Trinitocracy

03Nov06

Trinity has the reputation for being the most prestigious and wealthy college in Cambridge. This is manifested in large bursaries for students, rather significant estates, a list of Nobel/Fields winners, and several exaggerated tales of its extravagance. The latter are mostly perpetuated by the first years in a giant game of telephone and include a few cute ones:

  • Likely true: There are labyrinthine wine cellars under the Great Court. I’d belive it: There is an intricate wine trolley system in the cellars. Unlikely: There are only three people in the college who are allowed to go down and use them to fetch wines. A bit much: The trolley system is actually manned by a colony of gnomes whose tunnels extend from the Great Court to Burrell’s Field.
  • Likely true: Per student, Trinity is the richest college in the world (outdoing Harvard). This wealth is generated by keen investments and land leases. I’d believe it: Trinity owns the land on the UK end of the Eurostar chunnel. Unlikely: You can walk from Cambridge to Oxford on only Trinity land. Trinity’s fellows considered abolishing student fees and didn’t only because of pressure from other colleges. A bit much: Trinity secretly owns St. Johns college and maintains it so that the wealth discrepancy relative to the other colleges isn’t as apparent.

The emphasis on wealth may seem a bit odd for Americans since universities in the US tend to be differentiated by a prestige rather than wealth (though certainly there is a correlation). For students, wealth is relevant because it represents funding for the student union, better food (unconfirmed…), more faculty, and in-college housing.

It is this last item that has recently caught my attention, namely the allocation of in-college rooms to students. In contrast with the egalitarian and almost pre-fab rooms of American dormitories, all Trinity rooms are not created equal(ly). These range from the off-site hostels to the dorm-like rooms I’m in to the multi-room suites in the Great Court. A “nice room” in Trinity is very special property, so the stakes are high for students hoping to get nice diggs. More than the extravagance of some of the rooms, however, the way rooms are allocated was altogether surprising to me. But before I go into that, here’s an exhaustive summary of what little I know about undergraduate housing in Northern California universities:

Berkeley: One (possibly two) years of guaranteed university housing, nothing promised beyond that unless one is offered a Regent scholarship.

Stanford: Four years of guaranteed university housing with 95% of the undergraduates spending their entire time living on-campus. Freshman housing is assigned (with a committee pairing up freshman roommates), while housing for the following three years is based on a random lottery system where students have two years of ‘preferred’ housing where they are guaranteed to be at in the top 2/3 of the lottery.

Trinity also has a lottery system, but the weighting is based on cumulative academic performance. So freshers (freshmen) who get firsts (top marks) move up a step in the pecking order, and continue to do so as long as they get top marks in following years. Thus a third year with top marks has top choice between college accomodations.

External graduate students have one year of guaranteed housing before being put at the bottom of the lottery, since they haven’t accumulated academic status within the college. There is one exception to this rule: Part III mathematics students who get a distinction are awarded research scholar status, which puts them in the second tier of housing preference. This makes the luxury suites of Neville’s Court inaccessible, but otherwise puts them above all other graduate students and all but the most senior and accomplished undergraduates (and internal graduates who matriculated as Trinity undergrads).

I’ve heard mixed opinions on this, and there’s a bit to be said either way. However, in some sense housing allocation is actually meritocratic and awards those who ‘pull their weight’ as it may be. Such a system would almost certainly change the demographics of Stanford dormitories.

It appears that this preferential treatment for academic achievers tacitly extends beyond housing. Another story that has circulated is of a student who, as an undergraduate, maintinaed top marks while also spending a signficant amount of time playing loud music and smoking “the funny stuff.” When his combustible herbs set off the fire alarm without him noticing due to his speakers and turntables, a porter knocked on his door to kindly let him know that the fire alarm was sounding and it would be good for him to evacuate to the safety point, and that was that. Apparently, if said student was not getting firsts in his coures, then he would have “been made an example of” much sooner.

This, again, is something that is rather controversial and not overtly recognized as occuring. My own accounts of this is largely from hearsay. However, assuming for the sake of discussion that such practices take place, I am torn between the comfort in the idea that students who focus on their studies are given the freedom to do so however they wish versus the idea that one may be given free reign to abuse proper behavior just because they performed well on an examination.

But such, apparently, is how things work in Trinity. As has been said to the Marshall scholars, “it’s not better or worse, just different.”



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