The Cult of Yale

What is in the Kool-Aid?

Crimson FILE Photo

The UC-sponsored Guster concert attracted a sizeable crowd.

For God, for Country and for Bragging Rights

When the elevator in William James Hall shuts, those on the inside are privy to a telling phrase, etched in the door’s metal frame by an angst-ridden student: “Harvard Sucks.” Beneath that, a retort: “No, it doesn’t.”

The former expression has become an anthem for Mawuena M. Agbonyitor ’04, a social anthropology concentrator in Mather House. Sitting on her bed to avoid the work building on her desk, she listlessly flips through TV channels. “Cold, gray and tired”—these are the words that describe her day-to-day Harvard malaise. “I honestly don’t know anyone who likes it here,” she says. “Everyone is waiting to get out.”

According to Anna Franekova ’05, the weight of this malaise crushes the liveliness of her peers. “I met up with a Harvard friend in Prague and it’s incredible how different she was in a different environment,” she says. “There are too many people who are happier on the outside.”

If this malaise is as general as Agbonyitor and Franekova suggest, why don’t more Harvard students jump ship? Chris Cowan, a former member of the Class of 2005 who transferred to Stanford, asserts that Harvard’s social mores override student dissatisfaction. “Even with all my complaints, Harvard was a hard place to walk away from,” he writes in an e-mail message. “The culture there is either you love it or you’ll suck it up because the name is worth it. Most people, even those that are unhappy, wouldn’t leave.”

Agbonyitor agrees. In spite of her grievances, she lives by a disheartening philosophy. “Get your degree and hope it’ll all get better.”

Popular culture suggests that Harvard is the place to be. U.S. News & World Report places Harvard at the top of its college rankings. Films like Legally Blonde purport that we can be smart, glamorous and happy all at the same time. Platitudes tell us we should be having the time of our lives. And yet the National Institute of Health reports that in 2002, 69 percent of Harvard students felt exhausted up to 10 times during the year, 65 percent felt overwhelmed by all they had to do and 48 percent felt things were hopeless.

The Harvard name keeps students here, but what drives this dissatisfaction? Does the University’s lack of concern breed unhappiness? Are Harvard students inherently difficult to please? Or is there simply a culture of discontent that compels students to complain whenever they can?

Richard E. Freeman ’03-’05, a transfer student from Carnegie Mellon, posits that dissatisfaction is simply the nature of the beast, not a result of administrative negligence. “There is a lot of melodrama here,” he says. “Students criticize Harvard as a university, but the problems they cite are typical anywhere. They don’t realize this because they lack a different perspective.”

If the administration isn’t to blame, then perhaps dissatisfaction is attributable to the bizarre overachievers that inhabit the university and promote the culture of complaining. Agbonyitor regularly listens to student complaints—even from students she doesn’t know. During exam period, she remembers talking to a friend in Loker Commons about an upcoming exam when an unknown student butted in. “She told me ‘I have two finals tomorrow and a paper due,’” Agbonyitor says. “She wanted her life to sound so much worse than mine.” At Harvard, complaining is so essential to the culture, it becomes a badge of honor that students use to one-up their neighbors.

Harvard, of course, is not purely a black hole of misery. Stephanie L. Wilka ’05, a psychology concentrator in Lowell House, oozes school spirit—so much that she joined the College cheerleading squad her freshman year. “I think situations are what you make of ‘em,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “Ya gotta know when to work, and ya gotta know when to enjoy yourself.”

In the name of public service, FM investigates a lesser-known university where students seem to have a firmer grasp on this concept. Historically, Yale University has the been #2 in higher education to Harvard’s #1, the Pepsi to our Coke, the Lexus to our Mercedes. Yet, despite being the undisputed #1 in the pop-culture rankings, Harvard may fall far short of Yale in one very important respect—the happiness of its students.

Yalies seem to have their priorities straight—as the motto says, “For God, For Country, and For Yale.” Indeed, Yalies proudly sport the Yale insignia on backpacks to boxers, and not just at the Game—Yalies bleed Eli blue—they submit with pleasure to the cult of the bulldog.

Yale University seems to operate under a more balanced equation.

How do we solve our problem, fair Harvard? Perhaps #1 can learn something from #2.

Happily Hating Harvard

It’s a little past 7:30 p.m. when Danielle B. Sanzone ’03-’04 enters the Church Street Starbucks. Her blonde hair creeps out from her winter hat and a bright orange and yellow messenger sack, no doubt filled with books, dangles below her hip. Surrounded by graduate students sipping lattes in dim light, she manages to blend in.

