Protest and Progress


Protest and Progress

A History of Student Activism at Yale

Published on January 27, 2022

The Yale Bowl does not have stadium lights – even the rare games that go into double overtime have ended before sundown. But the extended halftime of the 2019 Yale Harvard game left players on the field well into the dark. Immediately after the second period of the 2019 Yale Harvard football game, hundreds of students from both schools entered and occupied the field, holding banners reading “Yale and Harvard are complicit in climate injustice,” “this is an emergency” and “Nobody Wins.” Many Yale and Harvard students remember the Game protest as one of the most visible and forceful actions for fossil fuel divestment either school had ever seen.

As some of the media attention on the Yale-Harvard Divestment Protest would suggest, activism at Yale draws on a long and complicated history. In a collection titled “Student Unrest at Yale” at Sterling Memorial Library’s Yale Archive, there are dog-eared and yellowed petitions, letters to faculty and hand-written copies of student demands. With archive headings such as “Conic Section Rebellion of 1830” and “Bread and Butter Rebellion of 1828,” it’s easy to imagine early campus protests as little more than the petty airings of entitled student grievances. During the Conic Sections Rebellion, Yalies protested against a change to instructional policy that would force them to draw their own geometric shapes on exams, rather than refer to those printed in their textbooks. In response to petitions and walkouts, nearly 50 students were expelled from the University. The Bread and Butter Rebellion, marginally better received, was a response to a perceived drop in the quality of dining hall food.

In 1952, students took sides when two ice cream vendors’ disagreement over a prime vending location in front of the Yale Station post office reached a stalemate. More than 1,000 students flooded Elm Street, smashing car windows and throwing rocks and paper bags full of water. The two vendors were arrested, as were four students. According to a New York Times article, the New Haven Fire Department dispersed the riotous crowd using fire hoses.

Though events like these populate Yale’s archives on unrest from the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the first half of the 20th, Jay Gitlin ’71, a senior professor of history and prominent Yale historian commented, “in general, the Yale campus has not been a particularly radical one.” 

While Gitlin says that many protests in the 19th and early 20th century “were about food and the lack of quality,” this began to change in the late 1950s. The Ice Cream Riot of 1952, a disturbance that thrust Yalies into the national news, signalled the end of the old paradigm of protest at Yale. Soon, the chaos of entitlement would give way toward a culture of more earnest organizing. 


Protests at Yale have shaped university policy and, to some extent, public opinion on issues from free speech to racial justice. Yale’s administration has, in the manner of a firmly-established institution, resisted, inspired and ultimately accepted the existence of student protests. However, students say that this acceptance is qualified and incomplete. While Yale readily grants the right of protest to its students, many activists see the encouragement of polite action as a way to side-step the institution’s responsibility to address student grievances.

A New Paradigm of Protest 

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the hippie movement, a nationwide counterculture movement ranging from hardline anti-establishment to frustrated middle-class characteristics, inspired a series of nationwide youth movements with clear demands, factions and increasing demonstrations. In May of 1970,  thousands of students, community members and spectators from across the country packed Yale’s courtyards, dorms and dining halls to listen to speakers, attend teach-ins and follow the murder trials of Bobby Seale and three other Black Panthers. Seale, chairman of the National Black Panther Party, was accused of ordering the executions of a party member and suspected informant while visiting the New Haven Panthers in May of 1969. 

The end of the trial — which left Seale unindicted after a deadlocked jury failed to return a verdict — came during a spring that saw many university campuses in turmoil. Harvard’s April 15 protest-turned-riot was also partly in response to the Black Panther Trials (with one group in attendance calling themselves the Bobby Seale Contingent); Kent State saw a May 4 National Guard killing of four students protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War. 

The student movements came at a time of particularly strong resistance to protest by the establishment. The height of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, the police murder of Fred Hampton and many universities’ refusal to acknowledge students’ demands threatened the demands and lives of activists. Yale’s administration under president Kingman Brewster faced a high-stakes test of their flexibility: Would they repeat Harvard’s locked-gate antagonism, precede Kent State’s violent martyring or avoid tumult altogether?

The tense atmosphere that spring forced Brewster to think outside the box, responding quickly to protest on Yale’s steps. Finals were postponed, classes changed to universal pass-fail, student activists invited speakers to courtyards and lecture halls and Yale Hospitality provided food for attendees, according to Yale Daily News articles from the time. This reception was enough to turn the event into a community gathering and largely peaceful protest action, avoiding the chaos faced by other universities. Brewster brought the May Day protests under the tent of the university, paving the way for the institutionalization of protest more concretely in the coming decades.

