cases, quads. According to a recent housing report conducted by the University, some level of crowding has afflicted all 12 colleges over the past decade. Silliman, on average, housed 68 percent more students than it was designed to, and three out of every five off-campus students surveyed said lack of space was a “very important” part of their decision to leave the colleges.
Trachtenberg and other officials, however, argue that crowding represents only one aspect of the off-campus phenomenon. The dean points out that the College has been short of space since the 1970s, while the off-campus trend began in the late 1980s. “The physical disadvantages of Yale are one factor,” says Bernard Lytton, the Donald Guthrie Professor of Surgery at the Medical School and master of Jonathan Edwards College. “But I think it’s not as major a factor as people like to think.” No less important, Lytton says, is the decline of the New Haven real estate market, which has made apartments and houses in the neighborhoods surrounding Yale more affordable, particularly for students on financial aid.
Yet another factor is security. While New Haven continues to suffer from the same sort of crime faced by other comparable American cities, security in the immediate campus area, Trachtenberg notes, has improved significantly. Since the 1991 death of sophomore Christian Prince, who was shot while walking on Hillhouse Avenue to his off-campus apartment, the University has spent about $8 million on added lighting, police, and shuttle services. Lampposts now line Hillhouse, and blue-lighted emergency phones have been located strategically both on the campus and around its perimeter. “There’s a sense of security that students living off-campus have that they didn’t used to have,” Trachtenberg says.
Beyond security, administrators say the biggest cause of the off-campus trend may simply be that living outside the college walls no longer makes one a social outcast. In fact, many students see it as stylish. Lytton calls it the “lemming effect”: Younger students see juniors and seniors who enjoy living in an apartment or house, and they follow, eventually creating a discernible group of off-campus dwellers. A Friday-night party in the Park Street home of Jessica Lysons last April provided a typical example. Students talked, drank, and danced while music blared, making the get-together look like a typical college party. The differences were that a solid majority of the students there lived off-campus, and that no master or dean would appear to spoil the fun at 1 a.m.
“The off-campus crowd,” as some on-campus students now routinely call it, has become a community in much the same way a residential college is. Its members gather to study or watch television, drive to the supermarket, and cook dinner for each other. At 15 percent of the undergraduate student body, they also represent a substantially larger group than any residential college’s on-campus contingent.
Minor as it may seem at first glance, food is an important part of the on-campus vs. off-campus equation. A student living in a residential college is currently obliged to pay for a package of 21 meals a week. Those meals are served at fixed hours—which may or may not coincide with the student’s schedule—and no credit is given for missing one. Moreover, the quality and variety of the food leave many customers eager for alternatives. Lysons, for one, cites the escape from the college meal plan as the biggest advantage of living off-campus. “Dining-hall food is so disgusting and so astronomically expensive that I really wanted to start cooking for myself,” she says.
In fairness, Yale College food is probably no worse than it was in decades past or at many other colleges today. And in recent years dining hall managers have tried vigorously to make both the type and quality of the offerings more attractive to undergraduates. Responding to student surveys showing a taste for “basic foods,” they have introduced a number of staple dishes that are available on a daily basis. Bagels are a constant at breakfast, sandwiches at every lunch, and pasta is usually an option at dinner. But the system is still based on the “family-style” concept of three squares eaten with silverware while seated. More and more undergraduates, however, prefer pizza and various other fast-food selections consumed on the run, while the growing vegetarian population wants to prepare its own tofu stir-fry. For many students, breakfast may take place at 11 a.m., while lunch is nonexistent, and the “dinner hour” may mean midnight. A student doesn’t have to be on financial aid to appreciate the amount of money that can be saved by eating “at home” in a shared apartment. “Plus,” says Marciela Ramirez, a junior living in New Haven, “my food tastes better.”
While complaining about the food might in the past have been dismissed as a collegiate rite of passage, the current unhappiness is causing some serious worries on the part of Yale administrators. While the number of undergraduates has remained relatively steady in recent years, the number of meal plans purchased has declined. The result is that the college dining halls are being underutilized, but the costs of the support system—staff, equipment, utilities—continue to rise.
Some University planners are already rethinking the way the dining halls are used. An outside team of consultants will visit the dining halls in December and will submit a report to the University in April. Meanwhile, Yale officials are considering converting Commons (which has been closed for dinner since 1991) into a “food court” that would be open at unconventional hours. But any such consolidation would tend to dilute one enduringly attractive aspect of the colleges' appeal: Even today, meals are the only moments of the day when a large portion of their population is in the same place at the same time.