“I have so much bitterness toward Harvard and the past five years,” she says, clutching her caramel apple cider. “They haven’t been that good for me.”

Sanzone, a physics concentrator in Kirkland House, remembers this discontent forming early in her undergraduate career. When the friendly veneer of her fellow first-years wore off shortly after Freshman Week, the socially inept masses bewildered her.

“I’d been friendly my whole life,” she says, “but suddenly at Harvard people couldn’t deal with it.” Sanzone remembers awkward interactions with people who questioned her motivation for being nice. “They didn’t know how to respond to people making friendly advances when they didn’t want anything,” she says.

Back in Mather House, it’s 10 p.m. and Mawuena M. Agbonyitor ’04, still lying in bed, speculates on Sanzone’s dilemma. “Harvard people can’t form real friendships because everyone is so concerned with their own stuff that they don’t have time for you,” she says.

In an environment saturated with ambition, stress and—according to some—socially awkward students, the administration would be wise to more actively facilitate opportunities for release. Louder dancers, longer parties and a more laissez-faire policy toward fun—this is the stuff of a contented collegiate life. By loosening its grip, the College can help put an end to the culture of complaining.

Although the Harvard name will keep students around, the administration should more actively promote student happiness. As Kyle R. McCarthy ’06, an English and Women’s Studies concentrator, attests, the College passively overlooks students dissatisfied with their housing options. McCarthy chose to move off campus to the Dudley Co-op after her freshman year, discontent with the House system. “There is this assumption that the House model will be good for everyone,” she says, “but the way it’s carried out is really flawed.” Unlike Yale, which officially recognizes fraternity houses and student apartments in addition to dormitories, Harvard creates an insular bubble where students are sequestered from the outside world. “I would come home from section with all my beef and neuroticism,” McCarthy recalls, “and still be at school. There was no place where I was off.”

The complacency of the administration often carries over into teaching as well. Sanzone felt that her TFs viewed her as a machine churning out papers and problem sets, not a person. Last fall, she struggled with personal issues exacerbated by the school’s “spotty” response to her concerns. She feels the administration has a myopic focus on the needs of students in extreme situations. Or, as she puts it, “If you’re not about to jump off the top of Holyoke Center, then you’re not a priority.”

Sanzone felt her difficulty with a particular class was contributing to her depression. Her solution? She stopped going to class, stopped turning in work and skipped her midterm. Rather than expressing concern, her TFs merely asked her when she would turn in her assignments. Still, Sanzone doesn’t blame them. “It’s not their job,” she says of her TFs. “I was just very happy staying in bed.”

When Sanzone spoke with her senior tutor about dropping the course past the withdraw date, she was assured that a petition would go through. Following up with her senior tutor was difficult, she remembers, because the senior tutor never picked up her phone. “I would have to physically track her down,” she says. When the petition didn’t go through, Sanzone grew more frustrated, leading her to withdraw from school late that semester. “If I had gotten better advice, I would have made a more informed decision,” she says.

What is to be done? Aaron J. Greenspan ’05, creator of CriticalMass, an online alternative to the CUE guide that effectively channelled student discontent about a professor to the administration, suggests that specific student concerns will never be as effective as group concerns. “Because Harvard is a corporation,” he says in an e-mail, “it has access to lawyers, accountants, and risk minimization officers. If a cursory cost-benefit analysis yields the result that it will be worth the University’s effort to respond to a given concern, then the University will probably respond.”

So why is Yale responding when Harvard is not?

Location, Location, Location

Yale’s hometown of New Haven, CT has a little bit of a public relations problem—the public hates it. In a random sampling of Harvard students, words such as “hideous,” “dilapidated,” “shithole” and “vomit-inducing” immediately sprang to mind. Upon further reflection, respondents added that New Haven also struck them as “seedy,” “scuzzy” and “ghetto-fab minus the fab.”

Harvard students have always been able to claim unquestioned geographical superiority over Yale—New Haven, well, just flat-out sucks. But, New Haven’s urban decay doesn’t seem to be getting in the way of a good time. In fact, the urban blight that lies just outside of Yale’s ivied gates may help promote the strong sense of community within.

“New Haven’s crappiness reinforces the on-campus scene,” says Yale senior Ian Ware. “It’s not like schools like Columbia where students disperse all over the city.”

New Haven’s limited nightlife is concentrated in the area immediately around Yale in the city’s downtown area, meaning that students are never farther than walking distance from the center of campus. As a result, students make the most of the social life available on campus. “Life is spent almost completely on the campus,” says Caroline Howe, a Yale first-year. “There are always new things to do.”