Yale’s South Africa Problem

Towards the end of the 20th century, Yale would face a new dilemma: the University’s complicity in injustice abroad. 

Elizabeth Juviler ’89 has visited Yale several times since she graduated. Aside from a few reunions and a family member’s graduation, a few years ago she accepted an invitation to attend an event with the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project and Fossil Free Yale. The groups, active in their respective campaigns for social and environmental justice, looked to past activists like Juviler for guidance, support and knowledge. Juviler said she engaged in campus activism to join the “tradition of calling to account this marvelously powerful institution to our values.” In 1986, her sophomore year, the rallying cry for campus activists would sound familiar today: divest.

Juviler remembers the 1986 scene between Woodbridge Hall and the Beinecke Library vividly. The plaza was home to an occupied protest known as “The Shanty Town” for nearly two years. Students and New Haven residents lived in makeshift buildings to avoid their removal. A sign posted near the shanties read “welcome to Winnie Mandela City,” named for the wife of Nelson Mandela. Tents and plywood-and-tarp structures surrounded the sunken courtyard, signs and posters displayed solidarity with Black South Africans under Apartheid and with Mandela, then imprisoned in South Africa. 

“On the day the suspensions were announced, the United States Senate voted to levy sanctions against South Africa. Yale, Juviler felt, had failed its test.”

At the time, Yale’s endowment owned more than $300 million in stock in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. “We were looking for a clear financial statement that would support the advancement of democracy,” Juviler said. But first, the students wanted to be acknowledged by the University. On Sept. 22, 1986, dozens of students occupied the Yale Investments Office at 451 College St. The sit-in ended the same day with the arrest of 21 students, including Juviler. She, along with four other students, were suspended. “It stung,” Juliver said, “to be excommunicated from this institution” that she felt had promised her a forum for free expression. In an interview with the News days after her suspension she said of the Executive Committee decision: “They saw their job as to enforce the rules and regulations without any kind of contextual consideration of the action.” On the day the suspensions were announced, the United States Senate voted to levy sanctions against South Africa. Yale, Juviler felt, had failed its test.

In 1986, David Swensen began his role as head of Yale’s Investments Office. Reporting from that year tracks Yale’s response to Winnie Mandela City, as well as the Investments Office sit-ins and other related protests. While Swensen himself opposed apartheid divestment, the Investments office announced that the endowment would cut ties with one company that did not submit to Yale’s oversight of operations in South Africa. The office declined to name the company, but assured the Yale Daily News that it did in fact exist. That year, Yale committed to the Sullivan Principles of Equal Rights, a set of guidelines that companies in which Yale owned stock were to follow when doing business in South Africa. Among the Principles was the provision of fair pay regardless of race, unsegregated work and eating and increasing the number of non-whites in supervisory positions. Despite Yale’s commitment to these principles, in the mid-1980s one-third of Yale’s South African-involved investments were companies “whose practices violated the Sullivan Principles … one-fourth of which was located in banks that loaned money directly to the South African government” according to Swarthmore College’s Nonviolent Action Database. 


As Apartheid continued, Philadelphia civil rights leader and Sullivan Principles author Leon H. Sullivan grew uncertain of the efficacy of constructive engagement. According to the Philadelphia Encyclopedia, a decade after publishing his Principles and without change in law or policy by the South African government, Sullivan called for a “worldwide boycott” of businesses engaged in production in the country. While Yale reduced its investment in companies doing business in South Africa through the early 1990s, it is unclear whether this is due to the ethical implications of continued investment or the companies’ decreased profit returns. Large scale boycotts, international pressure and capital withdrawal are partially credited with bringing about the end of Apartheid. But Yale still owned shares in companies doing business in South Africa when Apartheid ended in 1994. 

Contemporary Protest Issues

On April 16, 2019, New Haven community members Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon were attacked and shot by a Hamden Police Officer and a Yale Police Officer while sitting in a parked car. The incident prompted protests on campus and in New Haven, and the formation of Black Students for Disarmament at Yale, or BSDY. Since 2019, BSDY has worked toward its goal of disarming and abolishing the Yale Police Department, a police force whose officers do not respond to any elected body but carry the authority to arrest members of the New Haven community. This authority, according to a public letter from BSDY to senior members of Yale’s administration, leads to the racialized violence that is “endemic to [police] departments nationwide.” 

