UP CLOSE | The administrative tightrope: Inclusion, tradition and discourse at Yale
In October 2020, the University launched its belonging initiatives with an aim to increase diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at Yale. Several months later, Yalies have mixed opinions on their staying power.
Kahlil Greene ’22 used his only meeting with University President Peter Salovey to deliver “leadership lessons” on how the president could improve his handling of racial issues and avoid campus protests.
At the time of the July 7 meeting, Americans had turned out each day for the past two months to protest the police murder of George Floyd — all told, up to 26 million people participated in the U.S. protests for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In their meeting, Greene, then-president of the Yale College Council, urged Salovey to capitalize on the moment to bring about significant change at the University. He advised Salovey to take student activists seriously in their calls for structural changes and to find ways to meet, rather than deflect, their demands. Greene suggested that Salovey had ended up on the “wrong side of history” in past campus controversies, such as renaming Calhoun College. According to Greene, he mostly lectured Salovey, allowing him minimal time to respond. At the close, Salovey thanked him.
Salovey characterized the meeting differently. The two had a “good” conversation and he was grateful for Greene’s input, Salovey told the News. After the meeting, Greene sent a report with key takeaways: that Salovey often rushed to judgment without understanding issues and that Yale’s administrative structure had become “esoteric” and removed from students.
The meeting demonstrates the demand for Yale’s administrators to make headway on increasing diversity, as well as the perception that Yale has reacted, not led, on issues of equity and inclusion.
Many faculty and students have called on Yale to make faster and more extensive changes around racial justice. But five professors noted that Yale’s strides toward diversity are constrained by a business model that relies on donations from alumni, many of whom want to see traditions preserved. Though some disagreement may be inevitable, University administrators’ dilemma is to secure Yale’s academic mission — which includes “the free exchange of ideas” — while preserving its most important traditions and carrying out a vision of diversity, equity, belonging and racial justice. Six professors and three students noted potential outcomes if the administration cannot do so: progress could stop at administrative statements of support, or Yale could lose donations or some free inquiry.
Salovey said he considers efforts to increase equity and inclusion compatible with preserving traditions, and not a tradeoff. The University has to chart a path between the extremes: people who would never change any aspect of Yale and people who want to tear the institution down, he said in an interview with the News. Advocates of faster change still recognize that Yale needs to be Yale and needs to be a leader, he said.
In October, he unveiled Yale’s most comprehensive effort on the issues — the “Belonging at Yale” initiatives. The President’s Committee on Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging put forth six areas of focus for the next five years: scholarship and teaching, diversity of the community, equitable process and responses, professional and personal development of inclusive practice, acknowledgment and respect and communication and accountability. Within these six branches, priorities include adding courses examining race, reimagining public safety and policing, supporting restorative justice, increasing diversity among staff leaders, investing in faculty mentoring, offering education and training to everyone on campus, investing in New Haven partnerships and using surveys and data to internally assess progress.
Some administrators and faculty called the initiatives comprehensive and substantial. But other faculty and students, including Greene, said they do not go far enough.
A fundamental contradiction
Efforts to make Yale more equitable and inclusive encounter a fundamental contradiction, a “great galloping contradiction,” professor of History John Gaddis said. Yale has a $31.2 billion endowment but says it sincerely values equity, and admits a small percentage of applicants while emphasizing inclusion.
This year, Yale rejected 95 percent of undergraduate applicants, and those who do gain admission frequently come from privileged backgrounds. A 2017 study found that more Yale students come from the top one percent of income than from the bottom 60 percent.
All Ivy League universities have to contend with this tension, Gaddis said. In the past, when Yale was all male and “dominated” by secret societies, it was an elite university that made no apologies for being elite.
“We’re still exclusive, but now we seem ashamed of it,” Gaddis said. “That’s what’s puzzling to me.”
Like other elite universities, Yale has introduced initiatives to attract talented and diverse students, bringing more than 100 low-income students to Yale in the last three classes through the QuestBridge college admission and scholarship process, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said. The admissions office also partners with Yale’s cultural centers and sends a targeted mail campaign to high-achieving students in low-income census tracts.