Though New Haven lacks the gentrification of Harvard Square and its environs, unlike Harvard Square, the city exists almost exclusively to serve the needs of its academic community. Yale University is New Haven’s chief industry. “Historically, Yale was less of a presence in New Haven, because New Haven had other booming industries,” says Stephen Lassonde, a history professor at Yale who teaches “New Haven and the Problem of Change in the American City.” “By the 1960’s, Yale was the only game in town.”

As the only game in town, Yale and its students are lavished with attention by the New Haven business community. Almost all of the nightlife, shopping and dining in downtown New Haven aims toward a college-aged clientele. “New Haven is pretty good with most of the important aspects of college life,” says Ware. “It has good restaurants, good bars and good clubs.”

While the college bar is an endangered species in Harvard Square, driven to extinction by high-end competitors that appeal to Boston’s yuppie masses, in New Haven, the institution is alive and well. At Rudy’s, Yalies can still belly up to the same bar where Dubya and other illustrious alums once belted out Bull Dog fight songs. And at Naples Pizza, the history is literally written on the walls, where decades of messages and personal signatures from Yale students are carved into the wood paneling.

Yalies may be the primary market for New Haven merchants, but the students are the least of the worries of the New Haven Police Department. One of the fringe benefits of living in a city ridden with murderers, drug dealers and rapists is that trying to pass off a fake ID doesn’t really seem like such a crime.

“We try to avoid making arrests for misdemeanors,” says Sergeant Burke of the New Haven Police Department. “[If there are problems] we try to calm everything, send everyone on their merry ways—we’re here to keep the peace.” An arrest is, he says, “the last resort.” The New Haven Police Department, claims Burke, hasn’t broken up an off-campus Yale party in 10 years.

The NHPD’s lax attitude toward student revelry promotes a significant sub-culture of off-campus partying. Taking advantage of the relatively affordable New Haven real estate market, 15 percent of Yalies pack up and move off-campus. This provides yet another option for the Yale social set, especially after the 2 a.m. last call at local bars and campus parties. “Off campus parties are usually more fun,” says junior Richard Berger. “They’re a little quieter and you can talk to people.” The abundance of affordable housing is also conducive to Greek life. A four-bedroom row house near the Yale campus is in the $250,000 range; three years ago, Sigma Chi, the only Harvard frat to ever own its own house, sold its property for $2.75 million. Frats at Yale have “dirty, big room parties” with “dancing and drinks spilled on you,” says Berger. For Harvard’s frats (or any other fledgling social organization, for that matter), having a sketchy house of their very own will probably always be an unfulfilled, unfeasible fiscal fantasy.

So maybe John Harvard and the rest of the Puritan gang didn’t foresee the fact that we would all be happier if we lived in a crime-ridden, poverty-stricken town instead of a picturesque movie-set on the banks of the Charles. So if we take Yale as a model, perhaps the UC should spend a little less energy screening Finding Nemo and more time scouring the real estate listings for a stately mansion perfect for the kind of “dirty, big room parties” Harvard can only dream about.

God & Man at This Awesome Kegger

It’s midnight on Halloween and hundred upon hundreds of drunken Yalies are chanting “Harvard Sucks, Harvard Sucks.” The crowd is shaking off its drunkenness from the long night of Liquor Treating and settling down for the campus-wide Halloween tradition of...listening to classical music? Yes, almost all of the freshman class and many upperclassmen have collected in a drunken haze, sporting everything from hooker getups to astronaut costumes to a nostalgic nod to the sartorial splendor of Sporty Spice. Perhaps predictably, the crowd includes way too many guys in drag.

All are determined to show their Yale spirit by sitting through an extended performance by the Yale Symphony Orchestra. The night ends for most revelers, as so many nights do at Harvard, with alcohol-induced slumber. Yet this evening, complete with the costumed orchestra and its adoring crowd, is miles apart from how Harvard parties.

People love Yale. Not just because the school footed the booze bill on Halloween. One senior loves it so much that when striking workers shouted at a protest this fall that Yale has no soul, she took it as a personal affront. “Yale is so close to my heart and intrinsic to the fiber of how I have come to be,” writes Jessica Kung in an e-mail, “that any suggestion that such an amazing entity could be soulless disturbs me.”

Harvard rarely inspires such public rhapsodies. What’s the difference? Just like Harvard, Yale’s residential system is based on that of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Here, students bemoan the lottery system that rewards some with sweet river housing and punishes others with concrete Quad cell blocks. At Yale, however, students effusively praise the residential house system.

