Peering Into the Future: A More Accessible Yale

Peter Salovey, President of Yale University
April 16, 2015
New Residential Colleges Groundbreaking Ceremony

Good afternoon, everyone. To get better weather on an April day in New Haven, you would have to create it with a computer—just sayin’! At the risk of seeming repetitive, I want to begin by thanking everyone who is here today—and those who couldn’t make it here this afternoon but I know are very much here in spirit. This project would not have been possible without an awful lot of support.

I have to start with a special thank-you to Charlie Johnson: his magnificent $250 million gift put us close to our goal and gave us tremendous momentum to complete the fundraising for this project. Charlie, I am delighted that you—and that two of your grandchildren, both current Yale College students—are here with us today.

As you’ve heard, Ed Bass of the Class of 1967 provided early and generous support. A former senior fellow of the Yale Corporation and chair of the building and grounds committee, Ed played so many critical roles behind the scenes as we worked through the decision-making and planning process. There are very, very few people on this campus who have the instinct that Ed Bass does for detail and beauty, and for making sure things are done the right way.

Another early leadership gift came from Len Baker who also spearheaded a generous reunion gift to the colleges from his Class of 1964—I got to visit with them at their reunion last year and thank them for putting us over the top. And Len, too, played a critical role in early planning as a member of the Yale Corporation.

And as we sprinted to the “finish line,” Josh and Anita Bekenstein stepped forward to enable us to complete our fundraising by mounting a $25 million challenge in the spring of 2014. Many donors made significant gifts in response to that challenge—and I thank you both very, very much.

There are so many other donors who made extraordinarily generous gifts—and so many of them are here with us today. To all of you: thank you. Your generosity and dedication are inspiring.

Can I ask everyone to join me in a round of applause for these leadership donors?

So I have to say one more thing in gratitude: I could not be standing here today, marking this pivotal moment in our university’s history—the first new residential colleges in about fifty years—if not for the leadership of President #22, Rick Levin, who had a vision for the Yale College of the future, and who raised the majority of the funds that have made that vision a reality. Rick, I thank you. We all thank you. Thank you for leaving me with a great project to finish.

Two years from now, in 2017, this bustling construction site will have been transformed: to a place of architectural splendor, a thriving hub of student activity. And the year, 2017, will be a particularly auspicious one for this particular moment in Yale history.

Why 2017? As many of you know, in 1933 the first seven of Yale’s residential colleges opened. But a few important steps further back in Yale’s history brings us to 1917.

In October 1917—one hundred years and a few months before the first cohort of students will enter the two new colleges, the groundwork was laid for the residential college system at Yale. And I mean “groundwork” quite literally: much as today we can see ground being cleared and preparations being made for the buildings that will grace lower Prospect Street, in 1917—one hundred years ago—the cornerstone for the Harkness Memorial Quadrangle was laid.

Edward Harkness was in the Yale College Class of 1897; he had a vision for a new kind of undergraduate experience, a democratic housing system in which students from all backgrounds would live, eat, and socialize together. So many of you gathered here today know the value of this system not just anecdotally: you know it because have lived it. You carry lifelong ties—the “friendships formed at Yale”—that stem directly from Harkness’s vision.

When the residential college system was established formally, Harkness Memorial Quadrangle was converted into Branford and Saybrook Colleges by James Gamble Rogers, Class of 1889. Rogers was the architect of the original quadrangle and the man behind so many of the colleges’ iconic style.

But the heart of what makes Yale’s residential colleges so special took root in 1922, five years after construction began, when the first students moved into Harkness. I hope you’ll indulge me in reading a quotation from Yale Professor William Lyon Phelps, in 1922:

“The buildings of the Memorial Quadrangle give me happiness every day of my life; for a thousand years to come they will educate, inspire, and civilize those who live within its enclosure and those who come to see it; century after century, people will come from all over to gaze at its mysterious and inspiring towers and walls. It is a joy and delight to me to know that long after my bones are dust, long after I have left this planet, these gracious and lovely buildings will cast their charm.”

I think Phelps’s words convey a sentiment that I—that all of us, I imagine—can understand well, even as these two new colleges are visible today only in the mind’s eye—and from the magic of the Internet!

On a personal note, these buildings are woven into my relationship to Yale, even before they have been built. In 2007, when President Rick Levin convened a study group to consider the desirability of adding two new residential colleges and a 15 percent expansion in our student body, I was dean of Yale College. We formed that group to delve into the minutiae of what it would take to not only preserve, but enhance the Yale College experience with this expansion.

Many of the study group members are here with us today, and I thank all of them again for their outstanding work. In particular, a special thank-you to Joe Gordon, deputy dean of the college; Penny Laurans, special assistant to the president (and master of Jonathan Edwards College); and William Sledge, former master of Calhoun College and chair of the Council of Masters, who led this planning group and its subcommittees.

Today I am experiencing the same kind of awe that Phelps described nearly a century to go. From idea to careful plan to work-in-progress to completed edifices, these colleges—their towers and walls and dining halls and courtyards, and all the richness of students’ undergraduate lives that they stand for—will inspire and enlighten for generations to come.

They, like their twelve predecessors, will become unique communities with their own traditions and identities. With their own mascots. With their own nicknames. With their own rivalries and their own camaraderie. And, sometime soon, with their actual own names! (But not today.)

Since my appointment as Yale’s president, you have heard me speak about my goal of “a more accessible Yale,” one that is a real and viable option for more students from more backgrounds. This means financial aid, this means outreach, and this means support of our students when they arrive here. But it also means having the space for additional students. These colleges, in the most bricks-and-mortar terms, will make “a more accessible Yale” a reality.

In the buildings taking shape just across the street here, we can see the future, a future with hundreds more undergraduates attending Yale each year—students who will be innovators. Citizens. Leaders. They, like our current undergraduates, will be creators and discoverers. They will be fearless thinkers. All of us here today have seen the renderings of the beautiful buildings that, two-and-a-half years from now, will stand in splendor. But they will also be teeming with life—with students running to and from class and the lab and the library, rehearsing for dance performances, looking forward to games here at the Whale, taking inspiration from master’s teas, eating lunch in the dining halls with faculty, with friends. They will bring new energy into our classrooms, all across New Haven, and ultimately around the world.

I meet Yale College alumni every week around the country and here on campus. They—you—are some of the most incredible leaders and servants of our global society. In the case of Yale College, and of Yale College alumni, more really will be better!

So, as we peer into an unknowable but inspiring future, this day is a historic occasion. And to mark it, we will fill the time capsule which you see here. (My guess is you were wondering what this is. In most cases, you see the president with a mace. Today it’s a canister!) The capsule will be placed in the wall in the corridor that connects the two colleges underground. And it will be opened on the occasion of the fiftieth reunion of the first class to graduate from these colleges.

Some of the contents will include today’s Yale Daily News and New Haven Register, photos from today’s celebration, stories about the project, the architect’s renderings, and other memorabilia.

So, on to 2017. In 2017, we will celebrate the completion of this momentous project. But for now, I very much want to celebrate the breaking of the ground, the starting of the new Yale, and all those who made this day possible. Thank you—and please come back in 2017 when we cut the ribbon!