West Campus is located in West Haven and Orange, seven miles from central campus, but I had never heard of anyone actually going out there. Personally, I knew that the property existed and that its science facilities were supposed to be impressive, but beyond that little else. This year’s graduating seniors were still freshmen when their campus expanded by 40 percent, but even now it is as much a direct part of any student’s life as Yale’s project in Singapore. But there must be something out there that’s relevant to me, something that makes it part of my college experience. Or why else is it a part of Yale?
I look up the shuttle schedule and catch a purple line from Phelps Gate. The bus runs every half-hour, but the only other passenger—a post-doc in microbial diversity—tells me that it’s pretty much empty except in the mornings and evenings.
The University bought West Campus from Bayer Pharmaceuticals four years ago this June. The ailing pharmaceutical giant’s decision to leave Connecticut created a perfect opportunity for President Richard Levin, GRD ’74, to further his mission of injecting new life into Yale’s science program. Though Yale consistently ranks in the top three undergraduate programs in the country, it falls behind its schools like MIT, Stanford, University of Chicago, and Columbia in rankings of science and research programs.
Bayer Pharmaceuticals had owned the site since 1965. In 2006, following the expiration of its patent on the drug Cipro, an expensive FDA recall of its drug Trasylol, and a merger with the German company Schering Pharmaceuticals, Bayer announced that it would be downsizing, and placed its West Haven plant up for sale.
Yale bought the entire 136-acre West Campus for 109 million dollars. The new property increased the size of the Yale’s campus by 40 percent. All other buildings and grounds aside, President Richard Levin said in an interview with the Yale Alumni Magazine in Sept. 2007 that the laboratory facilities alone would have cost 300 to 400 million dollars to build from scratch.
The 20-minute drive passes quickly, but it’s clear from the moment we drive through the mechanized chicken-wire security gate that this is a very different Yale from the one I know. The whole campus looks like a typical but very appealing office park. The buildings are conservatively modern in a corporate sort of way. Their attractiveness can be precisely described as moderate—no more, no less. I get out of the bus at the administrative building, creatively named W-B25 (all the buildings at West Campus are similarly lettered and numbered).
The foyer has high ceilings and is full of natural light from the glass ceilings and glass wall. It is empty, save for two middle-aged men wearing business casual and ID cards around their necks; they eye me for what feels like a long time. This will recur numerous times over the course of my explorations. It occurs to me that I am not wearing an ID card.
Hanging over a flight of stairs at the back of the foyer, there is a wall-sized abstract painting from the Yale collection that looks like what would happen if Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso collaborated on a portrait of the Kool-Aid Man. Inside a room upstairs labeled “Library,” there appears to be a Yoga class going on in a space that has been cleared among the empty shelves.
I find the administrative office, where a friendly receptionist tells me that Operations Manager Lisa Maloney is out of the office, but tells me that if I make an appointment, someone would be happy to show me around another day.
Having come all this way, though, I decide to poke around a little more. In the basement of W-B25, almost all the doors are locked. My Yale ID does nothing.
Looking up at the ceiling, I notice a series of prominent black orbs—the kind that conceal security cameras. The cameras must be a relic of the Bayer years, I think, and probably aren’t even on. But for the second time that day I feel scrutinized, and have to remind myself that I am actually still at Yale.
Leaving the building, I go to investigate some of the rest of the campus’ 17 buildings. There’s a concrete warehouse with a tractor-trailer loading bay, and a power plant that breathes a gentle gray tendril out of its spiraling smokestack. Cutting through the center of campus is a wooded ravine with a quaint stone bridge over a stream, which a plaque from the Peabody Museum informs me is the Oyster River. Walking about the entire campus I see five people. I also meet two wild turkeys, which look as surprised to see me as I am to see them. Finally, after about two hours of wandering, I get back on the shuttle, feeling as if I know less about the place than I did before.
One has to wonder why, almost four years after its purchase, West Campus is still so empty. Maloney estimates that there are roughly 200 people—graduate students, post-docs, faculty, and staff—working at West Campus on a daily basis. Its capacity, she says, is between 1,200 and 1,500.
Yale’s 2007 purchase of West Campus directly preceded the financial crisis. Between fiscal years 2008 and 2009, Yale’s endowment lost 25 percent of its value, falling from 23.9 billion dollars to 16.3 billion. On Sep. 10, 2009, President Levin sent an email to the Yale community announcing, among other cutbacks, that though Yale “will continue to recruit faculty to develop exciting new programs on the West Campus…we have set a pace that will trim our originally planned expenditures by more than 25 percent in the years immediately ahead.”
Though undoubtedly significant, the effects of the economic downturn on West Campus are difficult to accurately gauge. When the University purchased the complex, administrators did not publicly outline a formal plan or time-line for development. Stephanie Spangler said that administrators considered hypothetical scenarios that ranged from “mothballing” the project to “full tilt.” “What we think we’ve come up with,” she says, “is a model that will allow the campus to maintain healthy growth while still showing fiscal responsibility in these constrained times.” Maloney, who has been on the West Campus project from its very beginning, also pointed out that a main objective of development had always been to attract faculty members from outside Yale, a process which by nature takes several years.
The next morning, Maloney calls me back and invites me back that afternoon for a proper tour. Two hours later, I meet her in the W-B25 lobby and go exploring for the second time, this time with the benefit of Maloney’s friendly narration and key card. The locked doors are far more interesting from the inside, and once Maloney is there to justify my presence, people couldn’t be friendlier.
Since 2007, the academic structure of the campus has developed around three “cores” and five “institutes.” The cores—the Small Molecule Discovery Center (SMDC), the Center for Genome Analysis and Center for High Throughput Cell Biology—represent what Janie Merkel, Director of the Small Molecules Discovery Center, calls “service providers” for various labs across Yale.
