Old Yale

How the colleges were born

On the college system's 75th anniversary, a look at its difficult birth.

Manuscripts & Archives

Manuscripts & Archives

When the first seven residential colleges opened in the fall of 1933, Berkeley College was still just a hole in the ground. View full image

By the mid-1920s, Yale College had become so overcrowded that nearly half of the freshmen had to live off campus. Dining arrangements, except for upperclassmen with fraternity privileges, were haphazard, and campus life was chaotic.

President James Rowland Angell's suggestion in January 1925 was to adapt the residential college plan of Oxford and Cambridge for Yale. An Anglophile named Edward Harkness ’97, who had visited both English universities, liked the same solution. Indeed, Harkness, whose family had already given millions of dollars to Yale, liked it so much that when Corporation member Samuel H. Fisher ’89, ’92LLB, told him during a golfing weekend in September 1926 that making the plan a reality would cost ten to twelve million dollars, Harkness didn't flinch. His reply to Fisher, according to history professor George W. Pierson's Yale: The University College, 1921-1937, was simply: "Sam, I'll do it."

And yet Yale's college plan nearly didn't happen, for Harkness's donation put Angell in a difficult position. He had to persuade the Corporation and faculties to adopt the plan, but discussions were complicated by the fact that Harkness had asked to remain anonymous. Deliberations dragged on, and, dismayed by the slow pace, Harkness set a deadline of July 1, 1928, for a decision. When Yale failed to meet it, Harkness proceeded to give $11 million to fund a similar plan -- at Harvard. Finally, in December, the Corporation approved "a residential subdivision of the undergraduate schools into small units housing from 150 to 250 students each." This year marks the college system's 75th anniversary.

But the university's dilatory dealings had made President Angell persona non grata with Harkness. Into the breach stepped Provost Charles Seymour, who assumed the chairmanship of the Executive Committee on Quadrangles. Seymour was well prepared for the role. His first experience as a college student had been at King's College, of the University of Cambridge, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1904. (He also received a BA from Yale in 1908 and a Yale PhD in 1911.) In a year of consultation and planning, Pierson writes, Seymour "performed miracles of organization and diplomacy" to sell the plan on campus and then win back the support of Harkness, who gave nearly $16 million to fund eight colleges.

One point that may have required Seymour's diplomacy was a difference of opinion between Angell and Harkness on the purpose of the colleges. Angell was primarily interested in comfortably accommodating the growing number of undergraduates. But Harkness wanted the colleges to foster the development of each student, socially, aesthetically, and intellectually. He believed that the college master was the linchpin in this effort and insisted that the masters be married and live in the college.

Angell came to agree, and in 1930 appointed Robert D. French, an associate professor of English, as the first college master (and simultaneously as a full professor). Over time, the role of the master evolved to embrace the long list of duties enumerated by Thomas G. Bergin, master of Timothy Dwight College from 1953 to 1968, in Yale's Residential Colleges: The First Fifty Years. The masters, he wrote, had to know all the students personally, watch over them, support them in times of trouble, develop relationships with parents, participate in ceremonials and boost the college teams, maintain good relationships with the college employees, select and entertain the faculty members who served as fellows, and host distinguished visitors; in addition, they had to continue to teach, research, or hold administrative posts. Since 1963 the masters have shared this heavy load with college deans. (The support provided by a spouse or partner, formerly taken for granted, is now acknowledged with the title of associate master.)

The first seven colleges -- Branford, Calhoun, Davenport, Jonathan Edwards, Pierson, Saybrook, and Trumbull -- opened on September 25, 1933. A press release minimized the innovative nature of the plan by noting that it revived some nineteenth-century Yale customs, such as housing members of several classes in a single building and calling residence halls "colleges." The prices for board reflected the era, at $8 for 21 meals per week, $7 for 14 meals, or a minimum of $5.50 for 10 meals. Single meals were 30 cents for breakfast, 50 cents for lunch, and 70 cents for dinner. Rooms, depending on size and location, cost $110 to $400 per year per man.

Bergin called the first eight years of the colleges their "golden age." They held the exact number of students they were created for. Accommodations consisted mainly of suites for two students, with two bedrooms and a good-sized living room; some single suites, with a bedroom and living room each; singles; and a few connecting suites. Maids tended every student's room. With 24-hour guard service, the gates were never locked. Students dined at tables covered with linen cloths, selected their meals from printed menus, and were served by waitresses. And of course, every student dressed for meals in jacket and tie.

Seymour, the architect of residential college life, became master of Berkeley College when it opened in 1934. His Committee on Quadrangles had by then evolved into the Council of Masters. He retired as chair in 1936, and in 1937 became Yale's president.

In accepting Seymour's final report as chair of the council, President Angell wrote that "a far-reaching change in undergraduate organization was accomplished without shock to the academic body."  


Don't always listen to your master

The list of a college master's duties as enumerated by Thomas Bergin gave me a chuckle. Actually, I believe I had requested Timothy Dwight, got Trumbull, and met the master once my sophomore year. At that meeting, he briefly advised me to give up lightweight crew because my grades were lousy.  It turned out that lightweight crew and that year were the highlight of my life at Yale: we won all our races, received Major Ys, and my teammates paid my way to join them at the Henley Regatta in England. Never did see him again.

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