After months of protest and community action, the Yale Police Department reassigned officer Terrance Pollock to an unarmed position. Officer Pollock was not charged with a crime. On Jan. 20, 2022, Hamden officer and instigator of the 2019 shooting Devin Eaton pleaded guilty to First Degree Assault and resigned his position with the Hamden Police Department. The charge, a Class B Felony, was brought by the New Haven State’s Attorney after months of community protest.

Now a junior, Callie Benson-Williams ’23 is the executive director of BSDY. Her first year at Yale, interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, ended with a summer of protests for racial justice and police accountability across the country. In the fall of 2020, after nationwide attention and news coverage on racism and police violence, as well as a widely-shared open letter to the University, BSDY received their first response, a letter from a University spokesperson asking to set up a meeting. But in the three years since their formation, BSDY has had just three meetings with University officials. Benson-Williams describes these meetings as “mostly them explaining their plans behind closed doors,” a frustrating lack of receptiveness. So far, the plans in question have included the formation of the Committee on Policing and the engagement of consulting firm 21st Century Policing to conduct an analysis of the Yale Police Department, which BSDY says is grossly inadequate.

Yale Taking Action?

Yale touts activism as an expected mode of existence, almost a prerequisite for attendance. Senior Assistant Director of Admissions Hannah Mendlowitz wrote in a University-affiliated admissions blog, “We expect [students who come to Yale] to be versed in issues of social justice. We encourage them to be vocal when they see an opportunity for change in our institution and in the world. We value student voices on campus and we encourage discourse and action.” 

Yale’s admissions website touts a similar, though less direct position: “Civic engagement on issues of public concern is consistent with attributes the Office of Undergraduate Admissions seeks in the high school students it admits.” But Benson-Williams said it can feel as though the University, by institutionalizing political action, “treats activism as another class … instead of real-world issues that are important to our lives.”

On one hand, “protest is exactly what [administrators] want from students at a university,” said Yale history professor Beverly Gage ’94. On the other hand, Gage explained, “administrators get pretty anxious about student protest. They’re also concerned about the ways that student protests can put pressure on the University to make decisions that they’re not necessarily interested in making.” Decisions like changes to endowment investment policy, undergraduate financial aid and the Yale Police Department, said Gage. Universities are “soft power” institutions, Gage said, “so [they] tend to be responsive to protest and media coverage in a way that other institutions would not be.” 


Yale redefined the institutional investor’s role in 1972 with their adoption of “The Ethical Investor,” a 200-page pamphlet written by Yale economists and professors. The adoption of an ethical framework was a radical policy shift from the passive, solely profit-oriented position accepted among institutional investors to what the New York Times called an “activist role,” a move that redefined the position of endowment fund managers and trustees. The primary consideration put forth in the guidelines is that of avoiding “social injury,” a loosely-defined term that the Yale Corporation would go on to refine, amend and dilute with regard to Apartheid and eventually fossil fuel investments by way of the Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility. 

After opening campus to protestors in the spring of 1970, this abandonment of financial passivity was the next step in bringing activism into the fold of the University, where it could be sanctioned, controlled and institutionalized. Though it was unclear at the time how the power granted to the Yale Corporation to leverage endowment investments to make political statements would affect activists, today it is clear that the move brought Yale into the political-economic sphere and offered the opportunity for the University to define what was, and wasn’t, acceptable activism.

Universities are “soft power” institutions, so [they] tend to be responsive to protest and media coverage in a way that other institutions would not be.

Professor Gage describes protest movements as responding to one of three types of issues: internal, hybrid or external — beyond the University. Internal issues, like Universal Pass/Fail as an equitable step in the University’s COVID-19 response in the spring of 2020, exist as interchanges between students and administrators. She described Pass/Fail as a rare issue where students were passionate and engaged, but it was “an easy choice for the University” to make the decision. Even then, she said, “there was a lot of back and forth” between organizers and faculty. 

While internal issues concern student life and well-being exclusively, hybrid issues attempt to align the University as a role model for other institutions through its own policy. Movements like divestment and abolition, while directed at Yale, seek to make the University a “model of environmental or racial justice,” said Professor Gage. Hybrid demands put the University in a harder position than internal ones due, again, to it’s soft-power response to optics and media coverage. 

Issues beyond the University and in areas where Yale has little sway, such as the Vietnam War era anti-war protests, are easier for the University to manage. Gage says these are instances where “if you’re an administrator, you might champion students going off into the world, changing the world, and speaking truth to power.” 

