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The Masters’ Touch
Overseeing Yale’s residential colleges has never been easy. What makes it harder nowadays is that the day-to-day demands keep changing. What still makes it alluring is that the fundamental mission remains the same.

Most of Yale remembers the late A. Bartlett Giamatti as a former President. But he was also, for two years, master of Ezra Stiles College, and he was no less eloquent on that subject than he was on literature, baseball, and the Yale Presidency. “The Master,” Giamatti wrote in 1983, “is the person upon whom the success of our whole enterprise most delicately, persistently and enduringly depends. The Master is the point of reconciliation for all the academic energies, personal values, and administrative wisdom that has made and makes the college system successful. Far more than Yale has always recognized, we depend upon extraordinary individuals to make an institution as educationally ambitious as ours work.”

Since its founding, in 1933, Yale’s residential college system has been a special source of pride for the University, adding to the undergraduate educational experience a social one that continues to distinguish the College from even the strongest of its competitors. But with the passage of time that system has come under increasing pressure. The Yale College of 62 years ago counted a mere 1,556 undergraduates, compared to today’s 5,236. All of the students of the 1930s were male, virtually all of them lived on the campus, and the overwhelming majority were white Protestants who came from privileged backgrounds and had attended a handful of New England boarding schools. The college masters shared many of the same attributes, and their involvement with their charges had a comfortable predictability about it.

By Giamatti’s time, the role of the masters had already begun to change, but even he might be surprised by how things have developed in recent years. Masters still entertain undergraduates in the gracious masters' houses, but the occasion is more likely to be a midterm pizza party than an elaborate formal dinner. Masters still preside over the grand dining halls and libraries of their colleges, but despite a vigorous and continuing renovation campaign, many of the buildings remain in disrepair, plagued by peeling paint, drafty windows, and temperamental plumbing. Masters still come to the aid of students in difficulty, but many of their problems—eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, date rape, suicide attempts—are more serious than those the masters of 1933 had to confront.

No one is more familiar with today’s Yale mastership than Robert Farris Thompson, who has overseen the affairs of Timothy Dwight College since 1978, the longest run of any serving master. And perhaps none so clearly embodies the way the job—and Yale—have changed since the storied times of masters like Basil “Duke” Henning of Saybrook, Thomas Bergin of Timothy Dwight, and John Hersey of Pierson. Like those masters and most of their predecessors, Thompson was born to a wealthy family and received a traditional education (preparing at Andover, followed by both a BA in 1955 and a PhD in 1965 from Yale). But in a host of ways, his career has been highly unorthodox.

Thompson was an advocate of African art long before multiculturalism became a political issue, and he is now a leading authority on African and Afro-American art and music. (Currently on a leave of absence, he has recently taught “From West Africa to the Black Americas: The Black Atlantic Visual Tradition,” and “New York Mambo: Microcosm of Black Creativity,” two of Yale’s most original and popular courses.) He is the author of eight scholarly books, but his writing also appears in the Village Voice, New York’s durable tabloid of alternative lifestyles. He is a stickler for correct grammar, but is no less passionate about the fortunes of T.D.’s football team. Symbolizing the evolution of Yale’s own academic perspective, Thompson last March was named the Colonel John Trumbull Professor of the History of Art, a post formerly held by his departmental colleague Vincent Scully, who made his academic name studying Greek temples and the country houses of the American leisure class.

The mastership of Timothy Dwight often dovetails with Thompson’s academic interests. “I take a holistic view of what I do—my teaching and my mastering are all one,” he says. The master’s house at T.D. bears witness to this philosophy. It is filled with African and South American paintings, textiles, sculptures, and pottery. “I use my house as a teaching aid,” explains Thompson. “I teach off the walls.”

Although “Master T,” as he’s known to his students, listens to rap and hip-hop music and uses expressions like “way mod,” he retains some distinctly traditional ideas about mastership. Masters, he says, should exert a moral force in their colleges. “There’s a lot of emphasis at Yale on power, on money. We know those two will always be around,” he says. “What needs nurturing, and careful cultivating, are our powers of moral decision. Masters have got to find ways to expose Yale students to values, not just brilliance; ethics, not just computer speed.”

Thompson is hardly alone in his concern for the extracurricular development of his students. Kelly Brownell, Thompson’s neighbor across Temple Street at Silliman College, is a vigorous promoter of egalitarianism. A professor of psychology and epidemiology and the master of Silliman since 1994, Brownell willingly relinquishes some of his authority to his students. “I could make all the decisions here myself, and in some cases I might have made a different decision than the one the students made,” he says. “But I think it’s very important for everyone in the college community to have say in how it’s governed.” Brownell runs his college like a democratic republic, instructing students who ask for funding from the master’s office to “get together a little lobbying group, decide exactly what you want, and prove to me that this is a widespread interest.”

