Well, Well, The Well?

I often find myself strolling through the bowels of the Schwarzman Center, Bow Wow sushi in hand, in search of a quiet place to study. Occasionally, tempted by the porthole-like windows on the double doors at the base of the rotunda, I bypass the bustling Elm and approach the Schwarzman Center’s new bar, The Well. Peering inside, I’m beckoned by a scene that’s part speakeasy, part corporate waiting room, with warm lighting, brass fixtures, and orange armchairs galore. On one such sojourn, I mustered the courage to attempt to swipe in, only to be thwarted by the jarring red beep of the card scanner. Was my intrigue insufficient for admission to The Well? It was exclusive. It was strange. I needed to know more.

A few days later, sitting in the Starr Reading Room on a spring evening, the magnetic draw of The Well—now newly open for business—reached a fever pitch. I couldn’t stay away any longer. I shoved my laptop into my backpack and trudged across the pristine granite of Beinecke Plaza and back into the Schwarzman basement. This time was different. I was greeted at the door of The Well by a friendly bartender who scanned my ID and wrapped a printed band around my wrist, which listed my full name, birth date, and driver’s license number. Although the white plastic of the wristband made me feel as though I had just entered a hospital rather than a bar, I was glad to have finally made it in. The bartender surveyed the almost-empty room and told me that it could get busier, sometimes. When I asked her what it’s like to work in The Well, her face lit up: “This is the best job in the world: we get to see whatever happens here. When the professors start to loosen up a bit and begin offering to buy people drinks…” She trailed off but quickly caught herself: “of course, nothing scandalous happens, but it is interesting.”

My intrigue intensified and I approached the bar in hopes of loosening up myself. As I perused the menu, a few balding men wearing blazers spoke in hushed tones on one side of me, while a woman laughed loudly with the bartender on the other. I ordered a beverage entitled, rather meticulously, “American Hard Cider Stormalong Unfiltered Wallingford, CT Blue Hills Orchard EST 1904 Hard Cider.” I sipped my drink (which was delicious) and plopped down in a chair. As I sat observing the scene, lit by a soft golden light, I was struck by the oddness of the space. A few men in their mid-twenties wearing khaki pants arrived and awkwardly high-fived one another before quickly downing a couple of beers. Some tattooed graduate students laughed in the corner over their glasses of sauvignon blanc. Despite being firmly in the heart of Yale’s campus, I felt profoundly uncertain about my surroundings. What was this place? Was I the only undergrad present? After finishing my drink, I rose and ascended the stairs back into the dark, warm night.

Later, in hopes of settling my confusion, I began probing whatever authorities I could find on The Well. The Schwarzman Center website promises that one can “refresh and unwind under the Rotunda… [in this] 21+ pub with comfortable seating and a curved, two-level bar.” The sparse description left me with more questions than answers, primarily: why was this place created in the first place? To my disappointment, my emails to Schwarzman Center employees went deflected or unanswered. I decided that my inquiry would require me to traverse through the murky depths of the internet, and, beckoned by the second yellow ‘O’ in the “Goooooooooogle” at the bottom of the page, I forged on.

There, I found a website linking to the designers of The Well. I contacted Melissa DelVecchio, of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, LLP, the head architect for the Schwarzman Center project. DelVecchio claimed that the idea for The Well came from students, who she said requested a place where those of age could responsibly consume adult beverages together as part of the 2015 report to President Salovey. “[Our team] discovered that the space below the Rotunda had beautiful foundation walls made of local Stony Creek Granite hidden behind the plaster,” she said, “making it a natural fit for the student-requested area where alcohol could be served.” Surprised by the notion that students had spearheaded the idea for The Well, I searched for the document DelVecchio mentioned.

The closest thing I could find was a ninety-six-page report from 2015 entitled “The Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee: Report to Yale President Peter Salovey.” The titular committee, composed of only twelve students (four of whom were undergraduates) and fifteen faculty and staff, envisioned in meticulous detail the space and programs that would one day comprise the Schwarzman Center: “‘Sunrise Yoga’ lessons in the Dome Room at seven a.m.,” “periodic wine and cheese parties for g&p students…in the Presidents’ Room,” and “several Yale minibuses…on site to take students safely home” are just some of the many offerings described with rhetorical flourish. It was replete with flashy graphics, five appendices, a narrative describing “A Day in Schwarzman,” and only passing discussion of The Well. This seemed to be the official document which largely informed the completed Schwarzman Center we know today. Although this document did reference a space which would sometimes serve alcohol—“We do think that wine and beer should be available in the Bistro in the evenings,” it says—it contained scant rationale for such a space. The committee wrote that, “We hold the hope that offering beer and wine will stem the ‘pre-gaming’ drinking tendency, at least for events at the Schwarzman Center.” Although it did seem that some students had some minor role in the idea for The Well, I was curious whether this was representative of the student body’s views as a whole.