The class of 2024, for example, was Yale’s most diverse class ever, and only 8 percent of students had a legacy affiliation, compared to 12 percent the year before. Additionally, the percentage of first-year students who receive Pell grants for high financial need has increased from 12 percent in 2013 to more than 20 percent in the last three years, Quinlan said.
Still, Yale accepts the “least marginalized of marginalized people,” Greene said. He called on Yale to admit more Black students from public schools in major cities. Fifty percent of the low-income Black students at Ivy League universities and their peers attended private schools, and the average percentage of first years who receive Pell grants for high financial need at historically Black colleges or universities is 71 percent, compared to Yale’s approximately 20 percent.
Greene called for a larger public recruitment plan, including putting more resources about writing essays and standardized testing online so they are accessible to students who do not have college counselors and expensive SAT tutors. Due to the pandemic, Yale became test optional in the most recent admissions cycle. It will continue the policy for another year, after which it will reevaluate, Quinlan said.
But one challenge to adding more low-income students to the undergraduate population is that students must have had some kind of privileged education. “They have to in order to meet the requirements Yale sets for admission,” professor of History Carlos Eire said. “It is exclusive, and it has to exclude.”
Diversity and belonging within Yale’s undergraduate body demonstrates the tension between the University’s stated values and business model. And Yale’s undergraduate admissions office has been more successful at promoting inclusion than the faculty or senior administration has, according to Matthew Jacobson, professor of history, American studies and African American studies and member of the subcommittee on faculty diversity.
The Belonging initiatives website. (Amay Tewari, Photo Editor)
Demand for greater change
Salovey said that the impetus for the initiatives stretches to 2012, when he was first announced as Yale’s 23rd president. In his first speech as president, he said that Yale needed to be more accessible, with people coming to Yale who never thought it would be open to them and Yale giving more away to the world. But more recent events galvanized the creation of the belonging initiatives.
In January 2020, Salovey set up the President’s Committee on Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging and charged the 18 members with developing a “vision of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging as part of the university’s climate,” as well as a set of high-level goals and strategies to bring people with different backgrounds to the University and make them feel welcome. The committee created a vision statement in which members of the Yale community encounter broad ideas, are respected and feel welcome to speak up.
At the time, the results of the 2019 Staff Workplace survey had just come in, and it showed that most staff felt a profound sense of not belonging at Yale, which was weighing on the administrators’ minds, said Victoria Nolan, former deputy dean of the Drama School and committee member.
Student leaders were calling for significant overhauls, including the elimination of the student income contribution and the abolition of the Yale Police Department. Since YPD officers shot at Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon in April 2019, leaders of Black Students for Disarmament at Yale have ramped up calls on Yale to dismantle the YPD and implement a differential response system. City officials, New Haven residents and Yalies alike have repeatedly called for Yale to contribute millions more to its home city. Law professor James Forman Jr. added that Yale should invite New Haven activists onto campus, instead of walling off campus.
Greene raised these demands to the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body. He said that board members showed skepticism about “radical change,” including dismantling Yale’s Police Department, taking immediate steps to diversify the faculty and paying more in voluntary contributions to New Haven.
Senior Trustee Catharine Bond Hill said that the Corporation has had so many discussions on belonging at Yale that it is difficult to separate out individual ones. But Yale’s work on diversity, equity and inclusion is “ambitious and impressive” and the Corporation is optimistic, she said.
Committee discussions: Forming the initiatives
Salovey told members not to limit themselves in imagining change, and that they would later figure out how to practically bring it about, Nolan said. He met with the committee twice for only 10 minutes each time — Salovey did not want to influence the outcome, Nolan added.
