Is Yale seeing the decline of the residential college?

Is Yale seeing the decline of the residential college?

Since its inception almost 90 years ago, Yale’s hallmark residential college system has transformed with the growth of the student body and changes in student life.
Published on April 8, 2022

When Yale’s residential college system was founded in the 1930s, longtime administrator Sam Chauncey ’57 said the colleges were intended to be locales for faculty and student interaction. Senior history lecturer Jay Gitlin ’71 added that the residential colleges were originally founded to have an “egalitarian impact” and bring students of all income levels onto campus.

Modeled after Oxford and Cambridge, the colleges helped lessen housing shortages and provide space for first-years to live on campus. Still, their primary aim was to serve as intellectual hubs for students.

Now, Chauncey thinks the University is falling short of this ideal.

The pandemic has upended residential college life over the past two years, canceling in-person events and creating larger class sizes that the colleges cannot accommodate. Data from the Dean of Student Affairs office shows that 12.9 percent of enrolled students lived off campus in the 2007-2008 school year, while that number has risen to 20.7 percent this school year. An even greater proportion of students lived off campus last school year, with 28.3 percent of enrolled students living off campus during the 2020-2021 school year.

But many alumni have also observed broader, more long-term changes in the role of the colleges at Yale — especially as the relationship between students and fellows has shifted. Fellows include — but are not limited to — Yale faculty and administrators. In recent years, according to some students and alumni, fellows and students have stopped meeting, and fellows have become less present in students’ lives.

“What has happened to the colleges is that having started out as hopefully a place of intellectual exchange as well as a place to live and eat meals, they have become luxurious dormitories,” Chauncey said. “They are not intellectual centers [anymore]. The fellows no longer have a role in the college.”

Alumni reflect on changes in residential college communities

Gitlin emphasized the importance of promoting a social life in the colleges and said he thinks that the University has made “conscious attempts” to decrease interactions between students and fellows at the colleges. This was a “huge mistake,” he said.

“I cannot reinforce the idea that Yale needs more social life desperately, and not less,” Gitlin said.

Gitlin recalled meeting interesting and famous fellows and associate fellows such as Norman Mailer and Eleanor Roosevelt, and he emphasized the importance of these relationships with fellows to fill a need for sociability in learning environments. He said students and faculty alike seem to want to build more connections with each other.

Head of Berkeley College David Evans ’92 told the News that he has observed a divide between students and professors that has limited the interactions between students and fellows in his time as head.

“As head of college, I’ve been frustrated by an intangible divide between the students and fellows,” Evans said. “In part it mimics the same type of divide that naturally exists between students and professors. Students tend to be intimidated by professors, right, and that’s no one’s fault. It’s just a natural outgrowth of the difference in age. I think it comes from a good place. It’s born of respect that students have for professors, but it’s also one that actually many professors would prefer to break down.”

Chauncey served as a fellow almost 70 years ago. He remembers the heads of colleges consulting frequently with fellows about potential changes in college life, and that the fellows would often meet with students at lunchtime. Chauncey also remembers debates in the colleges, such as one that took place between an English professor and a physics professor over the role of science at Yale.

(Zoe Berg, Photo Editor)

In 1979, an essay written by visiting fellow Vivian Gornick sparked a discussion over the function of fellows at Yale, leading some to question if students should be blamed for a lack of outgoingness and if the program itself should change to promote student and faculty interactions. In the article, Gornick described fellows meetings as “gatherings of leering chauvinists engaged in meaningless, cocktail party chatter.” At this time, the News reported that fellows’ main interaction with students was meals at the dining halls. Every faculty member was assigned as a fellow in one of the colleges, but their involvement in the colleges varied greatly on an individual basis, as it does today.

Even before that, in 1967, assistant professor of English and Morse fellow Michael Cowan wrote in the News that the fellowships “emerged out of the same rather vague and romantic notion” that produced the residential college system. However, Cowan wrote that the initial plan to make Yale like Cambridge and Oxford was not achieved.

Still, despite the perceived disconnect between fellows and students, both Gitlin and Evans noted an increased involvement of deans and heads of colleges in student life in recent years.

