The Chaos of Centralization

Design by Karela Palazio

Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity, and some student names have been anonymized to protect sensitive information. 

On February 3, 2023, Yale undergraduates received an email about a new housing process to be administered by a central office. Rather than each residential college running its own draw on its own timeline, as has been the case for decades, the entire undergraduate housing draw will run on a single calendar. This move was intended to “make it easier for [students] to get information and stay on track, regardless of your college affiliation,” according to Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd in her February email. 

Dean Boyd elaborated on the rationale for the change in an email to The Herald, writing that “in recent years, the decentralized model of housing—in which each residential college ran their own process, with their own timeline and rules—had become increasingly complex and often confusing for staff and students alike. By consolidating, Yale College is able to simplify and equalize housing for all students.”

While the new system was implemented with promises of clarity, standardization, and easily accessible information, it has frustrated students struggling to navigate the process. Those who sought help from the housing office highlighted the lack of personal attention or care in the new system, especially compared to the hands-on approach of residential colleges in years past.

Some of the more drastic consequences of the new housing system came to light when students missed the February 27th deadline to declare intent to live on-campus. These students were excluded from the housing draw and placed on a waitlist for on-campus housing that would be addressed after the April 22nd room draw.

Some who missed the deadline responded by quickly finding off-campus housing options, either by themselves or with their intended on-campus suitemates who opted out of housing in solidarity. But for those who couldn’t find apartments in New Haven—or were unable to live off-campus for personal or financial reasons—the fallout of forgetting to declare has been stressful and answers have been hard to come by.

In the eyes of Viktor Kagan (PC ’24), a member of the Pierson College housing committee, this hardline approach to the deadline is a clear consequence of the depersonalized process. “When the housing draw was run within Pierson, there was a lot more openness and an ability to navigate deadlines. If you did miss a deadline, we’d be able to accommodate you a lot more. And now, obviously, we can’t accommodate at all, because it’s not up to us,” Kagan said.

The inability to provide any sort of leniency to students who made mistakes was especially frustrating in the face of the housing office’s own missteps. Nevertheless, Danya Dubrow-Compaine (MY ’25) shared that her suitemate was not notified of her failure to declare intent until about a month after the deadline, and was in fact receiving signs indicating she was set with on-campus housing.

“I don’t know how it happened,” Dubrow-Compaine said. “Originally, I added her to our housing group and I went through the portal and it worked, which gave us all the false impression that we could be a housing group. And then a couple of weeks later, when I went to lock the group, it turns out that she wasn’t in it.”

In an email to Dubrow-Compaine’s suitemate, a housing office representative acknowledged that the ability to add non-declared students to housing groups was an error with their system. This bug in the system particularly hampered the suite’s ability to adjust to their new circumstances as their peers’ housing arrangements, both on and off-campus, at that point, had begun to solidify. 

“The timing is really frustrating. Maybe this wouldn’t have been as big of a deal if it was earlier on, when people were still figuring out housing groups. Now that everything is set, there’s just a lot less flexibility,” Dubrow-Compaine said. As a result of this last-minute scramble, the suite of four, who had lived together this year, has split into three separate housing arrangements.

Dean Boyd pointed out that “the Yale College Housing Office has created extensive documentation online, including instructional videos, and has a dedicated staff answering student questions. That team has also been sending out multiple reminders for each deadline, resulting in very few students missing key dates.” Despite this, students have highlighted the lack of clear communication or flexibility from the housing office in regards to those students who have missed deadlines or dealt with other challenges.

Sarah (a pseudonym) is a first-generation college student on full financial aid. She realized her failure to declare intent less than a day after the February deadline passed. After sending quick, frantic emails to her dean and then to the housing office, she was told there was nothing that could be done to provide her with on-campus housing until the outcomes of the waitlist were resolved in late April. 

Sarah worried about affording off-campus housing, and resigned herself to waiting two months for the chance of on-campus housing with few details on what that might look like. She pleaded consistently with the housing office, if only for a chance to communicate with someone in a form other than email. Repeatedly, her requests for a meeting were rejected with an impersonal curtness that did nothing to alleviate stress or provide her with any direction towards remedies: “I was like, ‘well, can I have a conversation with you?’ ‘Can we Zoom?’ ‘Meet in person?’ ‘Just any face-to-face conversation about what my next steps would be?’ And the housing office staff member was just like, ‘Read the website.’ ‘No.’ ‘Good luck.’ She just kept repeating that over and over again,” Sarah said. “I still don’t know where I’m going to live next year. And I completely own up, like yeah, I fucked up. But also, I literally emailed them less than 24 hours after I realized. So, I mean, I own up to the fuckup, but it’s just like, damn.”

Alex Deng (MY ’25), who also missed the intent deadline, echoed Sarah’s experiences with the impersonal and unclear communication style of the housing office. “I emailed them and they were just like, ‘Oh, you’re on the waitlist, just have to wait ‘til April 22.’ There’s a cookie-cutter format in the way they reply to people,” he said. “I asked for more information in terms of what the waitlist is looking like, asked for information on what the chances are that I need to be looking for off-campus housing right now; the response was always just, ‘Oh, we can’t disclose any information right now. Look on our website for more information.’” 

The consequences of the centralized system have not just been felt by these forgetful few; the new housing process has also altered how students receive religious and disability-related housing accommodations, processes which used to lie in the hands of college deans.

In years past, this reliance on individual deans led to an inconsistent distribution of religious accommodations. “It was on a case-by-case basis,” shared Zahra Yarali (SM ’24), the president of the Muslim Students Association. “Essentially, if your dean was sympathetic to your cause, then you could reach out to the chaplain, get a letter of confirmation and then share that with your dean, and your dean would give you a separate housing option. The problem then was the inequity: if you leave it up to each college dean, some deans are more sympathetic than others. A lot of college deans simply didn’t make the effort to meet needs that students presented to them.”