In contrast to Harvard’s system of letting students create a blocking group during their first year, Yale first-years are randomly assigned to a residential college before arriving on campus. The emphasis on community engenders a strong devotion to the residential colleges. Jamal Caesar, a 2003 graduate now working for the Yale admissions office, writes in an e-mail, “I love my residential college—Ezra Stiles is the best college on campus.”

Despite Caesar’s allegiance, it appears that all Yalies feel they got placed in the “best college.”

And even though first-years are housed separately, they are expected to participate in their College’s social life. “Being placed in a college immediately gave me a sense of community that was more intimate than just the general ‘Yale community’ love,” writes Mandi Schweitzer, a 2003 graduate, in an e-mail. Yale encourages this natural sense of community within the college with financial resources. To create opportunities for socializing, says sophomore Erica Baller, “colleges have a lot of money set aside for activities.”

Kung has utilized those financial reserves via the Sudler Fund, which give a number of students in each of the colleges $500 to put on an art show or $1000 to put on a theater production. “I try to do a show every year, to take advantage of this generous funding and of course to involve myself in campus life,” Kung says.

Frequent Masters’ Teas also reinforce the residential communities. “The masters have famous, cool people come talk, and you get to ask them questions and hear them talk about their own lives,” Baller says. First-year Allison E. Walker has been impressed with her experience. “I saw Clinton yesterday and Darrell Hammond a month ago,” she says. “Dr. Ruth and Jacques Pepin have recently come, too.”

It’s not just the big names that Masters’ events draw that strengthen the “small school” feeling that Baller talked about. Deans and professors are accessible and engaged in undergraduate life. Kung, a yoga enthusiast, says she even does yoga with the Dean of Silliman College, Hugh Flick Jr. “Only at Yale can you stand on your head next to your Dean,” she says.

Yale residential colleges also look out for students’ partying interests. Campus festivities are immeasurably improved, sophomore Jordan Strom says, by the set amount of money given to each college for social activities, usually allotted to a designated party suite. As filthy as these suites are, most years there are many blocking groups competing for hosting honors. This is partly recompensed through the administration’s enlightened liquor policy and partial repayment for party costs.

“The lack of an official policy on alcohol makes it a lot more fun to hang out,” says Mike Warner, a senior and party room resident. First-year Annie Hudson-Price claims that the attitude, “‘You will not get in trouble for drinking!” is constantly emphasized.

Baller agrees: “Yale treats drinking as a health issue, not a discipline issue.”

The residential colleges also throw parties. Richard Berger, a junior, says that there is usually a college-sponsored dance party each weekend that students can attend for a couple dollars.

Even with their strong presence, the social scene doesn’t begin and end with the residential colleges. There are plenty of non-University options, in strong contrast to Harvard’s dependence on exclusive final clubs—Yalies can choose between off-campus house parties, fraternities and Secret Societies.

Caesar estimates that about 15 percent of students live off campus. This gives students frustrated with the 2 a.m. curfew of on-campus parties a much-used alternative. Also, Caesar says that Greek life is visible on campus, estimating that 15 percent of undergraduates join a fraternity. In contrast to Harvard’s final clubs, though, the open nature of frat parties makes them a particularly appealing option for underclassmen.

But the appeal doesn’t last forever. “As a freshman girl, frats are the coolest thing ever. Hot older guys serving you unlimited refills of keg beer. By senior year, you go to the same parties just to laugh at your lame guy friends trying to scam on the clueless freshmen,” says Schweitzer. “It’s all about perspective.” Not that Yale’s off-campus partying options are all open to everyone. By Caesar’s count, about five percent of the school participates in secret societies.

Nevertheless, the social scene extends beyond parties and clubs. Kung claims that a cappella and other performance groups are gaining on traditional social outlets. “Rather than eating clubs and frats,” she says, “Yale has formed social groups centered on the production and performance of drama and song.”

Strom points out that service options can also build social community among students. “New Haven always has a need for community service,” he says. “Almost everybody is or will be involved during their time here. “

Many Yale students, like Kung, have deep-seated feelings of pride about their school. So when Kung talks about the accusation during the labor strike that Yale has no soul, she is genuinely indignant. “What do you mean Yale has no soul?” is how she describes her reaction. “I have no soul? I made that jump from Yale to myself immediately, and I was taken aback, both by the strength of their language and the emotions that it churned in me. Yes, that is how connected we are to Yale.”

Click here for Part II.

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