The full committee met about once a month for about half a year, and a smaller steering committee met nearly weekly. The committee identified areas people wanted to discuss — including the tenure process, faculty retention and mentoring, human resources and student life. They then broke into small groups and then shared a summary of their discussions. Subcommittees for faculty, staff, students and alumni each examined past efforts and wrote up lengthy reports with policy recommendations. The faculty subcommittee report had more than 30 findings and recommendations, Larry Gladney, Dean of Diversity and Faculty Development in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a physics professor, said. The subcommittee reports were never made public; they were only shared with Salovey. The resulting full committee report went through eight or 10 different iterations, according to Nolan.
The committee spent hours discussing how to explicitly tie diversity to excellence. Higher education in general presents the two as mutually exclusive, Jacobson said. The committee wanted to present each of the aims as impossible to have without the other, and not as tradeoffs, Frederick said. They also discussed what the incentive is for Yale to change when exclusivity is its business model, Nolan said.
When they finished a draft, Salovey read it and particularly emphasized setting up a working group to examine Yale’s ties to slavery and collaborating with New Haven, Gladney said.
Salovey also emphasized belonging as superseding diversity, equity and inclusion. Diversity in numbers is important, but only touches one part of the problem, Salovey said in an interview. People have to feel that Yale is their place, he added.
The committee members were honest and vulnerable, Nolan said. They never disagreed, she said, and Frederick seconded that it was not a committee marked by different opinions on ideas.
But Jacobson and Gladney cited instances where committee members discussed differences in opinion.
Jacobson said he was impressed at the scope of the initiatives. But he said that couching the initiatives as “belonging” uses softer, more corporate language and misses the depth of the problem. Rather, the issue is about power and equity, Jacobson said, and Yale has a history of exclusion and a structure of inequity that cannot be corrected by merely inviting people in. Without placing equity at the forefront of the initiatives and challenging the power structure, it is challenging to truly address the issues. He raised his concerns to the committee, advocating to place equity and challenging the existing power structure at the forefront of the initiatives, but the committee ultimately decided to go with “Belonging” as its namesake.
“There are people in the administration who truly believe that their good intentions, and the good intentions of the University at large, will be enough to solve these problems. The historian in me just thinks that’s a shallow way to think about this because the problems are deep, and they are about power, and they are about vested interest and not everyone on campus is a good actor.”
—Matthew Jacobson, professor of history, American studies and African American studies and member of the subcommittee on faculty diversity
He said that Yale’s anthropologists, sociologists and professors of African American studies, whose scholarship centers on these issues, should be leading the conversations instead of central administrators, and not merely consulted. Gladney said that some suggestions were deemed “too controversial” in the near term, and those suggestions did not make it into the final report. He declined to comment on specifics, saying that administrators must stand behind public decisions.
“There are people in the administration who truly believe that their good intentions, and the good intentions of the University at large, will be enough to solve these problems,” Jacobson said. “The historian in me just thinks that’s a shallow way to think about this because the problems are deep, and they are about power, and they are about vested interest and not everyone on campus is a good actor.”
“Belonging” articulates the hope that everyone at Yale can feel “valued and connected to those around them,” according to Kimberly Goff-Crews ’83 LAW ’86, university secretary and vice president for university life and head of the belonging initiatives. By feeling that they belong, people can be themselves, seek out their full potential and freely participate in and contribute to the community, she said, adding that the initiatives use “equity” to mean fair treatment and accessibility.
Though the co-chairs led drafting, everyone on the committee provided feedback and approved the final recommendations, Goff-Crews said. She and co-chair Gary Desir also spoke individually with everyone on the committee.
Since the report’s release in October, the University has introduced some measures to make Yale a more inclusive campus. In April, Yale provided an update on progress on the initiatives nearly a full academic year since their launch.
Yale is fundraising to support financial aid for students at professional schools that often do not lead to lucrative careers. Additionally, Yale is joining other universities in a pilot program to engage with talented students nominated by nine community colleges. After students pushed for a peer liaison program for students with disabilities, Yale College began a pilot.
Conversations about other structural issues remain ongoing. Salovey and Mayor Justin Elicker are actively discussing Yale’s voluntary contribution to the Elm City, which New Haven residents have long decried as insufficient. Though Salovey has committed to reforming public safety at Yale, he will not abolish the police force in response to students’ and community members’ demands.