In many ways, this sort of college-by-college inequity is a perfect example of how a centralized system might be beneficial to students. Perhaps under a centralized process, the university could implement universal practices to provide religious accommodations. Instead, when the new system was initially rolled out, there was no process by which religious accommodations could be requested at all. Extensive student organizing, including a petition signed by over 400 students and 60 student groups, as well as a rally on Cross Campus, eventually led to a meeting between students and Deans Pericles Lewis and Melanie Boyd. The outcome of this conversation was the creation of a survey that allows for students seeking accommodations to share their needs with the housing office. It also allows students who would prefer a single-gender suite, floor or bathroom for other reasons to indicate that preference as well.

Yarali highlighted the “collective effort” that underlies the new system and the role that a community of students willing to work with each other played in making change possible. “The administration thought that we wanted to overhaul what was already planned out,” she said. “Obviously, it would be beneficial if religious accommodations were ingrained in the housing allocation system, but it wasn’t necessary: we knew that students wanted to make this happen in ways that allowed us to organize floor plans and things like that on our own. Once we explained to them that there was a way to make it a bit more of a collaborative accommodation process, that’s when I think they understood it as something more feasible.” 

That said, the survey is not fully embedded in the new universal housing system. Yarali noted that no changes were made to how the administration defines “accommodations”—a legal categorization associated with federal disability legislation that shaped the university’s early arguments against allowing for religious accommodations. While still administered by the central office, religion-based housing needs will be handled separately from other accommodations and from the standard room draw. 

But changes to the housing draw have also affected those whose needs have always fallen under the strict definition of “accommodations.” Dean Boyd wrote that another benefit of the new system is that it “has also simplified the accommodations process by giving Student Accessibility Services (SAS) a clear set of deadlines.” But a simpler, clearer process for SAS has not necessarily led to an improved experience for students in need of accommodations.

Jamie (a pseudonym) is a sophomore who has been registered for accommodations with SAS since arriving at Yale. This year, she was placed in the one fully accessible room in her college. But when the housing selection process began, she was given no guarantees that she’d be able to stay. 

Last year, she says, “Housing took 15 minutes. I met with my dean and he was like, ‘Okay, these are the options that you have. Pick which suite would be most comfortable for you.’ I picked one, and my suite went offline from housing selection and my roommate and I got taken out of the draw. It was a very simple process, and it honored my accommodations to the full extent. This year, immediately after having to complete the housing form, I asked about how my accommodations would be honored. It was very unclear if I was being put in the housing draw or not. I was told that the suite I have now—which is the only suite currently in my college that honors all of my accommodations—wouldn’t be made available to me. I’d have to go into the draw for this suite.”

Staying in her current suite required the dean, as Jamie put it, to “fight tooth and nail” on her behalf. It was much longer, more stressful, and more labor-intensive—for Jamie, her dean, and the housing office staff—than last year’s 15-minute conversation. 

Jamie’s story highlights the particular value of personal relationships in the housing process. The advent of the new system has rendered powerless both college deans and the student housing committees that worked alongside them. Previously, these committees could communicate directly with their peers and problem-solve with authority. 

Kagan said, “I’ve talked to a few other people on housing committees that used to exist, and we’re like, ‘What exactly are we doing? What exactly is our purpose?’ We were never informed that our committees were being eliminated. They just didn’t happen.”

Students have continued to approach their deans and their peers on the housing committees with problems. Though these parties often try to help when they can, they’ve had to admit their lack of control or up-to-date information. The situation is especially frustrating given that Dean Boyd’s initial email stated that deans and student housing committees would continue to be a resource to answer questions and provide guidance.

“Whenever we get questions about housing—questions like, ‘Hey, what sort of spaces are available for our year?’ Or, ‘Hey, can we do this sort of housing arrangement?’ Or, ‘Hey, how can I ensure that I can get this?’ It’s more so, ‘Hey, we don’t actually exist as a committee,’” Kagan said, “Whoever the administrators are who do this, you have to go directly to them. It’s just a very out-of-touch approach. You get put into a residential college for a reason. Students knowing you and knowing how you interact within the community is important.” 

Kagan’s comments on the importance of students interacting with those who know and care about them reflect a core issue with this procedural transition. The housing process is ultimately about finding each student a home on this campus where they can feel happy, comfortable, and safe. With a faceless bureaucracy running the show, personalized attention and accountability are hard to come by. Even with the case of religious accommodations, an instance where remedy did occur, the impetus for this change came from students organizing, expressing their care for each other’s housing outcomes and seeking to improve the new process, not from the university.

The promises of centralized decision-making were clarity and consistency. Instead, the change has robbed many students of the ability to turn to trusted advisors and community members for assistance in what remains an unclear, inconsistent, and deeply personal process. 

In a best-case scenario, students will end up with suitable housing situations, having undergone two months of unnecessary stress in the midst of other possible academic, extracurricular, and personal stressors. For students without certainty on their housing situation, the limbo and seeming lack of care from Yale has been demoralizing and anxiety-inducing.

In another possible outcome, though, vulnerable students will also find themselves in undesirable, untenable housing situations or worse left out in the cold by the University, separated from their established on-campus communities.

Yale prides itself on its strong campus community and stresses the role of its on-campus housing in creating this culture. By turning away from the community structures that have long upheld these systems and instead turning to a process that consolidates power in the administration with little responsiveness to student needs, the University not only undermines students’ sense of stability but also chips away at the community structures that make us feel at home on this campus. 

Leave a Reply