Acting up

On Tuesday morning, Yale panlists began circulating a website. It ran a large headline, “Choosing a president,” before a letter to alumni concerning the Yale Corporation’s presidential search committee. It stated, “The committee thus far includes only one current practitioner of the liberal arts, none in the humanities—and 5 corporate executives.”

“Plus,” it went on, “we are troubled that although we have been invited to nominate four faculty members to join this committee, those nominations are open only until Tuesday 9/4 (TODAY) at noon. That’s less than one business day of public input.”

A scroll-down revealed the mission: to mobilize alumni to write the Yale Corporation Senior Fellow and urge him to appoint professors in the humanities and science to the search committee, and to spread the message to as many Yalies as possible.

By the end of the day on Tuesday, 3,600 Yalies from all over the world had visited the page, according to Paul Selker, DC ’08, one of the organizers.

Thursday night, Edward Bass, SY ’67, ARC ’72, the Corporation’s senior fellow, emailed the student body to announce that he had received over 800 letters from student, faculty, and alumni. Of the four faculty appointments to the search committee, one was a professor of economics, one of English, and two of science. It’s impossible to say without asking Mr. Bass himself whether the Corporation already had such professors in mind. But the fact that 800 people wrote to him in such a short amount of time suggests that the website worked.

Four of the site’s five organizers are recent alumni, and the last is a current student. Taken by itself, this example of successful activism suggests a vigilant studentry ready to challenge the any and every perceived injustice. But a broad look at Yale undergraduate activism suggests that we aren’t that disruptive, especially compared to other Ivies. Undergraduate Organizing Committee (UOC) member Kenneth Reveiz, CC ’12, told the Herald in January, “Yale is probably the hardest place to organize in New Haven.”

In September 2010, the Yale Corporation announced it had voted to sponsor a university in Singapore, to be co-established by the National University of Singapore (NUS). In the hyphenated appellation, Yale-NUS, Yale’s name anti-alphabetically came first. The mission was to expand the university’s influence in the emerging East and introduce the liberal arts into a principally vocational education system. Administrators promised that Yale (New Haven) would not be affected: professors and alumni donations would stay here.

Soon after the Corporation announced its plans, professors began to speak out. Some faculty (not many) were invited to a meeting to discuss (not vote on) Yale-NUS. Professors criticized the university for neglecting to consult the faculty beforehand. Several raised concerns over Singapore’s illiberal laws, such as limitations on free speech and a ban on homosexuality, which they claimed were profound obstacles to liberal education.

The same day of the announcement, the Yale Daily News ran an editorial recommending that students “talk about” Yale-NUS. According to Andrew Squire, SM ’12, who was a YDN opinion editor from October 2010 to September 2011, there was little undergraduate interest in Yale-NUS during the months after the announcement. Several faculty and alumni continued to air concerns; their opposition gradually loudened like an approaching far-off ambulance.

Students eventually spoke up. “It took a little time for steam to build,” said Alex Klein, DC ’12, who was Squire’s co-pilot. The YDN published its second editorial on Yale-NUS in April 2011, the month President Levin announced the launch of Yale-NUS. Klein said that by this point “many [undergrad] voices were rising in opposition and support”—but it took some prodding from the elders to get Yale College thinking and talking.

This has been the trend. In 1996, Local 34, the union that represents Yale dining hall workers, organized a strike after contract negotiations with the university broke down. With almost two months of school left, the dining halls shut down. Students on meal plans were reimbursed and given vouchers to local restaurants.

Local 34 had been striking since February, but by April, when many undergrads’ food source disappeared, Yale undergrads had taken positions on the Local 34 strike. Gordon Lafer, GRD ’95, worked as research director for the coalition of Yale unions after he got his Ph.D. He attributes undergraduate support pre-dining-hall-closure to the administration’s “bare-knuckle” tactics and the greater publicity of New Haven poverty.

Even Yale undergraduates in the late ‘60s needed other people to start their protests for them. Yes, Yale had its own Democratic Societies, Black Panther branches, Liberation Fronts, Revolutionary Youth Action Nows, etc. But undergrads largely rallied around national figures and other leaders.

New Haven’s own political apotheosis came in April 1970. After a Black Panther member was accused of murdering a man he falsely identified as an informant, the federal government pursued two prominent Black Panther leaders whom it claimed to have ordered the murders. Panther leaders, members, and friendlies across the country planned a blitz on the New Haven Green to protest the trial.

Yale’s proximity to the Green forced university president Kingman Brewster, TD ’41, to act. Other Ivy League presidents such as Columbia’s and Harvard’s, anticipating a coming political storm, closed the gates to outsiders. Brewster decided to keep the gates open. He granted protesters entry to Old Campus. Students aligned with the Panthers found an ally in him. In a speech just before May Day, he uttered what may be his most famous words: “I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.”

Paul Bass, JE ’82, the current editor of the New Haven Independent, co-authored a book on the 1970 Panther Trial. “There was a lot of student support for the Panthers, and they shut down classes at the end of the spring semester in 1970 because of all of the student protests and faculty member support.”