And at a February 2021 meeting of the President’s Cabinet — made up of Yale’s provost, deans and vice presidents — Goff-Crews asked the leaders to make individual plans for their departments. Academic units report to Desir and other units report to Goff-Crews. The departments were told to conduct a self study and then form a committee to craft plans specific to their school. The five-year plans are due in September 2021.
The committee wants to embed change in Yale’s existing practices instead of creating dozens of new initiatives that sap time and energy and end up forgotten, said Jennifer Frederick, director of the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning and a belonging committee member. The University has an immediate focus on anti-racism, Goff-Crews added.
“Marathons require commitment and endurance across a long duration, with successes marked and plans adjusted along the way,” she wrote in an email to the News.
Differing viewpoints among the Yale community
But efforts to stray from tradition and fundamentally change Yale’s structure often meet resistance. When people hear “change,” it is difficult for them to not also hear “loss,” professor of Divinity Willie Jennings said.
Jacobson said that current students and faculty generally have one view of equity and justice at the University, while the Yale Corporation, alumni and donors likely have a different idea. In general, the donor class is whiter, older, richer and likely more politically conservative, and they wield an influence over Yale’s administrators, Jacobson said. Students, on the other hand, frequently call on the administration to make faster and more radical changes.
“[Administrators are] going to have to figure that out. Because you are changing and you are going to require us to change. … You finance the University, you’re a paying customer. You can hold the shop of Yale accountable. At the end of the day, if Yale doesn’t change, I think it’s going to become irrelevant.”
—Victoria Nolan, former deputy dean of the Drama School and committee member
Sean O’Brien, head of the Privacy Lab at Yale Law School, agreed, saying that satisfying alumni can mean a “close clinging” to traditions that he said are not beneficial to Yale’s current students. O’Brien cited secret societies, which are not equitable or inclusive but exist as part of longstanding University tradition, as an example. Yale alumni have gone on to powerful roles in the government and corporate world, and the University is rewarded by placating them, he said.
The University also relies on its alumni for donations to support current students. Yale is trying to raise $6 billion over the coming years to keep up with demands for increased student financial aid, science infrastructure and a new theater for the drama school.
By contrast, others have called for modernizing Yale to better serve the current cohort of students and faculty. Many people at Yale do not see a problem, said Enrique De La Cruz, professor and chair of molecular biophysics and biochemistry. But the data on the number of faculty of color is “horrific, terrifying and shameful,” he said. In the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, only 69 out of 683 ladder faculty are from an underrepresented minority. Underrepresented minority refers specifically to African American or Black, Hispanic or Latinx, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander or Indigenous people, per federal categorizations.
“The very first thing we have to do is admit that we have a problem,” De La Cruz added. “Then, diversity needs to be woven into the fabric of admissions, hiring searches, course curriculums and how people educate. The initiatives offer an opportunity to improve, but the follow through will demand more than the gesture of enacting the initiatives did.”
Salovey expressed that the University can chart a course between the opposing viewpoints, and that even “traditionalists” tell him they would love to attend the University today.
“We can enjoy our traditions … [but we] can have a far broader group of people enjoying them,” Salovey said. “We can be a socially responsible university that interacts with our host city in an enlightened way, that creates a pathway for historically discriminated groups to transcend that discrimination.”
Where things stand
In balancing the opposing views, the initiatives have so far have meant little more than administrative pronouncements and anti-racism training, Eire said.
Jaelen King ’22, who has led calls to dismantle Yale’s police force, said he sees potential for good to come from the initiatives, but that the administration’s track record leaves him concerned that efforts will fizzle out over the next few years.
Gladney noted that initiatives with admirable aims can have unintended consequences and need continued monitoring and revision to ensure they are working as they are supposed to. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences recently surveyed faculty members about whether they supported including a diversity statement on graduate student applications across all departments. For many departments, it is already mandatory. But there is some question as to whether the statements do what they are supposed to. People argue that applicants are savvy and know how to sound committed even if they truly are not, Jacobson said.