“In general, we can strive to be as involved as possible in student life, and generally speaking I think we do so more now than was done regularly in the past,” Evans said. “I feel a calling in my job now to be highly involved in student life. And I think that’s true for all of my peers.”

Visiting Yale Law School lecturer William Garfinkel ’77 told the News that he remembers colleges having unique reputations and many had their own theater productions. He said the main changes he sees in the residential colleges are the writing tutors and updated facilities, but he is not sure if they are “fundamentally different.”

Some recent alumni, however, recall not having as much engagement with the fellows in their colleges during their time at Yale. Both Garfinkel and Evans told the News that they do not remember interacting with the fellows. Still, three current students told the News they engage with the fellows in their colleges and see them as active members of the college community.

However, Gitlin said he hopes the University will begin to try and encourage more fellow and student interactions by promoting having students live in the residential colleges.

“It’s a message that should be set in subtle ways — meet people, meet other fellows, meet the students,” Gitlin said. “That’s part of why this place should be special.”

Fellows and affiliates continue to build community as pandemic provides challenges  

Today, fellows and college seminars are still present, but some interactions with fellows have been limited due to the pandemic. Still, even pre-pandemic, the Jonathan Edwards fellows were the only group that met weekly in person.

According to Head of Jonathan Edwards College Mark Saltzman, fellows used to be individually selected by heads of colleges, but nowadays, the Council of the Heads of College works cooperatively to ensure a balance of academic disciplines within the colleges and help the new colleges recruit fellows.

Although he has noticed the divide between fellows and students, Evans said he has invited students to attend fellows meetings which include lectures and artistic performances. But these events have not been well attended by students so far, Evans said.

According to Head of Grace Hopper College Julia Adams, JE is known for having an especially strong fellows program. Saltzman told the News that the JE fellowship started in the 1930s, and he attributes the strong program to the especially tight connections among the original group of fellows that established long-lasting traditions.

Adams said that Hopper fellows act as advisors for students, and they also often attend the Mellon Forums, especially when their advisees are presenting. Additionally, in Hopper, Adams said there is an “interesting history of consulting our fellowship at key moments,” including a fellowship dinner in 2013 where Hopper officials kicked off the discussions of the name change of the college.

Adams said that housing space is the main reason for varying numbers of residential fellows in each college, and their involvement in the college differs based on their interests.

“There are often cross-college differences in and differences across fellows and what the fellows elect to do,” Adams said. “It’s always expected that they would have a particularly close relationship with the students. But they do that in different ways.”

Hopper residential fellow Sheraz Iqbal wrote to the News that he has interacted with students regularly in a variety of ways. He said that he has advised many first years and sophomores in course selection, time management and extracurriculars, and he participates in intramural sports. Most recently, he was appointed as a judge for the University’s Final Cut cooking competition.

Since the founding of the residential colleges, the undergraduate population size has soared, which has continuously caused housing shortages and affected the number of fellows in each college.

In 1981, the News reported that residential fellows — who live in their respective colleges — were being cut down to two fellows per college due to overcrowding concerns and an effort to draw students living off-campus back to campus. Prior to that cut, there were 48 residential fellows in the 12 colleges, but the cut split that number in half.

(Yale Daily News)

Today, most residential colleges have one to three residential fellows, and there are 30 residential fellows in total.

In addition to residential fellows, each college has fellowships for faculty, and many of them act as academic advisors to first years. Adams told the News that in the past, the initial meeting between the Hopper advisors and the first years was usually a lively event in the college.

“This was also a really fun occasion and a very collective occasion because the advisors would come out en masse with the students and then disperse to sit in your booth or small groups to actually to talk about what courses are you thinking about taking and talk about what is the liberal arts education and all these really important, basic academic kind of conversations,” Adams said.

Adams added that monthly dinners with fellows, along with college teas, were “severely hampered” during the pandemic, and the fellows have not been able to eat in the dining halls, making it difficult to maintain the traditional social life of the college. However, she hopes intellectual life with the college fellowships will be “regalvanized” and said there has been excitement among the heads of colleges about getting back to normalcy.

Saltzman emphasized the negative effect of the pandemic on interactions between undergraduates and fellows, particularly in the colleges’ inability to have weekly fellows meetings where students can meet potential advisors and mentors.

