The Next Course
Just say the word “salad” to any member of the Yale College Council (YCC), and you are likely to elicit a groan or knee-jerk defense. For an institution self-admittedly struggling to engender student interest, the YCC received plenty of press for their six-page report advocating standardization of salad bar options across the residential colleges. The blogs of the Yale Daily News (YDN) and The Yale Herald both covered the report with satirical solemnity. Rumpus quipped: “Our YCC actually wrote a report on salad … if these are our future leaders, no wonder the government doesn’t do anything.” Even The Harvard Crimson picked up the story, jesting, “Some schools just have bigger things to worry about.”
YCC President John Gonzalez ’14, who favored publicizing the salad report, admitted that it created a public relations mess. “It was sent more as a joke; we thought people would find it funny and so we played along, titling the report ‘State of the Salad.’” He added, regretfully, that it created the false impression that the YCC spent a disproportionate amount of time on such a small issue.
“The entire [YCC] didn’t drop everything else and pursue this,” he said, explaining that only three members of the YCC Dining Committee worked on the project. Gonzalez insisted that while the salad reform is an easy punching bag, it has prompted positive feedback from students: “Whenever I talk to a student in person, they’re grateful for improving salad options.” Small, simple improvements in students’ lives are an important component of the YCC’s mission.
This may be true, but “Saladgate,” as one YCC member dubbed it, is just the dressing on top of deeper problems for the YCC.
“When students criticize us, they say that we’re all about salad,” YCC Vice President-elect Kyle Tramonte ’15 told The Politic. He added that salad has become a metaphor for the YCC’s perceived incompetence or fecklessness. “[Some] students don’t think we can tackle big issues.”
“People think the changes we fight for are marginal and relatively insignificant,” Gonzalez acknowledged. This perception reinforces student apathy.
Harry Larson ’14, an opinion columnist for the YDN, penned an acerbic criticism of the YCC entitled “An Absent YCC,” earlier this year. In that piece, Larson argued that students won’t care about the YCC if they can’t name some of the YCC’s achievements.
On April 11, the YCC held elections for next year’s executive board, but with three of the five positions uncontested — president, vice president, and events director — it hardly felt like campaign season. It was the first time in the institution’s history that more than one race went uncontested. How did this happen at a school filled with students hungry for leadership roles? More importantly, how did some of the most ostensibly prestigious positions on campus go unchallenged?
The YCC members interviewed were not surprised that three elections were not contested, citing the experience and respect that each candidate — standing Vice President Danny Avraham ’15 for president, Tramonte for vice president, and Eli Rivkin ’15 for events director — have earned within student government.
Respondents to a survey conducted by The Politic, however, were not persuaded by this explanation. Only 12 percent of the 522 respondents believed that some candidates ran unopposed because they were the best candidates for the position. 55 percent of respondents thought that the lack of competition reflected that the YCC is less relevant today than it has been in years past.
Commenters on the YDN article announcing uncontested elections were equally skeptical. One poster, “Alonninos,” wrote: “I don’t think there’s much interest in leading the salad committee.” Another commented drolly, “Obviously, Yalies really care about the YCC.”
Avraham, when asked about the YDN’s coverage of the YCC elections, said that “while the YDN should be our greatest critics,” its journalism is at times misrepresentative and harmful to the YCC’s causes.
In an email acquired by The Politic, Avraham communicated the frustration of the Executive Board to the YDN news editors, claiming that the YDN misled its readers regarding the YCC’s stance on gender-neutral housing. An April 19, 2013 article, “No mixed-gender housing for sophomores this fall,” implied that the YCC had requested that gender-neutral housing be extended to sophomores. The YCC has yet to make any official request for gender-neutral housing for sophomores since it is still in the process of compiling data and speaking with administrators. “Unfortunately, no policy on the scale of gender-neutral housing can be changed in a few months,” Avraham explains. “Gender-neutral housing for juniors took years to implement, so the title of this recent article set an unrealistic expectation that there would be gender-neutral housing this upcoming fall.” Avraham added that the topic is very sensitive and heavily scrutinized, and that any reporting without understanding the nuances of the situation could compromise YCC efforts.
Other YCC members also expressed frustration with YDN reporting. One member, who asked to remain anonymous, stated, “The YDN, instead of trying to empower the student government and let the student body feel like they are going to be there for them and give them legitimacy, constantly undermine [the YCC] and question its legitimacy.” The YCC member claimed that the YDN sought to turn the YCC into a joke, elaborating that the YDN was undermining Gonzalez’s leadership by ridiculing his initiatives.
