30 Sep 2011

Michael Rubin ’94: Yale’s Not What It Used To Be

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The dining hall of Berkeley College, one of the twelve residential colleges at Yale.

This is where I used to eat lunch.

Michael Rubin (Davenport ’94) warns us that Yale is going to hell in a handbasket, the colleges are losing their distinctive individual identities, the left is running the place into the ground, and la patrie est en danger!

For decades, residential colleges have both been Yale University’s chief selling point and the feature by which the university differentiates itself from its Ivy League companions and other top tier universities. All freshmen are subdivided randomly into one of 12 colleges, remaining affiliated with it for four years and living there for three or four years. The net effect is that the colleges provide a sense of community—the chief benefit of a small college experience—with the classroom and campus resources of a much larger university. In a society in which identity groups often self-segregate themselves, the residential colleges also enable Yalies to meet a diverse array of people.

While in theory each residential college is equal, over time, they develop different characteristics. Each college is led by a master. Some masters are disinterested: When I was an undergraduate, I was in Davenport College. In my freshman year, the master was a professor of 19th-century Germany and ran the college like a Prussian general. In my subsequent three years, the master was a retired admiral, who, it turned out, was retired not only from the Navy but also from anything which required effort. In contrast, when I was a graduate student, I was for a year a resident graduate affiliate in Pierson College. Harvey Goldblatt, a professor of medieval Slavic literature, was master and quickly catapulted Pierson into the envy of all other colleges: He knew each student not only by name, but also made an effort to interact with everyone. He cheered on the residential college’s intramural sports teams, and even undertook his own alumni endowment to allow, for example, a spring break trip to Italy for most seniors. Behind the scenes, he was involved in administrative issues and stayed on top of everything from employee morale in the dining hall to the length of time scaffolding remained up after work was completed.

Alas, Yale has changed. In the twelve years since I have left New Haven, faculty members tell me that the number of administrators has almost doubled. While Yale University once encouraged autonomy among students to set up organizations, fix problems, and take responsibility for their own decisions, today, an ever-increasing number of deans get involved to regulate all aspects of life and administration. Whereas Yale students could once choose to excel in extracurricular activities or academics, today there is little differentiation: grade inflation and administration intervention has evened the playing field so that a lazy and irresponsible student will, from his or her record, appear equal to one who in the past might have been able to differentiate themselves academically.

The quest for equality and the bolstering of safety nets has not only blurred distinctions amongst students, but also faculty. At some point, administrators—for whom bureaucracy rather than education is a career—decided that it was unfair to have inequality among colleges. After all, if a college master managed to energize both students and alumni, students in other colleges might resent that another master was not up to the job.

Enter President Richard Levin: Replicating what too often happens in liberal society, rather than celebrating success or encouraging competition to keep up, Levin instead sought to encourage mediocrity by “equalizing” the college experience.

Read the whole thing.

He’s basically not wrong, of course. But the rot set in long, long ago. Kingman Brewster, brilliant, talented, and impeccably bred from the bluest blood of Plymouth Colony descent, personified Yale’s style, ethos, and tradition perfectly, better, one thought inevitably, than any other living, breathing person could, but the King was already leading Yale full tilt down the primrose path of fashion, Modernism, and leftism.

One’s other quibble is that no one really goes to Yale for the residential colleges.

Most people admitted don’t even know about the residential college system, a New World, early 20th century attempt to emulate the British Oxbridge style of elite education, until they have read thoroughly their admissions material.

I think it isn’t really possible for Yale colleges to feature the colorful individuality and eclat, which in earlier days reflected the personalities of great men like Basil Duke Henning (a direct descendant of a famous Confederate Kentucky cavalry officer) or Beekman Cannon (whose marriage and private life inspired Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). America just does not supply a suitable contigent of illustrious, flamboyant, and idiosyncratic WASP gentlemen scholars anymore. Besides, today’s Yale values “diversity” over cultural continuity and arete.

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