Realizing this and seeking to avoid the unintended consequences, Gladney said applicants could include what is important to them. If that is diversity, equity and inclusion, the student will talk about it and the admissions readers can note that.
According to Jeffrey Brock, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the administrators receive central resources to recruit diverse faculty from the Faculty Excellence and Diversity Initiative. He has not yet been told whether he will receive additional central resources to aggressively recruit diverse faculty. With centrally-supported schools, such as Yale College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, people higher up in the hierarchy can veto initiatives that cost money, Brock said. Goff-Crews said that diversity and belonging are top priorities for the University, but schools are strongly encouraged to fund related initiatives within their existing budgets.
Some changes would be relatively inexpensive, Brock said. For instance, chairs of the science and engineering departments have proposed a postdoctoral fellows program to increase diversity, and the central administration could contribute some funds for postdoctoral appointments.
As of now, Brock is working with the Provost’s Office to support diversity with existing postdoctoral resources.
“There’s sort of a tone of frustration around it,” Brock said, as the science chairs cannot take initiative without administrative approval. “And yet I do think we are making progress.”
This year, the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department enacted reforms in its search for an assistant professor on the tenure track that aimed to bring in a more diverse applicant pool. The search committee, with the support of the department chair, asked candidates to submit application materials without the names of schools they’ve attended or journals they’ve published in. Initial screenings were also conducted anonymously.
Jack Callahan, senior vice president of Operations, said that the administration is currently debating what resources each unit will get, but that he is sure there will be extra money put towards the initiatives. Still, the initiatives should largely be funded by reallocating existing resources, he added. He wants to embed the changes in Yale’s normal operations and fit them into the yearly budget, to make a lasting change to how Yale operates.
Though many people think Yale has been too slow to change, it takes time for people to on their own decide to act, Gladney said. He used the example of hiring more diverse faculty. Yale must account for upwards of $20 million when it decides to guarantee a professor tenure, Gladney said. Though Yale’s resources might seem infinite, there is not enough money to immediately hire a number of diverse faculty, he added. Additionally, faculty searches take significant effort and time for interviews and reading resumes, and Yale needs to commit time to supporting the faculty it does recruit.
Changing the search and tenure processes would likely recruit more talented and diverse faculty than immediately trying to make astronomical offers, he said.
Nolan, who helped draft the initiatives, said people need to “experience” injustice themselves through training and roleplay scenarios, which she said have been helpful for her as she comes from a theater background. Yale should require training on this topic, she said. She recalled a speech the anti-racism scholar Ibram X. Kendi delivered at Yale, in which he recounted experiencing three microaggressions within 15 minutes, including a police officer stopping him on the street and asking for identification.
“To hear something like that and know that in my life that doesn’t happen to me, that helps me to understand,” Nolan said. “It doesn’t necessarily get me to the place where I can do something about it, but to at least viscerally understand it or believe it or, as I think about, have seen it, that is when I start to realize that I too am a racist and I have been complicit.”
Frederick said that mandating antiracism training conveys a strong signal that it is important to the University and gives people a common vocabulary and understanding of the meaning of equity and inclusion.
Gladney said he does not personally support anti-bias training, as people can resist mandatory meetings or think they are “cured” of prejudice by attending.
The committee ultimately required unit plans to have professional anti-racism training and development, but left the form that such training would take to the leaders’ discretion. For example, Frederick’s unit — the global division — has people choosing from a litany of options including independently reading books on justice or attending expert-led workshops.
Another of the belonging initiatives is to diversify Yale’s academic offerings, including adding more courses on race.
Gladney said that a statement on the principles of increasing curriculum diversity gained near-perfect consensus. But people can be hesitant to make those changes themselves, Gladney said. Often, faculty want evidence as to why they, in departments that do not teach about diversity, should be changing their teaching style or content. People particularly fear the term “curricular change,” Gladney said, and he understands the hesitation.