“If you ridicule everything Gonzalez does on Cross Campus, people outside of the YCC will make fun of Gonzalez, and eventually people within the YCC will blame him too,” the YCC member said.
Undeterred, Gonzalez is hopeful for increased dialogue and engagement with the college newspaper. As someone who understands how the University functions and how policy is made, Gonzalez has often wondered why the YDN does not approach him to write op-ed pieces or multimedia reports on campus-specific issues. “The pushback I get when I offer to write an op-ed piece or [to] be involved in a multimedia report is that the YDN doesn’t want to be an outlet for promoting the YCC.”
He continued: “I legitimately have information about [student issues], that it’d be good for students to know about. … It’s frustrating. They say we’re not doing enough blah blah blah, but the problem is the way they portray us as an organization that’s irrelevant…They hate us. I don’t know why. It’s self-perpetuating because students read that and say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m not going to take the YCC seriously.’ I’ll go into meetings with administrators, and they’ll see the reports we give them. They don’t necessarily see all of our emails. What they do see is the YDN’s [criticism of YCC]. … It’s frustrating.”
“The only way [the YCC] will be effective is if students believe we’re going to be effective,” Gonzalez asserted. “With the grading thing, the students really liked what we wrote, that we hosted a forum, and that a protest was staged [Editor’s note: The protest was organized independently of the YCC]. We’ve shown the capacity of student power and how effective the Yale College Council can be with big-level issues. The YDN isn’t going to be critiquing that. It’s the first time I’ve had people send me emails and come up to me and say, ‘Good job.’”
Gonzalez hopes to take advantage of YTV, the new multimedia channel of the YDN, by asking if the YCC president can go on air every Sunday and be interviewed on recent developments in the YCC. “Students need to know what’s happening and what’s taking place, and face-to-face is [a] much more effective medium of communication than email.”
The YDN refused to comment on this piece. The YDN, however, asserted in a March 25 News’ View that the YCC’s problems stem from its reluctance to criticize the Yale administration.
Hoping to better gauge student attitudes towards Yale’s most local form of government, The Politic sent out a survey that yielded 522 responses from University undergraduates. The student body’s attitude towards the YCC ranged from expressed indifference to lukewarm support. Current or former YCC members were, on the whole, more critical of the organization than the general student body. Of the 22 self-identified current or former YCC members who completed this survey, 32 percent (7) approved of the job done by YCC this year, 50 percent disapproved (11), and 18 percent (4) responded “neither.” When asked to give a one-word description of the YCC, these past and present members of the YCC offered “industrious” and “solid” to “toothless,” “troubled,” and “A JOKE.” In comparison, over half of the regular student body believes that the YCC plays a useful role in students’ lives, and only 5 percent believe it is harmful. Forty percent of students, however, think that the YCC plays neither a useful nor harmful role.
The YCC’s approval ratings leave room for improvement. Only 32 percent of students approved of how the YCC does its job, 17 percent of students disapproved, and 51 percent of students had no strong feeling either way.
Why is this the case? It’s not that students don’t engage with the YCC; 62 percent of students have given feedback to the YCC on either University and/or alcohol policy, and two-thirds of those students believe that the YCC was receptive to their concerns. Most students desire the YCC to play a large role on campus. Nearly 70 percent of students think that the YCC should be “very involved” in planning student events, reviewing academic policies, and reforming nonacademic policies. For any one of these fields, only 5 percent of students do not want the YCC to be involved.
YCC members were ready with explanations for the organization’s low approval ratings. “Students just won’t take the time out of their day to closely read every YCC email or announcement,” Tramonte said. He added that if students don’t care enough to track what the YCC is doing, it’s difficult for them to realize that a lot of their big initiatives move forward in incremental steps. Most students — 50.5 percent, in fact, as The Politic survey revealed — don’t know the name of either one of their college representatives to the YCC.
One of the difficulties is getting students engaged with the process, said both Tramonte and Gonzalez. Gonzalez recounts experimenting with “widely-publicized office-hours where students could come in and voice their concerns,” but very few students ever showed up. “We tried reaching out to relevant student groups such as fraternities, athletics groups etc [for the Yale presidential search report] and we managed to get 680 responses…that’s not a lot at all,” he explained.
Andrea Villena ’15, the outgoing YCC secretary, agreed with this diagnosis of student apathy, and also cited students’ unrealistic expectations. “Students see student government as not particularly effective because it … takes too long to get things done. I think this comes from a lack of understanding of the difficulties we face in terms of process and administration.” Whenever she reads a YDN op-ed piece in criticism of the YCC, “a couple of points are completely valid,” Villena said. “But most of the article is wrong.”
