Village Voices: Greg Sterling (part 1 of 2)

Greg Sterling is Dean of Yale Divinity School, a position he has held since 2012. Sterling came to YDS after a 15-year tenure as the graduate school dean of the University of Notre Dame, where he had been teaching since 1989. This conversation took place in January 2023 and launched the “Village Voices” oral history project. Accordingly, the interview traces Sterling’s advocacy of a Living Building Challenge–certified residential building, from his arrival at YDS to the selection of Höweler+Yoon to lead the design with Bruner/Cott Architects serving as architect of record. It also offers a unique behind-the-scenes look at the role of philanthropy and finance in the modern academy. (Interview by David Sokol ’01 B.A.)

A building project is not a simple undertaking, and often the only available solution to a pressing need. What was the need here at YDS?

Even before I arrived, I knew that that the School had to address housing. My predecessor told me that Bellamy, Curtis, and Fisher Halls were not in good shape—he was very candid. So, we did a study, and it became clear they weren’t worth renovating. I like to put it this way. Those residence halls were built in 1957 with a 40-year life expectancy, but they look like Leave It to Beaver. By which I mean there are fundamental problems, such as students opening their windows in winter as a way of exorcising the thermostat: that’s just the way the heating system is set up. But I also knew there was no money for new housing. That was the single biggest challenge.

Were you committed to sustainability from the outset?

I wasn’t interested in simply building apartments, even though I didn’t yet know exactly what form sustainability would take. I was familiar with the LEED standard, and in all honesty I didn’t know about the Living Building Challenge at that point. After I spoke about this with the chair of the Dean’s Advisory Council [Chris Sawyer], he sent me an article about Jason McLennan and the Living Building Challenge he had founded and, reading it, I thought, ‘This is what we need to do.'”

Reading it, I thought, “This is what we need to do.”

A new building was not in the immediate offing, because we’re incredibly dependent on our endowment. And when you lose 30 percent of your endowment after the 2008 downturn, you lose 30 percent of your income. Instead we started with a strategic plan, and I made sure that its committee knew I wasn’t interested in incremental change—that they actually had to change the direction of the school. I was really glad that my suggestion of exemplary sustainable housing was one of the five pivot points in the final strategic plan that was released in 2015. At that point, too, we immediately had $220,000 to do a feasibility study to find out whether we could build such a thing on site.

To proceed from feasibility study to design drawings would require more expenditure—approximately $2 million in architecture fees. How did you raise those funds when the memory of the Great Recession still hadn’t disappeared?

There was a Monday event at the Yale Club of New York City, which had convened a group of entrepreneurs who have ties to religion. I asked them, “How does your faith shape your leadership?” Before a scheduled break, I spoke about not being afraid to fail, and I shared my greatest fear of that moment—that I had committed YDS to build the Living Village and yet I wasn’t sure where we were even going to get the $2 million for the architectural plan. I had spoken with [Dean’s Advisory Council member] George Bauer about this fear the previous Friday, but during the break at the Yale Club, George committed the $2 million for the plan. When I walked back into the event, I announced the gift, admitting that the attendees might think it was all staged. But it illustrates the point that sometimes you have to take real risk to move things forward.

That was December 2017. How did Yale University respond to this unfolding of events?

The response wasn’t pushback as much as it was, How can we do this? There wasn’t opposition. There were questions about the Living Building Challenge. LEED Gold is the university standard, so there was education around this higher bar of sustainability. There also was a great deal of skepticism about fundraising.

And yet, by February 2020, George and Carol Bauer alone had promised an additional $15 million for the Living Village’s construction. 

That was a turning point. At that juncture we had raised more than $30 million for both construction and non-construction purposes, and the university realized we might be able to actually do this. So, I went to facilities and said, Let’s build what we can for $32 million just to get started. They responded that that money would yield a power plant and 20 units of housing. But 20 units is not a village. That’s when George and Carol donated another $5.5 million. Meanwhile, a committee of donors determined that we needed 50 units of housing at a minimum, the cost of which would be at least $48 million. With the Bauers’ extra contribution, we were at $43 million. Then the Sherman Fairchild Foundation gave $4 million and we were there.

A power plant is expensive, so even at $48 million we were still estimating only 30 or so units of housing. But we thought that, with some borrowing and other mechanisms, we could get to 60 units for a total estimated cost of $66 million.

The Yale Corporation approved a 60-unit, first phase of the Living Village in July 2021. Ironically, this is a point during the pandemic when supply-chain costs and delays have earned national attention.  

And we were trying to keep a lid on costs. From July through December, the estimates ballooned 50 percent. So, we went back to the drawing board and hired Höweler+Yoon to partner with Bruner/Cott Architects on a different design for the village. I didn’t know how people would react to the new design, which is a consolidation of several buildings into one, yet today we all think it’s better. The Sterling Quadrangle is beautiful but, modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s design of the University of Virginia, it looks to a past that wasn’t inclusive. The final design of the Living Village is complementary to the quadrangle while looking to a more inclusive future. Interestingly, too, Höweler+Yoon was behind the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA.

Have there been moments when you doubted the course you’ve set for the Living Village?

YDS is a little different from the other professional schools at Yale. We are training people to build communities. We need to model that. One of the things we lost in the 20-year renovation of Sterling Quadrangle were dorm rooms and with them a sense of community that we cherish. We’re trying to bring that back. We’re also thinking about ministry in new ways, so the Living Village is part of thinking about ministries beyond churches.

You’ve described yourself as an optimistic person. Instead of saying you’ve had moments of doubt, then, perhaps it’s more fitting to say that there are affirmations you remind yourself of.

There are four things in total that animate and motivate me. After community, the second is that we’ve worked very hard to make this education affordable, because we want people to pursue their calling—not just an income necessary to repay student loans. We are now tuition-free [for students with demonstrated need], but we have to continue helping students financially in any way we can. The idea behind the Living Village was to make sure that it subsidized housing, to minimize rent as much as we could.

A third thing was to make an ecotheological statement. I feel very strongly that we are obligated to think about our environment as Christians and Jews and Muslims; I think we have a charge to be stewards and to think of ourselves as responsible and answerable for the ways we treat the world in which we live. I want divinity schools being in the forefront of environmental causes, challenging the way every college and university thinks about residential structures. This is a way we can make that very serious statement.

I want divinity schools being in the forefront of environmental causes, challenging the way every college and university thinks about residential structures.

And the fourth concerns inclusivity. Unlike most of Yale, there are no gates here. That’s very deliberate. But we still have to let the community know that they’re welcome. I’ll share an experience when I was first here: somebody who had grown up here told me that she wasn’t allowed to walk on this side of Prospect Street, “because that’s Yale.” I want our neighbors to know that they can come here, that they’re part of this, too.