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40 Ashmun Street: An Update on Space

Expanded Offerings and Limited Space

Life and the Law School were very different in 1931 when the Sterling Law Building was constructed.  At that time the Law School was home to one student journal and one student organization. We now produce nine student journals and support 55 student organizations. Faculty and curriculum have expanded from 44 professors teaching 128 advanced courses in the 1961-1962 academic year to more than 60 professors (plus numerous adjuncts and fellows) teaching more than 200 advanced courses during the 2013-2014 academic year. In 1986-87, the Law School had no staff devoted to computer services. Today, we have state-of-the-art IT Services to support student instruction.

Growth like this is not unique to Yale Law School.  It characterizes all first-rate legal education.  To remain competitive, Yale Law School has had to increase our curricular and extra-curricular offerings, as well as our administrative support services.  This growth consumes space.

Among our competitors, Yale Law School is unique. Prior to 2011, we were the only leading law school to remain on the same physical footprint as it was in 1931. Our growth has therefore required us to make difficult decisions about the best use of space to support the mission of Yale Law School. Our first and primary mission is to provide our students with the best possible legal education.  Over the years we have had to convert dorm rooms into the curricular, extracurricular and administrative spaces necessary to fulfill this mission. 

The Law School began to feel the space pinch in the 1970s.  One administration after another was obligated to make the very tough decision of appropriating dorm space to meet pressing operational needs and thereby maintain the School’s core strengths and competitive edge.

Today, the spaces once used to house students within the Sterling Law Building are used for the expanded offerings designed to help Yale Law School students receive the best education and best support possible— academic centers and clinical offices, faculty and administrative offices, and space for students to work collaboratively on journals and student organizations. Additionally, the Law School has several offices critical to the support of students — including a Financial Aid Office, an Admissions Office, a Student Affairs Office, and a Career Development Office. This kind of support, which did not exist in years past, is now an expected component of every American law school.

The upshot has been a progressive loss of dormitory space within the Sterling Law Building. In 1931, the building opened its doors with 219 beds. That number had decreased to 158 beds by 1990 and (following extensive renovations to the building in the early 1990s) to 56 beds by 2001. In 2007 – the final year that the Sterling Law Building included dormitory space – there were 23 beds.

Because Yale Law School believes that the option of residential living is important because it humanizes and enriches legal education, we have been planning to re-establish the option of dormitory housing for those of our students who wish to live at the school. 

The Early 2000s: Space Studies and a Plan for the Future

For more than a decade, numerous committees have been reviewing possible options for retaining residential living. The finding of each of these committees has been that there is no way to grow the Sterling physical plant, and that there is no convenient adjacent land on which to build new dorm space.  Committees have also concluded that off-site rental space is inadequate to address the long-term needs of the school.

In the 2001-2002 academic year, a faculty/administrator committee was tasked with assessing the Law School’s space problems and suggesting a course of action for the future. The committee recommended that the School should immediately begin a search for a nearby, amply-sized site suitable as a second YLS building. The committee stressed that any additional building would need to be more than a temporary palliative—it should be a building of substantial size and should offer quality, mixed-use space. The School therefore decided in 2002 that regaining space for dormitory living was a top priority for the new building. The School concluded  that dormitories should be integrated into an educational space that would facilitate student- faculty collaboration, foster tutoring and mentoring, and encourage interdisciplinary interactions.

Few sites within a five-minute walk of Wall Street met these criteria. The Law School examined several possibilities, including expansion to various offices around York Street, Lake Place, downtown office space, downtown residential space, the Hall of Graduate Studies, and the University’s Swing Space. The Swing Space was quickly identified as by far the most attractive possibility.

The Plan to Acquire 40 Ashmun Street

The “Swing Space” — a temporary dormitory for Yale College students located at 40 Ashmun Street — had been used for more than a decade to house undergraduates while the University constructed and renovated residential spaces. The University planned for construction of two new residential colleges to be completed by 2011. The Law School had a unique window of opportunity at the start of its Capital Campaign to plan to acquire the building from Yale University in 2012. YLS announced at that time its goal to raise $25 million to acquire 40 Ashmun Street to be used for residential, administrative, and other programmatic purposes.  

The story of what happened to that plan has been described in annual letters from Deans Koh and Post to YLS graduates. Had everything gone according to plan, Yale Law School would have had dormitories in place by last year.  Unfortunately, the acquisition of the Swing Space was delayed because of the largest financial crisis in the past half century –the financial downturn of 2008.

The crash halted university construction projects and, as a result, the University decided that it would need to keep the majority of space in 40 Ashmun Street to house undergraduates past the originally anticipated 2012 date.  Furthermore, the University’s decision to ultimately add two new residential colleges further delayed the original timeline. In 2009, the University agreed to give the Law School the fourth floor of the Swing Space to the Law School in July 2011, and the entire building in July 2018.

Since it would have proven logistically and fiscally imprudent to have addressed the residential spaces required for dormitories in a piecemeal fashion, it was decided that the School would use the fourth floor of 40 Ashmun Street to add several needed classrooms and relocate administrative offices.  This has freed the space in the Sterling Law Building necessary to hire and house the next generation of Yale Law School faculty. 

A Revised Timeline

Yale University President Peter Salovey has reiterated the University’s commitment to releasing the remaining three floors of 40 Ashmun Street to the Law School in 2018.  The Law School remains committed to acquiring and renovating the remaining three floors of 40 Ashmun Street for residential use. YLS will need to assume the remaining debt for the building and conduct significant renovations before students can begin living there.

During the Law School’s recent Capital Campaign, it received more than $5 million in gifts and pledges dedicated to establishing student housing. The cost of acquiring the space and making the necessary renovations to create a permanent residence for our Law School students is significantly more than $5 million. The School and the Dean are now actively seeking additional donations to fund this acquisition and the necessary renovations.

Sense of community is, and always has been, an important part of the YLS mission. For years, dormitory living in the Sterling Law Building was essential to the community of student life. At present, law students are eligible to live in Yale University graduate student housing, but most choose to live in apartment complexes in downtown New Haven, or in private apartments or group houses in attractive residential areas of the city within a ten-minute walk from the Law School. We do not regard these options as substitutes for dormitory living, and we look forward to once again being able to offer Yale Law School students dormitory space in 2018.