In fact, Brownell claims that it is the cooperative nature of the college system that makes his mastership possible. “The job would be taxing if I were the only one responsible for these kids,” he says, “but there are the freshman counselors, the dean, and resources outside the college. I’m not doing this alone.” A recent emergency brought home the value of this human safety net: “A student in Silliman got hit by a car last fall. Within minutes of the accident, I was on the phone to her parents, the dean was on the way to the hospital, and a freshman counselor was talking to the woman’s roommates about it,” relates Brownell. “There’s a whole network of people in place to help the students. The network isn’t only for students who get hurt—it’s there whenever anyone needs it.” The small size of the residential colleges further ensures a measure of intimacy and familiarity. As Brownell points out: “It wasn’t some bureaucrat calling her parents—it was someone who knew them and who knew their daughter.”

Although Gerald Thomas ’73PhD spent 30 years in the Navy, serving as commanding officer on several ships, his manner as master of Davenport is far from authoritarian. Thomas prides himself on the friendliness of his relations with students. It was Thomas’s willing ear, in fact, that originally led to his appointment as a master. In 1991 he was a lecturer in African and African American Studies and History, with an office in Davenport College. He often invited students in to talk, and when Master Henry Turner vacated his post, Thomas was surprised to find his name on the short list for Turner’s replacement. When Thomas accompanied then-president Benno Schmidt to the Davenport courtyard to announce his new appointment, the two were greeted by cheering students, leaning out windows and standing on tables. (Thomas says that Schmidt, who was facing strong faculty opposition to his restructuring plans, turned to him and said, wryly, “Well, I guess I did something right.”)

Having served as master of Davenport for four years, Thomas keeps a paternal model in mind. “The college is like a family, and the master is the head of it,” he says. “The members of the family include the students, the fellows, the staff—everyone who works here and lives here. And as in any family, you encourage the children to do the best they can, to grow, to thrive.” Thomas’s familial metaphor transcends even his racial identity. “I’m proud to be an African American, but in terms of my mastering, it’s irrelevant,” he says. “My children in the college cover the whole spectrum of colors, and I feel lucky to have such a diverse family.”

Thomas says he tries to participate as much as possible in the life of the college, and he finds that the students respond to his efforts. “You'd be amazed at how many students take advantage of our open-door policy to come in and talk to us, especially when the problems come,” says Thomas. He recalls particularly the senior in Davenport who learned that her father had a brain tumor. “We practically adopted that girl; she became like a daughter to us,” says Thomas. “She let all her defenses down and accepted the comfort we offered her, and she made it all the way through to Commencement. If we hadn’t been here, I don’t know if she would have pulled through.” Thomas adds that he and the woman are still in touch.

Harry Stout, master of Berkeley College and the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity, shares with Thomas a concern for his students' emotional and personal lives, but, like Thompson, believes firmly in his role as an educator. “As a master, I see myself as a teacher outside the classroom,” Stout says. “I’m not a lecturer or a performer, but more like a tutor, who works one-on-one or with small groups of students.” Stout finds that the mastership offers advantages that teaching lacks. “The relationship you have with students in the classroom is an artificial one—they’re on your turf, and you are an authority figure,” says Stout. “When you’re a master, you meet students on their turf—the dining hall, the courtyard—and you get to know them in another way. You see a whole new side of students, and in every instance it’s been a delightful insight.”

Even with the weight of tradition behind them, Yale’s masters feel that the role is theirs to shape. “There isn’t any job description for master,” says Rev. Harry Adams '45W, '51BD, master of Trumbull College and the chairman of the Council of Masters. “You try to create the most welcoming and inviting atmosphere you can, but how you do that is up to you.” At the same time, the masters' close links to the administration give them significant leverage within the University. Bernard Lytton, master of Jonathan Edwards College and a professor of surgery at the School of Medicine, says that “masters can cut across a lot of red tape.” He was one of several masters who lobbied hard and successfully for changes in the running of the dining halls. Because masters live in the colleges, they have a more intimate knowledge of students, and a closer connection to their affairs, than any Woodbridge Hall administrator. “The master gives the students a voice in the governance of the University that students at other places just don’t have,” says Harry Stout. “If Berkeley students' hot water is not on, my hot water isn’t on, and I’m going to call physical plant and have it fixed.” From the students' perspective, masters put a familiar face on a huge and often anonymous bureaucracy.

The master’s house is central to the vitality of what Robert Thompson describes as the “miniature worlds” of the residential colleges. It is usually the first place masters and students meet, most often at a reception for freshmen and their parents given at the start of school. The remaining years are punctuated by Halloween and Christmas parties, “studybreaks” (evening gatherings with snacks for hungry scholars), and master’s teas (informal discussions between students and a visitor to the college), all of which provide a comfortable setting for masters and students to socialize. Says Harry Adams: “I suppose there are some who graduate without having been in our house, but it’s not because they haven’t been invited.”