“The concept of a core,” explains Merkel, “is that you have specialized expertise or equipment, or a combination of the two. It’s not cost effective for a specific department to build it, or for a specific principal investigator to make that investment. It’s not quite like a dining hall, but at the same time it kind of is: It’s a centralization of a specific function.”
Outside the cores, the plan for West Campus is designed around five different “institutes.” The concept behind these institutes, says Associate Vice President for West Campus Planning and Program Development Stephanie Spangler, is to bring faculty members from Science Hill, the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering to solve problems across disciplines. Three of these institutes—Microbial Diversity, Systems Biology, and Chemical Biology—are up and running. The Cancer and Biodesign institutes are slated to start work next spring. Maloney says that there has also been serious discussion of adding a sixth Energy Institute. The Yale University Art Gallery and the Peabody Museum collections also have access to the abundant space to store and curate their collections.
Levin has called West Campus his “Louisiana Purchase.” It’s an apt analogy. As Maloney shows me around, I get the impression of a vast frontier that is there for the taking. We walk through entire hallways of offices and work rooms that are not in use. In some buildings, she tells me, there are entire floors that still don’t have occupants.
For those who work at West Campus, these vast amounts of space are perhaps its finest quality, and they consistently cite it first as one of West Campus’ greatest luxuries.
Medicinal Chemist Jay Schneekloth works for the Small Molecule Discovery Center, which relocated from Kline Biology Tower in late 2009. “On central campus, we had 500 square feet of space,” he said. “Now we have 5,000.” The ratio of robots to humans in the lab must have been at least six to one, and Schneekloth described the complex function of each in detail. Some of the equipment was carried over from the previous lab on Science Hill, but a large proportion of it was also donated en masse by Bayer or included in the purchase price. “We unwrapped all the different boxes like it was the holidays,” said Merkel.
Jason DeBlock, a collections manager at the Yale University Art Gallery, is delighted with the vast amounts of space. His team works in what Maloney says, is a former manufacturing floor that used to produce Aspirin and Alka-Seltzer, with concrete floors and two-story ceilings. “What we are doing here is large scale projects that we wouldn’t have had space for downtown,” he explains. DeBlock shows me where members of his team have reconstructed entire rooms from an eighteenth century house. Stacked on shelves nearby are piles and piles of neatly stacked, numbered pieces of weathered wood. This, explains DeBlock, is the rest of the house.
In then next room DeBlock shows me a robot he describes as a “giant version of a dentist’s drill,” that the team here developed to automatically remove cracking concrete backings from ancient Jordanian mosaics—a technique that he says is garnering international attention. The project was already in the works before West Campus became available, DeBlock said, but when the restorers saw Bayer’s machine shop, they knew that “here it was, handed to us on a silver platter.” And just like that, the space was theirs to use.
West Campus may be sparsely populated, but even more notable is the almost complete absence of undergraduates. Everyone I asked had only interacted with one or two, if any, Yale College students on West Campus. On the topic of the undergraduate presence at West Campus, Spangler said, “I think the answer to that is yet to be determined… At this point, the undergraduate involvement mainly consists of coming to work with professors on specific projects.”
One of those projects (and the only project involving undergraduates that I was able to locate) is Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory class, which is taught by Scott Strobel, who also happens to be Vice President for West Campus planning and program development. The course requirements include a spring break trip to gather samples in actual rainforests in Ecuador or Peru, and then engage in research on those samples during the semester and following summer.
Durga Thakral, PC ’12, who took the class last year, emphasized how helpful the equipment at West Campus has been for her work, which requires dividing and screening a large number of samples. “High throughput” machines on West Campus make it possible to do the same amount of testing with less work. “Instead of pipetting 384 times you just run your reagent through this thing. It’s so much faster. It’s so nice for just doing plates and plates of reactions,” Thakral says.
Though she spoke glowingly and at length about the considerable research capabilities of West Campus and the exceptional friendliness of its staff, Thakral is more skeptical about its present potential as a resource for other undergrads. “That’s more in the distant future,” she says. “It seems like it would be really difficult to have undergrads in a lab on West Campus, especially since the buses don’t run until 6 p.m. Undergrads don’t have time between nine and five to go to West Campus.” Working on Science Hill, she explains, is more doable, since many science students already spend so much of their time up there for classes, making it convenient to “pop in” and tend to experiments between classes.
“A lot of undergraduates don’t need to go over there for their research,” said Lexie Berwick, SY ’12, another member of the same class, although she also said that many undergraduates aren’t as aware of the resources available as they should be.
Spangler characterized the integration of the two campuses as an ongoing process. She predicts that the ever-increasing quality of the programs and faculty will attract more and more students “at all levels,” and that practical changes such as further increasing shuttle service will also contribute to integration in the future. The initial priority, she added, is “to make sure faculty are comfortable on West Campus before we start entertaining plans of more undergraduate involvement.”
For those who work at West Campus, being few in number isn’t necessarily a bad thing. West Campus feels pretty similar to the way I would imagine a frontier town. It seems that the small community and plenitude of space in which to spread out makes West Campus a noticeably more friendly and communal place than central campus. “I think maybe everyone feels a little lonely, so as a result everyone reaches out a little more,” says Merkel.
“We’re a little spread out,” Maloney says. “But we try to do things together.” During my visit, Maloney apologizes that her office smells like soy sauce (I hadn’t noticed). “We had a sushi tasting today,” she explains.
Initially, I had felt shut out of West Campus. But now that I was inside this community, I almost didn’t want to go back to New Haven. Those who work at West Campus actually acknowledge that people are nicer here, and they take pride in it. It’s just a matter of finding your way in.
Photos by Cole Wheeler; cover design by Sam Lee.