However, numerous undergraduate students told the News they have engaged with the residential graduate affiliates and fellows and see them taking on active roles in the colleges.

Fiona Benson ’22 said that Saybrook residential graduate affiliate Adam Halliburton ’10 runs events for the whole college and for seniors specifically, including senior happy hours, and encourages Saybrook students to engage with the arts through opportunities such as seeing the Metropolitan Opera perform. However, she said that the fellows and graduate affiliates could improve at engaging with underclassmen.

Students reflect on the impact of the pandemic on residential life and rise in off-campus living 

Many alumni see the rise of off-campus housing as the major difference from their time at Yale, and say that it prevents students from participating fully in their residential college communities.

Since the founding of the residential colleges, Yale’s undergraduate population has grown significantly, and in recent years, not only has off campus housing become more popular, in part due to pandemic regulations, but there have been housing shortages reported in many residential colleges, causing some students to be forced off campus.

Stella Vujic ’22 told the News that the pandemic was the main reason she moved off campus her junior year, and she never planned to live off campus prior to the pandemic.

“I was worried about feeling cramped, always spending time in my dorm room,” Vujic told the News. “I figured living off campus would be better for me, better for my mental health and give me more flexibility.”

(Yale Daily News)

Vujic said many seniors were originally motivated to live off campus to feel less crowded while taking online classes, and she said she chose to remain off campus this year because it was cheaper, allowed her more control over daily activities and the place she was living was in close proximity to campus.

Although she said her engagement with her residential college, Saybrook, is not as strong now that she lives off campus, Vujic said she thinks it is hard to distinguish between the effects of her living off campus and her not being in her college at all throughout last school year. She also said someone’s engagement with their college depends on their meal plan and how much they choose to use the college’s facilities.

“I think there’s just sort of a natural amount of disconnection that happened during the pandemic with a lot of the common spaces being closed off for COVID reasons,” Vujic told the News.

Maya Sanghvi ’23 told the News she also moved off campus because of the pandemic restrictions on campus in the fall of 2020, and she found that living off campus provided more autonomy and was cheaper than living on campus and being on the full meal plan.

Despite living off campus, Sanghvi said she has remained involved in her residential college, Pauli Murray. She told the News she attends senior happy hours and college teas, works with her college as a Communication and Consent Educator and maintains close relationships with the Pauli Murray dean and head of college.

Sanghvi said she sees the recent increase in off campus living as a unique effect of the pandemic and on the class of 2022, but she would be surprised if this increase continues as the pandemic restrictions on campus ease.

“I think that Yale has always been [a school] that markets their on campus housing in the residential college system as being a really big part of the college experience, so I don’t think that that’s necessarily going to change,” Sanghvi said.

Benson also moved off campus in the 2020-2021 school year due to the pandemic restrictions and the increased autonomy off campus living afforded, but she moved back on campus her senior year to get “the typical college experience,” especially since she had not lived a full year in her college, Saybrook, yet. She said living on campus has allowed her to have more connections to her college than other seniors living off campus, especially because she is able to build relationships with underclassmen, which is difficult while living off campus.

While Sanghvi said she thinks much of the increase of people moving off campus in recent years is due to the pandemic, the recent housing shortages will also force students to live off campus. Sanghvi said that, because of the housing shortage, she was recently asked to speak to sophomores in Murray about how to stay connected to their residential college while living off campus.

This spring’s housing shortages have displaced many members of the class of 2024, who have had their first two years at Yale altered by the pandemic. These housing shortages come at a time when Yale recently admitted 2,234 students into the class of 2026 from its largest applicant pool in history.

Beatrice Maron Schaeffer ’24 wrote in an email to the News that after the suite she planned to live with in Berkeley College disbanded, they were given two days to decide to either live in a single in annexed housing in McClellan Hall or to find off campus housing. However, if they chose to live off campus later after accepting annexed housing, they would be fined. Additionally, Schaeffer wrote that not all colleges offered annexed housing to students who were unable to secure housing in their college.

Schaeffer said she worries about how the University plans to accommodate increasing class sizes over the coming years.