Rivkin agrees. “Alcohol policy and grading policy changes take years to come to fruition. We’re not going to publicize every meeting with the dean on these issues. It took years for gender-neutral housing to come in place for junior year. These things are cyclical, and they take time.”
Gonzalez recalls what one administrator told him: “John, your ideas are really good but you’re here for one year, and I’m here for much longer than that. If things get done three years later, I’m perfectly fine with that.” Although he found these words disheartening, Gonzalez understands that Yale, as a historic institution, must treat change with caution. As such, Gonzalez has focused his presidency on compiling reports on macro-level issues that are unlikely to be immediately passed. He hopes that by focusing on long-term issues, the YCC is making arguments that “we can keep on making for years down the line, until a big change does come.” Gonzalez believes that the YCC has lacked emphasis on long-term change, and should continue to embrace it “in order to legitimize [itself] as an organization of substance.”
Gonzalez sees his presidency as one focused on long-term change. In an email to The Politic, Gonzalez said that some of the big achievements during his tenure included involvement in the presidential search process as well as the presidential transition. Under Gonzalez’s stewardship, the YCC also laid the groundwork for long-term advocacy on the College’s alcohol policy and the academic calendar, and helped to ensure that students will have input in any future grading reform.
YCC leaders also pointed to structural problems within their organization as another impediment to progress. “The YCC is an immensely dysfunctional organization. It has almost no institutional memory or protocols; it really reinvents itself each year,” Avraham said.
Before Avraham’s ascension to the vice presidency in the spring of 2012, YCC projects were handled on an case-by-case basis. In a phone interview with The Politic, Brandon Levin ’14 described the organization’s structure when he presided in 2011. The council “tailored each initiative with what would be most effective — would it be best placed to succeed by being an individual-led initiative or a committee-led one?” But both Avraham and Tramonte believed that committee-led initiatives tended to encourage “free riding.” Since assuming the duties of vice president, Avraham has worked to reorganize the YCC into smaller groups with more targeted missions.
“We’ve tripled the number of active projects by pairing each YCC member with one specific policy issue,” said Avraham. Tramonte also broached the idea of pairing YCC members with students who are very passionate about one particular idea. “I know some students really would like to see the Education Studies major brought back, so if we could pair one YCC member with them, I think it’d be a great way to bring both accountability and recognition to YCC members,” Tramonte explained. Pairing YCC members with their passions, he believes, is an effective way to galvanize interest in student government.
Past and present Executive Board members all describe their relationships with the administration as the cornerstone of progress. Treasurer Joey Yagoda ’14 explained: “What I’ve learned is that the individual personalities of the people on the E-Board matter so much. Who the people are matters more than what their policy platform is.”
Brandon Levin agreed. “The way the YCC interacts with the Yale administration changes every year because of personal relations. That’s critical and can’t be understated,” he said. “The personal relations and the trust it develops made our lives so much easier. I think some years the relationship is ideal, and the YCC can get the ear of the Yale administration.”
This is one reason why both Gonzalez and Avraham have considered changing the YCC electoral calendar. As Gonzalez explained to The Politic, April is a difficult time for Executive Board transitions. “You get elected in April, you have a couple of weeks before school ends, and with finals no one can really do anything. Then you go off for summer, arrive in August, and have to wait a month until you get YCC members.”
This cycle, Gonzalez explained, robs an Executive Board of six or seven months of effective work. “I feel like I’m now the best president I could be, but I only have a few more weeks left,” he said. If the calendar changed, he continued, so that elections were either in January or in the fall, the Executive Board could begin cultivating relations with the administration without being interrupted by finals and the summer. One difficulty Avraham foresees with the proposal is deciding when to kickstart the new calendar. One Executive Board would have to sacrifice either half its tenure or assume responsibility for a year and a half.
John Meeske ’74, the associate dean for student organizations and physical resources, articulated the interactions between YCC and the administration from a long-term perspective. “There doesn’t necessarily need to to be a personal relationship between [the administration] and the YCC. So if a [given] proposal passes, it’s not because we like that YCC president. It’s because we thought the proposal was a good idea.” In other words, ideas are judged exclusively on their merit.
According to Meeske, “We in the administration have great respect for the YCC. We see [student government] as the legitimate voice of students and don’t question that.” Nonetheless, “there are some discussions that the YCC doesn’t need to be consulted on.”