I continued my search and found a document from 2014 titled “Student Center at Yale,” released by the Yale College Council (YCC), the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS), and the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA). In this eleven-page document, where the student governments argued for the merits of a student center, there were no references to the sipping of spirits. The document had the word “alcohol” fourteen times, with the suffix “-free” appended almost every time. Student desires centered on a departure from Yale’s drinking culture, rather than further investment in it. My confusion abounded. DelVecchio claimed that the vision for a bar came from a student request. While the 2015 report she referenced did indeed include a vague recommendation for a space which served alcohol, it did not clearly indicate that this came from the students (who composed a minority of the committee) and provided only minimal rationale for the space. When contrasted with the enthusiasm and idealism with which the student governments had described their vision of a space to provide alcohol-free programming—described as “a student center with compelling alternatives to drinking [which] would disentangle campus-wide social interaction and alcohol consumption…[and] foster a greater sense of community across the university”—I found DelVecchio’s claim of student support for The Well to be unconvincing.

I wondered if student attitudes towards a bar on campus had grown more outwardly favorable in the past eight years, so I turned to my friends for their perspectives. “Schwarzman is just made to entertain Yale’s donors, surely The Well is no different,” came one cynical response. “I am just waiting until a professor holds office hours there,” another friend chuckled as we walked by it one day. “I think it would be inappropriate if [a professor] is even sighted there!” a third friend responded. I had yet to find a student who was enthusiastic about The Well, although there were plenty who were skeptical. 

As if in answer to my continued bewilderment, an email arrived from Dr. Maurice Harris, the Director of Marketing and Communications for the Schwarzman Center. “The design and programming of Yale Schwarzman Center, based on the vision of Yale’s three student governments,” he wrote, “called for a space onsite that could offer beer and wine to stem the ‘pre-gaming’ drinking tendency.” He added that, originally, The Underground would have hosted the beer and wine offerings, but planners feared the risk of underage drinking in such a “popular, all-ages venue.” Finally, he concluded, “The Well provides a way to honor students’ original vision while enforcing our commitment to the care and safety of our Yale community.”

This appeal to students’ enjoyment of partying seemed to be an insufficient explanation, too. The phrase “pre-gaming tendency” was also used in the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee report, which barely referenced spaces that serve alcohol. If Harris’ discussion of “Yale’s three student governments” is a reference to the report from 2014, then his claim that a space serving alcohol was the vision of the student governments seems untrue. That report never asks for a place that serves alcohol, instead arguing for the merits of alcohol-free socialization. If he is instead referencing the 2015 Schwarzman report, claiming that the recommendation of the committee (with a minority of students) is the “students’ vision” seems an exaggeration. Perhaps there is another, definitive declaration of the student governments’ vision? Hours of searching yielded no answer, and when I asked Dr. Harris for clarification, he directed me to a website which only included links to the 2014 and 2015 reports. These reports hardly constitute evidence for a pre-existing student desire for The Well––and verge on cherry-picking. It seemed that the administration’s carefully crafted language and repeated attribution to the student governments’ vision lacked any definitive proof in the public record; in fact, there was ample evidence to the contrary.

Yale presents itself as a progressive institution that believes in harm reduction, which fits its reputation as an Ivy League school home to a relatively robust social scene. Rather than RAs who administer punishment for underage drinking, Yale employs FroCos who pour out the alcohol when they catch first-years with red Solo cups. The University asks all students to undergo training administered by The Office of the Alcohol and Other Drugs Harm Reduction Initiative, which promises that they will not get in trouble or have their parents contacted if they seek help for alcohol-related health incidents. But when it comes to implementing safety measures that threaten to compromise their reputation, Yale falls short. Although there is no Greek life officially sanctioned by the University, Yale coexists with frat houses that throw raucous parties only steps from its academic buildings and most of its first-year dorms. Students are still commonly brought to Yale Health in ambulances due to alcohol poisoning, fraternities are the sites of sexual assaults involving intoxicated students, and it is socially acceptable for people to drink as frequently as five nights per week. This culture does not seem healthy or balanced, but Yale allows it to exist.

The Well, on the surface, seems like another misguided half-measure to reduce harm without really changing anything—a student-safety advertisement wrapped in a Yale bow. In reality, students didn’t seem to ask for anything close to The Well, nor does it reduce the “pre-gaming tendency” for the quarter of the undergraduate population that’s of legal drinking age. Are we meant to believe an on-campus bar that closes at 11 p.m., serves single glasses of beer that cost as much as a handle of cheap liquor, attracts mainly professors, and lacks all the charming interior décor of Sig Nu is really going to tempt students away from their Dubra shots and drinking games?

Rather than taking further steps to address the many issues facing the student body, the University’s choice to sink millions of dollars into the construction of The Well allows Yale to applaud itself for reducing “pre-gaming” without designing an establishment to do that. This carefully constructed space reflects a familiar tactic of the administration in dealing with student complaints: it curates exclusive spaces that appear to be a solution, but in fact leave the roots of problems intact. To a professor or donor sitting in the basement of Schwarzman, watching one or two students slowly sip their alcoholic beverages, the drinking culture of Yale might appear safe. Yet this does not capture the mad, weekly rush to High Street, the toilet bowls full of vomit, and the ambulance calls routinely made by concerned friends after long Saturday nights. Melissa DelVecchio’s team may have peeled back the plaster of the basement room, but their true contribution was not to reveal beautiful Stony Creek Granite: it was to hide the dark reality of the Yale Administration’s often dangerous and dysfunctional attitude towards alcohol consumption on campus.

Judah Millen is a sophomore in Pierson College.

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