According to Frederick, it will be up to the faculty to decide whether they change their courses. Gaddis, for one, said he has not felt pressure to change his syllabi. But Frederick said that many, including the English Department, have been leaders on spearheading increasingly diverse course offerings.
“Increasing diversity is an admirable objective, but not if the means chosen to do so fragment the University or constrain freedom of inquiry.”
—John Gaddis, professor of history
The potential cost of the middle path
“Increasing diversity is an admirable objective,” Gaddis said, “but not if the means chosen to do so fragment the University or constrain freedom of inquiry.”
The University leadership should release a statement on the fundamental values of free speech and inquiry, of diverse identities without constraints, Gaddis added.
David Blight, Sterling Professor of African American studies, American studies and history, said that at a great university, all of America’s “rich pluralism” must come together and study each other. Yale has to expose students to every kind of experience, he said, and people must be concerned with understanding people and places that they do not identify with.
“You don’t have equity and inclusion by just saying it, you don’t have that by moralizing about it, you have it by doing it,” Blight said. “And by teaching about all the experiences of planet Earth… Diversity, equity and inclusion is to make all people feel welcome, that’s for sure. But it’s also to trouble the edges of this, to trouble the waters, to not just teach people what they expect to learn, but what they utterly do not expect to learn.”
Concerns over what constitutes appropriate campus speech are not new. After 2015 racial justice protests that focused in part on a faculty email about Halloween costumes, administrators instructed faculty on what constitutes a microaggression. Eire said that this is a “slippery slope,” as individuals can decide what offends them, and the trigger for the administration to “jump into action” is if students say they feel unsafe, Eire said.
“You don’t have to sign a statement here saying I will never say anything that criticizes diversity, but if you do say something the community itself censors you, shuns you, perhaps even punishes you,” Eire said. “We’ve entered a whole new realm of discourse where it’s so easy to offend in all directions. It’s not just a person who’s easily offended. It’s a whole culture.”
At least three times a week as the committee is continuing work on the Belonging at Yale Initiatives’ unit plans, professors come to Gladney and ask what to do if they disagree with an initiative but fear being perceived as against diversity, he said. Professors worry about seeing their name in newsprint or on social media, but if people are talking about “the issues of the day, some of which have to be controversial, and there isn’t occasionally some blowup somewhere on campus, I would question whether we’re really engaging in things that people are legitimately emotional about,” Gladney said. He would rather have engagement with the issues and occasional mistakes and blowups, than have people think the initiatives do not apply to them.
But in the current culture centered on social media, where any statement can be reported or misreported, “any disagreement starts to seem an impoliteness,” Sterling Professor of English David Bromwich added.
Yale and Slavery Working Group
As Yale tries to move into the future on questions of diversity, a working group is delving into its past. One of the initiatives, the Yale and Slavery Working Group, is examining Yale’s historical ties to slavery and abolition and plans to generate a report next fall. Already, people differ as to how to respond to the findings, which will test the administration’s ability to navigate opposing views.
As the University navigates the endeavor, Salovey said, Yale can learn from the 2017 controversy over renaming Calhoun College. John C. Calhoun was a staunch defender of slavery, yet in 2015, Salovey announced he would ignore student activists’ calls and not rename Calhoun College. Many Yale alumni applauded Salovey for standing ground against encroaching “political correctness,” as two-thirds of 350 respondents to an informal poll in the alumni magazine claimed. But among faculty and students at the time, the decision was condemned with opinion essays, a well-attended renaming ceremony and open letters.
In response, Salovey appointed a committee, chaired by Law professor John Witt, to establish general principles of renaming. The Witt Committee worked from a presumption that renaming on account of values should be an “exceptional event,” but that sometimes it is warranted. Each decision to retain a name or rename demands non-erasure, contextualization and process, according to the Witt report. Based on the committee’s work, Yale renamed the college.
In an interview late last month, Salovey said the single biggest lesson from the Calhoun debate is to articulate core principles in advance of potential controversies. Ahead of the working group’s report, the principles are truth and reconciliation, he said. Yale needs to confront its history accurately, then make it well known to people through conferences, reports and discussion. Only after can the community discuss whether to celebrate, make amends or memorialize it, Salovey said.