Yale students were proud to join in the readymade movement to defend black activists they judged to be falsely accused. In this case, as in the others aforementioned, undergrads waited for outside groups to launch a protest before taking action. They were not so radical in other ways too. Some of the Panthers who spoke at Yale advocated violence; when they did so, they were often booed.

When Yale undergrads did protest, their activities were meager compared to those of their coevals. “During the Vietnam war, when other campuses were radical, Yale wasn’t that much,” Bass said. “We didn’t have a lot of the same Vietnam protests and sit-ins through the ‘60s that other places were having.”

Jim Sleeper, DC ’69, a political science lecturer, remembers a similarly tranquil Yale. At Harvard in 1969, Cambridge police had to bludgeon student protesters to evict them from University Hall. “Nothing like that happened at Yale,” Sleeper said. He attributes Yale’s non-violence to its more peaceable studentry. “There’s an ongoing culture at Yale that is different…. It really is on the whole a relatively more civil culture.”

Consider the way the university deliberated the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) question. Students who opposed the war wanted the military completely off their campus, while others thought that all American college students had the right to train as officers. As Sleeper tells it, in 1968, about 2500 students assembled in Ingalls Rink to debate whether the university should continue to offer academic credit for ROTC. Students voted. President Brewster and other administrators were in attendance to make sure the organizers followed protocol. The count was announced—1,286 for, 1,286 against—and everyone burst out laughing. It was not a tense crowd.

Throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, radical Yalies exhibited a self-restraint that saved the university from violence. Often they had to rely on outside parties to motivate activism, but Yalies sometimes did initiate their own demonstrations. These demonstrations, almost always non-violent, chiefly responded to issues that directly affected them—draft cards, for instance.

During the Vietnam war, all college-aged Americans were legally required to carry draft cards. Beinecke Plaza used to be the place where Yale undergrads met—50 at a time—to break the law by handing their draft cards to the University Chaplain. The Yalies of the late ‘60s used modest methods of political expression. This type of protest continued on Beinecke Plaza at least until the mid-‘80s, when, according to Bass, students erected a shantytown to protest the Yale Corporation’s investments in companies that did business in South Africa. Those protests started a conversation that led the Corporation to send a committee to South Africa, which ultimately recommended partial divestment in companies that did business in South Africa.

Protests like these are absent from recent memory. Occupy set up camp on the New Haven Green, but it did not catch on among undergraduates in any impactful way. I asked Dean Mary Miller, GRD ’81, who has been on campus since 1977, what was different before the ’90s. “Students were different in the ’80s,” she said. “They were less focused on their careers, more involved in self-development.” If these students were around today, it seems, they would protest us.


When did the spirit of ’68 or ’85—as tepid as it was—die? David Brooks, in 2001, visited Princeton to find out what the modern Ivy League student was all about. He titled his essay, “The Organization Kid,” after the person he found, alluding to the sociologist William Whyte’s term for the corporate bureaucrats of the 1950s. Brooks observed that the generation before us—undergrads at the turn of the 21st century—made up a singular generation in American history.

“To understand any generation, or even the elite segment of any generation, we have to keep reminding ourselves when it was born and what it has experienced,” Brooks wrote. Students who went through college a decade ago had grown up when economic growth was high and military conflict rare. They began to read the news and think about the world after the Berlin Wall fell. They were coddled by parents who, as former ‘60s kids, didn’t want to parent as theirs had.

These students didn’t make a fuss. “They seem like exactly the sort of young people we older folks want them to be,” Brooks wrote.

That generation was also the first one that had to share the revolutionary spirit with adults. Some of the people who taught Generation Y to read rolled in the mud at Woodstock. As Brooks observed, “[College students in 2001] grew up in a world in which the counterculture and the mainstream culture have merged with, and co-opted, each other.” A Princeton administrator he encountered had a poster of the Beatles’ Revolver on her wall.

These things at the turn of the millennium all forced the impulse to rebel to the back of students’ minds. The late ’90s and early aughts saw minimal conflict on campus. Yet there were things to protest; we hadn’t reached the end of human evolution.

Brooks published his essay in April 2001, when today’s college students were then approaching teenagehood. Later that year, the event that

would define our political maturation claimed thousands of lives in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Penn. We were the first people to grow up in “the post-9/11 world.” And later in our adolescence, we saw the country plunge into an economic recession that many have called the worst since the Great Depression. In short, we and the organization kids grew up in different worlds.

In our post-9/11 world, national issues sometimes drew protests from Yalies—the Iraq War, for example. At Yale in the spring of 2001, anti-war outbursts in classes were not unheard of. And it was not rare for political tensions to break into controversy. One student hung a flag upside down outside her window, according to Sleeper. Another student managed to take it down after breaking into her room. (The college was not decisively liberal.)

Urgent but complicated national crises like 9/11 and the economic recession forced kids our age into a political conversation, or at least to overhear it. These crises possessed the minds of our parents, teachers, and news anchors. The topic of discussion was American decline and its various solutions. Politics post-9/11 assumed much higher stakes.

As we listened, we were steeped in the language of advocacy. This may explain the timing of an undergraduate activism surge in 2003-2004. It was around this time that undergraduates began to play a huge role in the administration’s financial aid policy.