Masters also maintain a constant presence in the college itself. Robert Thompson considers himself under an “unofficial decree” that masters eat at least one meal a day with their students. “I hold 'office hours' at the long table in the dining hall, and students will come over to talk,” he says. “Sometimes we just shoot the breeze, and sometimes I hear hints of something that needs to be done.” Students and masters also get to know each other while managing the affairs of the college. Many masters are closely involved with the student-run college council and student activities committee.

Still another place where masters meet students is on the playing field. “I’m a nut about intramurals. They’re one of the best and most immediate ways of getting a college together,” says Thompson, whose college is almost always in the running for the annual intramural trophy, the Tyng Cup. He regards his own participation in athletics as an inducement to the rest of his college: “I try to get everyone involved in sports, even those who think they don’t have any ability. I say to them: If I can do it, a pot-bellied old man, then—good God!”

The masters' rapport with students also demands a sensitivity to when things are amiss. “I rely on a sort of sixth sense to tell me what’s going on, when something’s wrong,” says Harry Stout. “Students may not realize it, but I’m keeping an eye on all of them.” Often, students themselves seek out their master’s help and counsel. Problems of students range from the mild—roommate squabbles, uncertainty about the future—to the severe. One of the most common, according to Kelly Brownell, is alcohol abuse. “Masters have to walk a fine line between recognizing that parties and drinking are part of the fun of going to college, and making sure that their students are healthy and safe,” he says. That balance, he acknowledges, can be difficult to attain. “It breaks my heart to see people heading toward a serious alcohol problem,” says Brownell. “It breaks my heart to see people putting themselves at risk, making bad sexual decisions, becoming aggressive and belligerent when drinking.” Occasionally, masters may even have to confront the threat of suicide. “We haven’t had any 'successful' suicides in Trumbull, thankfully, though we have had a number of attempts,” says Harry Adams. (According to officials, Yale has not had an on-campus undergraduate suicide in more than 10 years, a fact some attribute to the residential college system and its network of support services.)

When dealing with the problems of undergraduates, masters often turn first to other students. Freshman counselors (whom masters help select) and ethnic counselors live in the entryways, and can sound an early warning if one of their charges is in trouble. Masters also rely heavily on their aides, undergraduates who are paid to work in the master’s office. “I work very closely with my master’s aides,” says Harry Stout. “They’re my eyes and ears around the college.” The dean of each college provides another kind of assistance. Unlike the mastership, which is a half-time position, the dean is a full-time member of the administration, usually a junior professor who teaches one class a year. The dean manages the academic and bureaucratic business of students' lives: organizing course registration, arranging housing, listening to sheepish requests for a dean’s excuse for late papers. Despite this formal division of labor, masters and deans often share responsibility for many of the tasks concerning the college. Masters also gain support and advice from each other, at the monthly meetings of the Council of Masters. As a group, the 12 masters discuss issues, exchange information, and set policy.

Masters must also look after their own families, many of which include small children. Branford College master Worth David and his wife, Nina Glickson (a member of the first graduating class of Yale College women in 1972 and now an assistant to President Levin), have a ’-year-old daughter, Sarah. David calls the atmosphere of a residential college “terrifically stimulating” for a family and says that by living there, “Sarah is exposed to a rich and varied slice of life—she has babysitters from all over the world.” Kelly Brownell has two sons and a daughter, ranging in age from 7 to 14. Being a master while being a father, he says, has benefited both his children and his college. “It’s been great for my family,” says Brownell. “My kids love it. The students play with them, ask them questions, involve them in their activities.” He recalls a moment early in his first year as master when his son Kevin, then 9 years old, was watching the boisterous Freshman Olympics from a corner of the courtyard. “One of the freshman counselors went up to him and asked him to join the red team, and Kevin ran upstairs to put on a red shirt and joined the game,” Brownell says. “After that, he felt like he was a part of the college.” His daughter, Kristy, is a well-known figure in the college courtyard, riding her pink bicycle around the flagstone path.

Despite their different approaches to the job, there are some aspects of university life which all masters must address. One of these is the racial, sexual, and ethnic diversity of the Yale student body. Many masters feel that the nature of the residential college system prevents some of the racial “balkanization” seen at other schools. “I think one of the best things about Yale is that people are randomly assigned to their colleges,” says Brownell. “I would defend that practice against all opposition, because if you allow people to choose their own colleges, you end up with theme dorms rather than integrated communities.”