“Why boast about the Class of ’26 being your largest class [of applicants] yet when you barely have enough housing for your current students?” Schaeffer wrote to the News. “And especially since the ones affected continue to be the ’24s, students who stuck it out during the beginning of the pandemic and who have barely had the dorm experience we all hoped to have by coming here. I can only begin to imagine how badly housing will go for next year’s rising juniors.”

University Archivist Michael Lotstein said that housing shortages have been prevalent throughout Yale’s history. There were significant over capacity problems after Yale’s coeducation in 1969, and in the 1970s, the University wanted to build a new residential college on Whitney Avenue, but it was shut down by the Board of Alders. The building aimed to fix housing shortages, but no new residential colleges were built until 2017 when Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray colleges were built.

“I think that overall the student population probably was not able to be increased as much as they wanted to because of [the failed proposal to build a residential college on Whitney Avenue],” Lotstein told the News. “But I think for the most part what ultimately kind of kept things at an even keel in terms of changes to student populations in the residential colleges was the opportunity for upperclassmen to live off campus.”

Reporting from the News in 1991 also describes these housing shortages, along with sleep-out protests carried out by students in Trumbull due to a lack of guaranteed housing in many of the colleges, which forced students to live off campus. In 1990, the organization Student Committee for Rooming Environments without Excessive Density, better known as SCREWED, organized a sleep-out protesting the housing shortages.

However, Lotstein said today, with the growth of the undergraduate population, the construction of new residential colleges is a “necessity.”

(Amay Tewari, Senior Photographer)

Expansion of graduate affiliate program provides opportunity for closer age gap with students 

As space in residential colleges runs out for undergraduates, graduate affiliates have also been squeezed out, making it harder to form connections between the two age groups.

Head of Benjamin Franklin College Charles Bailyn told the News that Franklin and Pauli Murray colleges had several resident graduate affiliates in the first two years of their founding. He said this was done to “try and have some older presence in the colleges” in their early years and because the newer colleges had space for resident graduate affiliate housing that would otherwise be unused.

Franklin currently has 13 graduate affiliates who all live off campus. Most colleges do not have residential graduate affiliates, and the number of graduate affiliates varies widely among the colleges, ranging from seven in Saybrook College to 24 in Davenport College and Hopper.

Emily Gerdin, one of Franklin’s graduate affiliates, said that the graduate affiliate program provides a good way for graduate students to form a sense of community even though they all live off campus, and she said she sees two main roles of the graduate affiliates: facilitating events for undergraduate students and developing a community of graduate students in Franklin.

John Lazarsfeld ’17, another graduate affiliate in Franklin, said that the Franklin graduate affiliates recently hosted a workshop to provide academic advice to sophomores. He added that the demand to be a graduate affiliate is very high, and many graduate students who applied in recent years were not accepted.

However, Bailyn emphasized that he thinks aspects of Harvard’s residential system are stronger than Yale’s. Although he wrote that the Yale system is better overall, Harvard has a system of “junior tutors” who act as residential graduate affiliates in the houses at Harvard. It would be beneficial for Yale to expand the residential graduate affiliates program to emulate this type of system, Bailyn said.

“I think it provides great support for activities, but also a group of slightly older students so that the seniors — and especially super seniors — don’t start to feel like they’ve ‘aged out’ of the residential system,” Bailyn wrote to the News.

Saltzman agreed that the smaller age gap between graduate affiliates and undergraduates makes them more approachable than professors and allows undergraduates to get advice on post-graduate plans. Currently, he said, there is one resident graduate affiliate who has been “a critical part” in organizing events in JE.

Bailyn also added that it would be hard to implement a junior tutor system campus-wide because most colleges do not have graduate affiliate rooms like Franklin and Murray, which each have two graduate affiliate rooms available.

Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun told the News that it is up to the heads of college to determine how many graduate affiliates they want, and there were not “more slots” given to the new colleges. Additionally, each college has a fixed budget that is adjusted for size, and heads may choose to allocate more or less of this to the graduate affiliate program.

By contrast, Saltzman said that the main limiting factor for increasing graduate affiliates is the budget.

“I don’t see where that additional funding would come from, but maybe if that was a priority of the next dean of your college, then it could happen,” Saltzman told the News.

The first seven residential colleges were opened on Sep. 25, 1933.


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