Dean Miller was the master of Saybrook College at the time. “One of the strongest points of student activism in recent years was in 2003-2004,” she said, “when students became very engaged in pursuing an amplified financial aid situation.” Students came out with placards advocating for a greater financial aid contribution from the university.

“That was one of the clearest points when student activism had a profound outcome,” Dean Miller said.

So we’re not silent. Our generation does speak up, sometimes, when something happens that we care about.


Former YCC President Brandon Levin, DC ’13, said that during his tenure, he met with the dean’s office regularly and the president’s office weekly. At these meetings, Levin said, “We weren’t afraid to bring up even the most ostensibly trivial things with those administrators…. The one filter was: is this something we can do something about?”

Undergraduates also have the option of applying to one of the many university standing committees. One of these is the Dean’s Advisory Standing Committee. Twelve students, nominated by the YCC and confirmed by the dean’s office, meet monthly to discuss various issues with Dean Miller. She calls these meetings “exceptionally helpful.”

Marc DeWitt, ES ’15, thinks that university-sanctioned channels are insufficient. “We have to create our own avenues,” he said. “It’s not up to the administration to create activist fronts for us and ways to communicate with them.”

The Title IX complaint is one example in which university-sanctioned channels—among others—weren’t working. “The Title IX complaint was a last resort after years of public advocacy,” said Alexandra Brodsky, DC ’12, one of 16 signatories. “Protest, public calls to the administration, petitions, promotion of faculty reports—all of these methods were tried first by feminists at Yale. We filed the Title IX because—for this problem, in this context—they weren’t enough.”

Kate Orazem, JE ’12, another signatory, agreed: “Demonstrations and rallies hadn’t resulted in any real change in the way sexual assault was handled or in the sexual culture on campus…. It was clear to us that the administration needed a wake-up call.” She also noted that the legal complaint did not obviate or exclude other forms of protest.

Not all solutions are alike. A boon that comes with filing a Title IX complaint is the publicity it brings. Even if a federal Title IX investigation is inconclusive (as it was in Yale’s case), a complaint brings strong media scrutiny to the univerhjusity and its policies. This in part explains the various changes in sexual misconduct policy announced over the summer.

For Nathan Harden, BK ’09, author of Sex and God at Yale, media scrutiny is the stone for your slingshot if you’re up against a Goliath of bad university policy. In his book, Harden details—really details—some of the events that were part of Sex Week 2008, while he was a junior. One of these events was the Great Porn Debate, held in a ballroom above Hula Hanks. On one side, Ron Jeremy and another pornstar advanced the motion that porn was merely an innocuous, casual amusement; on the other side, a pastor and an anti-porn advocate argued that it was immoral, deceptively lucrative, brutalizing, and dangerous industry that by its nature objectifies women.

This was one of the least licentious, and most (intellectually) stimulating events hosted that week. But oddly, the university decided to banish it to Hula Hanks, even though it offered classroom space to the CEO of a sex toy company called Pure Romance. As Harden wrote, It turns out the reason was publicity. “Yale officials got nervous about how the Great Porn Debate might affect Yale’s public image,” Harden wrote in his book, “due to the fact that it was going to be nationally televised [on ABC’s Nightline].” “For this reason, they would not allow the event to take place on campus, even though they had provided free use of Yale classrooms and lecture halls for every other Sex Week event.”

The Herald asked Harden whether he thought this was the administration’s modus operandi. “There’s no question that the Yale administration has been preoccupied with protecting its own reputation in recent years,” he said. “It’s clear that when these controversies become widely known, it’s only then—often—that the administration springs into action.” On this rationale, the Title IX complaint was partially successful, even though the investigation it prompted was closed without a finding of non-compliance, because of the administration’s concern over its public image. Student activists, heed Harden: the media is your friend.


Every university cares about its image, if only because a better image brings brighter students. They’re “the administration” because the quality of university life is their responsibility. Even some of the university’s biggest critics respect the empowering corollaries of this responsibility. Harden and Sleeper both say that the administration must decide for itself what is best for the university. “Yale is not a democracy,” Sleeper said. “The Yale Corporation is a self-perpetuating body, and the president answers to the Yale Corporation.” Harden told the Herald, “I wouldn’t say that in all things officials should never take into account student opinion, but I think there has to be a reckoning that goes beyond student opinion.”

One of President Levin’s favorite instances of student activism came when three students during the 2003-2004 academic year sent him a proposal to make the university more sustainable. They had spent hours researching and preparing their report, which contained specific data and instructions. President Levin told the Herald, “They really got into looking at the potential for new building technology, retrofitting our existing buildings, improving our recycling—it had a lot of fact-gathering and a lot of data.”

Activism like this is successful because it demonstrates devotion—something that will distinguish the activist, given Yale’s history of piggy-backing. That’s one half of it. The other half is that it appeals to the administration’s interests. “I read this [proposal] and I was totally persuaded,” President Levin said, “I thought this was great.” The initiative reduced the university’s costs and placed it atop national lists of the most sustainable colleges.

“I was sympathetic to the idea anyway,” he added.

Leave a Reply