Still, tensions arise. “A few years ago, a group of African American students came to me and told me they didn’t feel comfortable in the college,” says Bernard Lytton. “There were not many black people in the college at that time, and they were considering moving off campus. I made an effort to recruit more African American students for the college, and began sponsoring various African American events—dances, fraternity events, discussion groups. We worked together to make the college a more hospitable place.” Robin Winks, a former master of Berkeley, says that “it is the responsibility of masters to prevent a preponderance of any one community in a college.” On the other hand, he says, “masters will never prevent an all-black table in the dining hall, or an all-Hispanic table where people speak Spanish over lunch, and I don’t see why we should. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

The movement of students off campus is one of the greatest concerns of masters (see Dec. 1994). Many masters now consider it a major part of their jobs to make life in the residential college attractive enough to outweigh the advantages of taking an apartment. Says Robin Winks: “Masters can do something about involving off-campus students in college life, if they are willing to put in a disproportionate amount of time and energy for what is often very little return.” When Winks was a master, he set up college mailboxes for off-campus students, sent them Berkeley’s weekly newsletter, invited them to class dinners at the college’s expense, and threw a dinner party especially for off-campus students. This last event was attended by only five of the college’s several dozen off-campus residents. “That tells me something important—that many students who are off-campus are there because they are not interested in the college,” says Winks.

Wherever their students may live, masters occasionally have to deal with another unpleasant aspect of their jobs: disciplining students who run afoul of the rules. They stress, however, that disciplinary matters form only a small part of their duties. “I am not a policeman,” says Harry Stout. “I’m not out to 'catch' students. That goes against the whole spirit of being a master.” Robert Thompson also feels that discretion is the better part of mastership. “If there’s a loud party in your college, you can do one of two things,” he says. “You can go in there and scream and yell, and become a figure of ridicule, or you can go in there and say, 'Hey, what’s going on? Can we keep it down a little?' You have to maintain a certain equilibrium if you want the students' respect.” Rarely, the infractions are more serious, and masters are forced to impose graver punishment. “Last year, I had a student whose carelessness caused a fire in his room that endangered the lives of people in his entryway,” says Thompson. “He'd had several warnings, and this time I had to rusticate him from the college.” He adds regretfully, “In 18 years, that’s the first time I’ve had to do that.”

Masters must worry as much about dangers from without the colleges as from within. A recent spate of robberies and assaults on students both on-campus and off has only intensified the masters' emphasis on security. Robert Thompson feels that masters must set an example for students with their own vigilance. “When a master gets tired of reminding students to close the gate, then he should go back to Hamden,” he says, referring to a New Haven suburb that is home to many Yale professors.

If the masters' job is to keep an eye on the behavior and development of the residents of their colleges, the students, too, can be exacting judges. Indeed, they demand that their master, no matter how accomplished a scholar or how efficient an administrator, should first be personable, friendly, and accessible. When the head of one college took a sabbatical last year and was replaced temporarily by an acting master, students in the college requested that his substitute stay on. The master, some said, was too cold and aloof. He went on to accept a position elsewhere, and the acting master became a permanent one.

The incident called attention to the manner in which masters are chosen. Not surprisingly, students complained that they had too little input in the selection process. Such complaints, however, appear to be less frequent under the new administration. The search committees that appointed four new masters this spring made a point of soliciting student opinion in advance, and President Levin now consults the Yale College dean, Richard Brodhead, before making a decision about a new master. One of the lingering concerns for both students and administrators is the relatively small number of female faculty from which to select masters. Although 10 women have served as college masters, all 12 of the positions are currently occupied by men.

No matter who occupies the mastership, or how they are selected, some students remain skeptical of the role of master in general. One senior, whose college appointed a new master this year, says she’s not sorry to see her old master go. “He was completely removed from our lives,” she says. “He had no idea what was going on with us—the dean dealt with everything important. He only cared about his little pet projects, not about what the students were interested in. He was just a figurehead who got to schmooze with important people, while the dean did all the work.” This student, who asked not to be named, feels that some of the fault lies with the position itself. “It’s not clear what the master’s role actually is,” she says. “Other than giving master’s teas, I don’t know what the master does.” The solution, she suggests, is to transfer some of the duties of the dean to the master. She concedes that masters in some colleges exert a powerful positive influence. On the other hand, she says, “even without that kind of master, student life here hasn’t really suffered. We could all get along fine without one."She voices what might be a master’s greatest fear—that the effect of his efforts is neither beneficial nor detrimental, but merely negligible. Masters are, indeed, difficult to define and explain; they do work for which there is no additional pay, and no quantifiable result. They can rely only on the affection and esteem of their students as compensation for their labors. But for most, such feelings seem to be in ample supply. And even if they are not always expressed, the job itself tends to provide its own reward for those who take it as seriously as former President Giamatti said it ought to be taken. In addition to being a master, Harry Adams was for six years University Chaplain. “Being a master isn’t very different from being a chaplain,” he says. “You’re caring for people, looking after them. That’s a very satisfying feeling.”  the end


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