The deeper the knowledge one has of a place, the more one can come to understand and even admire it, said Blight, the working group’s chair. The working group is not trying to “find all the pockets of evil in Yale’s past,” he said. “That’s not the goal.”
Its charge is to understand the University’s evolution over nearly 20 generations of students and to write a story about facts, remembered and forgotten people and how the institution conceived of itself, Blight said.
Numerous other universities, including the University of Virginia and Georgetown University, have undertaken studies of their history. In 2019, Georgetown announced that it would raise $400,000 in reparations to benefit the descendants of the 272 enslaved people the school sold to keep the institution solvent. In 2020, Princeton University renamed its school of international affairs to get rid of Woodrow Wilson’s namesake.
Jennings, a member of the working group, added that knowing a complete history — even the painful parts — can inform Yale’s academic mission and leadership. Law professor James Forman Jr., a member of the working group, seconded that the inquiry is fundamental to Yale’s academic mission. Slavery is often taught as a unit in school, but its effects underlie the structure, development and economics of institutions. To talk about the present, particularly about Yale’s relationship with the Black community in New Haven, Yale has to investigate its past.
“It’s one thing to say as a general matter: slavery built America,” Forman Jr. said. “It’s another thing to say this building was built with a donation that came from this person and they made their money selling human beings as chattel.”
The working group is investigating the role settlers played in New Haven’s Black community, whether ministers enrolled at Yale were preaching slavery and the situation of southern families who enrolled their sons at Yale — there were certainly others like Calhoun, said Edward Rugemer, professor of African American Studies and a working group member.
Already, the working group has confirmed that there were slaves on Yale’s campus at different times and performing different functions, Blight said. Nine of Yale’s residential college namesakes owned slaves, and slave labor helped construct Connecticut Hall. Slave terminology stayed on far longer at Yale: The Pierson College newspaper was called the “Weekly Slave” until at least the 1940s, according to Rebecca Amonor ’21. The Pierson mascot was a slave until 1980.
“There are things that we look back on in the past and we’re like how could that have endured for so long?” Amonor said. She encouraged people to “look at our present and think, what are some things that we may be overlooking now that people 30 or 50 years down the line are going to look back on and say how could that have lasted so long.”
The Pierson College Newspaper in 1939. (Courtesy of Rebecca Amonor, with thanks to Yale Manuscripts and Archives for allowing her to reproduce the image)
Though the investigation is ongoing, people have already formed opinions on how administrators should respond to the findings. O’Brien has called on Yale to change its name, as Elihu Yale had ties to the slave trade. Salovey has said that renaming Yale is not on the table. Greene said he would like to see reparations paid to any descendants of slaves that were on Yale’s campus.
The community will be divided on what to do with the findings, Gladney said. The way to respond is to have discussions on what Yale wants to look like in the coming years, he added.
Jennings said the study is a chance to pause and assess who Yale memorializes as an example for the future. It should not be people without flaws, but people whose flaws can be articulated in ways that make sense for the future, he said.
Blight said that the working group is not trying to predict an outcome to its report. It will be an institutional decision as to whether there are reparations.
“I don’t think you can predict reconciliation,” Blight said. “You expose it, teach and learn about it, memorialize it, and see what new kinds of social memory or collective memory come out of it.”
Taken together, Gladney said the Belonging initiatives are set up so Yale has to assess whether it has made progress each year. They are public, so people know the goals that Yale has set and whether it has reached them. The challenge, Nolan said, is to reconcile the different visions students, professors and alumni hold of Yale.
“[Administrators are] going to have to figure that out,” Nolan said about balancing conflicting interests as the student and alumni bodies change. “Because you are changing and you are going to require us to change. … You finance the University, you’re a paying customer. You can hold the shop of Yale accountable. At the end of the day, if Yale doesn’t change, I think it’s going to become irrelevant.”