This position is manifest in University standing committees, where all policies are first formulated and grievances are addressed. Student representatives can only participate on such committees by signing a confidentiality agreement.
According to Meeske, “There are occasionally committees where we encourage students to talk to other students — but that is not the norm.” Students on the committees are expected to express only their own opinions, rather than those of fellow students. Because of the confidentiality agreements, the YCC did not find out about the proposed grade policy changes until only a month and a half before the faculty vote. Gonzalez, sitting on the standing committee that first conceived of the proposal, was powerless to react in his capacity as YCC president.
“As I had signed a confidentiality agreement, I couldn’t speak about this issue at YCC meetings or with other students until we were collectively notified,” Gonzalez rued.
Students apply to standing committees through the YCC, but most who serve on standing committees are not YCC representatives.
Tramonte said, “I want to send YCC members to the standing committees. … The committees’ functioning is confidential and they stress that no student is beholden to any student organization, which is an understandable safeguard. But at the same time, the YCC isn’t just a normal student organization. We’re an elected body that has been affirmed by the administration as the legitimate representative of the student body.”
Integrating YCC members into the standing committees every year would institutionalize stronger communication between YCC and the administration, but it is unlikely to happen. According to Meeske, “While the president of the YCC meets regularly with the deans, we’ve never had a system where the YCC president is consulted on every major issue regarding students.” To ask that the YCC as a whole be consulted on policy issues would be far-fetched. Meeske suggested that the YCC presidents should establish a relationship by talking with the deans about issues from the students’ perspective, and by asking if there is any way that the YCC, or just the president, can be consulted on big changes.
There will always be a glass ceiling for student representatives, one that will only be breached at the whim of the administration. Going forward, Gonzalez believes the YCC needs to have better and more institutionalized meetings with the administration.
“The people we’re meeting with aren’t the ones making the key decisions. I’m either meeting with people too low down or too high up,” he said, adding that it is his belief that administrators don’t think “the YCC needs [institutionalized meetings] because the YCC hasn’t done anything in the years past.” In contrast, student body presidents at other schools, according to Gonzalez, do have significant authority.
What can the YCC do to change its perception in the administration’s eyes?
“The YCC’s role in postponing the grading vote shows we can produce good work, and we can try to advocate for students to administrators and have their trust,” Gonzalez said. But he wants students to realize that “we can’t force administrators to do anything. All we can do is advocate and keep on advocating. So it might hurt us in the short term because if things don’t change, you kinda wasted all your time.” Only through such sustained work can the YCC gain credibility with the administration, and that’s something Gonzalez believes he has accomplished this year.
But Avraham and Gonzalez do not believe respect from the administration is sufficient for the YCC.
“Students need to become more active as well, show that they care, and voice their opinion,”said Avraham. He added that “without the student body standing behind us we won’t be able to achieve everything that we can.”
Unfortunately, apathy may be inevitable at a school where everyone is too busy juggling classes, extracurriculars, and their own lives. Even Gonzalez admitted to The Politic that keeping on top of the YCC has worn him down.
“I think I’ve sent a couple thousand emails as YCC president, I probably have one meeting with an administrator every day, and frankly it’s tough,” said Gonzalez. He added that the demands of the job are such that he took summer classes in preparation for this year, and took only three credits in the fall and four in the spring. “Even four has been a struggle,” he said.
Avraham compared the relationship between the YCC and students to a government’s relationship with its constituents. There will always be people who complain about government, he argued, just as there will always be people who don’t pay attention. Infuriatingly, there will always be people who don’t pay attention to what you do and still complain. “So when students criticize the YCC, I hope they also think about how much they’ve contributed to the process of student impact.”
Meeske cautions against “unrealistic expectations that [the YCC] are miracle workers.” When informed of The Politic’s survey results, Meeske stated that, “Students expect [the YCC] to be something it never has been or should be.”
True, members of the Yale College Council are not miracle workers. They are students like the rest of us, who toil, often unappreciated, on behalf of their peers. Their job isn’t easy. There is little room to maneuver between an administration that approaches change conservatively and the small attention span and high expectations of the student body. Each YCC member interviewed identified personal relationships between the Executive Board and the administration as one intangible that varies from year to year, heightening or limiting the efficacy of that respective Executive Board.
The YCC has identified steps to amplify its voice in the decision-making process. Some situations, however, are beyond the powers of 20-year-olds.
“Please, hold us accountable,” Tramonte told The Politic. “But cut us a break every once in a while.”