It took a decade of student lobbying, but Yale University appears ready to break with tradition and supply soap for dormitory bathrooms on one of the oldest campuses in America.
At a school where students have demanded and won financial aid reform and divestment from oppressive countries, calls for liquid soap dispensers went unanswered for years. Even after Yale agreed to stock two-ply toilet paper in the mid-1990s, administrators wouldn’t budge on the soap issue.
Mainly they cited the cost of keeping the dispensers stocked — more than $100,000 a year.
“It seems like a lot of money, but the school has a $12.6 billion endowment,” said junior Steven Engler, a member of the Yale student government and head of its soap committee. “Soap is just a basic necessity. All the other Ivies provide soap.” (Actually, Yale’s endowment is now up to about $15.7 billion.)
This month, however, the 305-year-old university put hand soap on an experimental basis in three of the school’s 12 residential colleges, as Yale’s dormitories are known. If the experiment proves affordable, soap could become available campuswide next year, said Yale Facilities Director Eric Uscinski.
‘Victory at last!’
The news spread quickly among alumni who campaigned for soap while at Yale.
“Victory at last!” Ted Wittenstein, a 2004 graduate who went on to analyze weapons of mass destruction intelligence for Congress, e-mailed a friend.
In addition to fretting about the cost, some university officials worried the dispensers would damage historic architecture in the bathrooms, according to the student-run Yale Daily News.
“At the time, it was a complete head-scratcher. It seemed completely obvious,” said James Ponsoldt, a 2001 graduate who spoke this week from the Sundance Film Festival, where a movie he directed premiered. “It’s pretty gross to not have soap in the bathrooms.”
Tradition also was a factor. Generations of Yale undergraduates, including the current and former Presidents Bush, lived without university-supplied soap.
“I think the main reason there aren’t soap dispensers is because there never have been soap dispensers,” Dean of Administrative Affairs John Meeske told the campus newspaper in 1997.
A communal responsibility
Students coped by pitching in to buy soap. Parents contributed. Soap became a communal responsibility.
In 1997, student leaders appealed to a higher power: John Pepper, then a member of Yale’s governing corporation, and chairman of Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, which makes Ivory, Olay and Zest soap. But Pepper said the university could not figure out how to make it work affordably.
“I think it’s great that people have soap,” Pepper said in a telephone interview this week. “I’m a big supporter of soap.”