A less drastic option than creating a central University “mess hall” would be allowing students to buy flexible meal plans, as Brown and many other colleges already do. At those schools, students carry identification cards much like credit cards. As they enter a cafeteria, an attendant runs their cards through a machine. When they miss a meal, they automatically receive credit. But this scheme, too, has a downside: It requires electronic equipment and strict monitoring. “It becomes a different environment,” says Eric Uscinski, assistant director of Yale’s dining halls, who began testing a similar system in Commons this fall. When the college dining halls recently decided to crack down on students who failed to show their meal cards, one shocked undergraduate called Uscinski directly to complain: “Why are you doing this? This is my home.” As matters now stand, students are getting the worst of both worlds, paying for food they don’t eat in an environment they don’t like.
Electronic monitors or no—and regardless of the menu—the colleges are, for a growing number of undergraduates, much less of a home than they used to be. As a group, athletes have always had some trouble fitting into the rest of the Yale routine, and despite “training tables,” many have always chosen to move into apartments. But as Yale has intensified its efforts to diversify its student body, it has created other social groupings that do not always mix well.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, an article of Yale social faith held that part of the College experience involved meeting and living with students from a variety of backgrounds. And the social mix among the residential colleges was deliberately scrambled to avoid concentrating any one group in any one place. But in those days most of the undergraduates were white, all were male, and a majority came from private preparatory schools; the most severe cultural clashes tended to occur between “jocks” and “wonks.” In 1994, roughly half the undergraduates are female, nearly 60 percent are graduates of public high schools, and 34.8 percent are classified as members of racial minorities.
It is hard to ignore the relationship between the changing makeup of the student body and where its members choose to live. In the fall of 1990, 12.8 percent of black and Latino upperclassmen lived off campus. Just two years later, the number had jumped to 20.8 percent. This fall, the number has slipped to about 19 percent, but the concern remains. In Morse College alone, roughly half of the juniors and seniors are living off campus, and according to the college master, Donald Quinlan, minorities account for the largest number of them. There are no statistics on the number of homosexual Yale students, but gay activists assert that a disproportionately high number also choose to live outside the colleges.
For students who have come to Yale from suburban or private-school backgrounds, peer support can be found among the scores of classmates with similar experiences. But the deliberate distribution of members of smaller groups throughout the 12 colleges can isolate those individuals from one another. (Some years ago, the Council of Masters intervened to discourage minority students who were trying to band together in a particular college through reciprocal transfers.) “There’s a lack of community mainly because you don’t start off with enough of a presence,” says Phil Clark, a recent graduate and a former comoderator of Black Students at Yale. “People of color do not want to stay here.”
Discrimination remains an issue, however subtle. The simple fact that a college’s main athletic facility tends to be a squash court rather than a basketball court is cited by some undergraduates as a symbol of how out of touch Yale is with where today’s students are coming from. (Several of the courts have recently been converted.) Not surprisingly, many minority members seek in off-campus housing the sense of community they feel the colleges deny them.
Some colleges have taken steps to address the problem. Pierson College Dean Christa Dove last spring convened a forum on the issue of minority students and the colleges. She and Pierson’s master, Ivo Banac, specifically invited students of color who lived off-campus to discuss the issue. In Calhoun College, Aaron Lieberman '94 and Karilyn Crockett '95 helped organize a program called the Cultures in the Residences Series, which included study groups and a talent show aimed specifically at attracting students of all backgrounds. “By far, the overwhelming atmosphere and ethos of the residential college is white,” said Lieberman, noting that the colleges' social activities committees tend to have little minority representation.
While publicly supporting such efforts to combat the off-campus trend, some University administrators will concede privately that it has its advantages. For one thing, it eases the college housing squeeze. For another, the movement of students out of the colleges can be viewed as an indirect way to gentrify the shabbier neighborhoods adjoining the campus. But these same officials will also acknowledge that the trend worries them. What would it mean to Yale as a whole if enough students came to believe that the residential colleges are no longer central to the College experience?
It is in fact a rare undergraduate who will argue that the colleges are an inherently bad system. Most are more concerned with ways to fix their emerging weaknesses, which the originators of the system could hardly have anticipated.
Time and money will provide some of the solutions. The rest, however, are likely to require some difficult decisions. Dining hall managers will need to find a line somewhere between efficiency and a sense of community. Financial-aid officers will be forced to look for additional ways to ease the burden on students who move off-campus in order to save money. University administrators will have to engage more with the city as they search for ways to expand dormitory space. And deans and undergraduates will have to come to terms with the fact that the process of integrating the student body is still not complete, even 70 years after it began in earnest.
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