To this end, Yale began to embrace Dwight Hall, an undergraduate organization dedicated to “social change” and to “shaping those who one day will shape the world” as well as the Yale College Council, which serves as the primary liaison between the student body and the administration. Much of the student activism occuring on campus today occurs through these same channels that were established after the 1960s. 

Of note, since the adoption of “The Ethical Investor,” Yale has periodically tasked committees with defining and redefining the limits and liberties to speech on campus. “Beware the committee,” said Benson-Williams. “It’s another tool Yale uses to “support voicing our concerns without addressing the concerns themselves.” 

The most notable of these committees, chaired by prominent historian and Yale professor C. Vann Woodward, published the Woodward Report in 1975. This report would be the first to define the limits of activism in the context of Yale’s own role in the world, interpreting student action and university responsibility, as well as “social injury.” Published in response to protests and in recognition of the need for concrete policy, the report affirmed Yale’s role as an institution founded on “research and teaching,” “the free interchange of ideas” and “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” At the time, the report was seen as a practical pamphlet to guide Yale through a period of social unrest, protest and change. It also proposed harsh penalties, including suspension or expulsion, for students who engaged in “disruptive” protest or expression outside of the University’s accepted scope and scale, like Juviler’s sit-in.

Since Yale has had the power to define social injury caused by their investments, their definition has almost never included that which would reduce the profits of the endowment or compromise the standing of the University. The Yale Corporation has vigorously resisted these difficult hybrid decisions, Professor Gage told me, in the manner of a “conservative and slow-moving force.”

Concerning student protest in the present day, University Spokesperson Karent Peart did not respond to my emails between when I first reached out to her on Nov. 7 2021 and the time of publication. I also reached out to Hannah Mendehlson, whose blog post supported high school students engaged in action against systemic gun violence, an issue beyond the power of schools or universities to address, but she declined to comment for this story. 

“If you don’t have a building named after you, it’s very difficult to make change [at the University],” Benson-Williams said.


The Long Game

On the other hand, some students also see what Professor Gage describes as a “flowering” of student protest activity on campus in the last two decades. “We’ve seen a real resurgence” of protest action, Craig Birckhead-Morton ’24 said. Birckhead-Morton is a member of the Yale Democratic Socialists of America and Fossil Free Yale. He is also a volunteer for Students Unite Now, or SUN, a coalition of Yale students advocating for financial aid and mental health care reform. SUN, Birckhead-Morton says, is well positioned to leverage its ties to union labor, longevity at Yale; SUN has been advocating for financial aid reform on campus since 2012 and popularity of their demands among students to push the administration to change policies that the organization considers unfair and harmful.

“The press release carried no mention of nine years of organizing by students, but for the university to acknowledge students’ action would be to admit an inconvenient truth: Yale responds to protest and likely would not have made the policy change without sustained student organizing.”

For nearly a decade, SUN has been advocating for a change to Yale’s financial aid policy: the removal of the Student Income Contribution, or SIC. Student lobbying has consistently preceded changes to Yale’s financial aid policy, on issues from need-blind admissions to international student aid. The SIC, which SUN considered regressive and unnecessary, spent years in the crosshairs. During this time SUN, like BSDY, found scheduling a meeting with administrators to be nearly impossible.

In October 2021, Yale announced the end of the billed portion of the Student Income Contribution. The press release carried no mention of nine years of organizing by students, but for the University to acknowledge students’ action would be to admit an inconvenient truth: Yale responds to protest and likely would not have made the policy change without sustained student organizing. That the slow-moving institutional force would appear to function without the confrontational input of undergraduate students makes perfect sense: the University would like to appear to be able to make these decisions on its own. 

Still, for institutions of higher education, especially those thick with tradition and history, progress happens slowly and quietly. With one-fourth of the student body leaving every year, undergraduates rarely see results of their activism while still on campus. As Birkhead-Morton pointed out, students see “from a moment in time,” while the University sees students come and go on a centuries-long scale: a structural difference in ability to sustain agendas. With a short institutional memory, a lack of university action can be discouraging. 

But in the last 60 years, student protest at Yale has moved from untenable, to accepted, to encouraged when polite. Moreover, in the age of softer power and ubiquitous media coverage, Yale is becoming more responsive to not only internal issues but “hybrid” issues of policy and behavior modeling. 

The reality of Yale’s long-term malleability is no less relevant today. As Birkhead-Morton said, SUN’s success in advocating against the Student Income Contribution demonstrates that “the administration must move on basic things, or students will make them.”


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