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Student Activism in the Elm City

Some students sang, “Whose Side Are You On, Yale?” Others sat on the staircase of Woodbridge Hall, simultaneously drafting essays and social media updates.  The atmosphere grew tenser as 5 PM approached. Checking their watches, students put away their laptops and prepared to stand their ground. Outside, others formed a human chain around the building.

The Yale Police asked those inside to disband or face arrest. Meanwhile, Fossil Free Yale (FFY) members and supporters marched and cheered outside. News cameras clicked away and reporters hovered, waiting for updates from inside the Hall.

What happened between the threat of arrest and the student walkout is unclear: the  University maintains that the students were not arrested but only fined $92 for “infraction”; FFY insists that 19students were placed under non-custodial arrest. Their sit-in raises larger questions about the University’s response to student movements, in the form of both student government and activism.

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History of Activism at Yale

Yale has always been a focal point for student activism: in 1970, when the Black Panthers were on trial in New Haven, students joined 15,000 Black Panther members to protest the trial. Cross Campus, Commons, and the New Haven Green were hotbeds of anger and frustration.

In her speech last year, Justice Sonia Sotomayor recalled her alarm at being invited by her Yale hosts to join their protests against post-Vietnam America as soon as she walked onto campus as a high schooler. Bemused, Sotomayor promptly retreated to the more conservative Princeton.

In the 1980s, students lobbied the university to divest from apartheid South Africa. Lou Weeks ’88 and Elizabeth Juviler ’89, two leaders of this movement, vividly remember the shantytown constructed on Beinecke Plaza to express solidarity with the oppressed in South Africa. Juviler recalls the sit-ins and marches, which gained strength after the administration arrested dozens of students. “Most people were uninvolved,” said Juviler, “until suddenly, your roommate was arrested. Then you had a personal connection.” Antagonism towards the administration was prevalent among students. According to Weeks, “the administration wasn’t interested in representing their students’ wishes.”

In recent years, such tension between the administration and students has flared up again. In 2005, students from the activist Undergraduate Organizing Committee (UOC) staged a sit-in in the financial aid office to protest unfair rises in the student income contribution. These tactics resurfaced in Fossil Free Yale’s Apr. 9, 2015, Woodbridge Hall sit-in.

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Even in the 80s, students disagreed on advocacy strategy. Weeks told The Politic that protests were the only way to get the anti-apartheid message heard and visible, even though many of his friends continued to work through the Yale College Council (YCC). Tristan Glowa ’18, a spokesman for FFY, agreed, insisting that  “climate action requires a similar moral imperative as anti-apartheid activism” and that “it would be great if we could resolve all our problems in respectful, peaceful ways, but power doesn’t concede itself in peaceful ways.”

Weeks emphasized that such activism requires patience and persistence. “When we were organizing the anti-apartheid movement, we used to say that the first couple of “no’s” [by the administration] were just requests for more information.” It also entails sacrifices: the university suspended Weeks and Juviler for a semester for their part in a sit-in. But the day their suspension took effect, Congress approved sanctions on South Africa. Weeks said, “We lost at Yale, but we won overall,” and concluded, “Student activism has made Yale a better institution by far.”

Disconnect between Administration and Students

Michael Herbert ’16, YCC President, wants a “more institutionalized student government so that more students work through us.” Echoing Herbert, activist and YCC member Tyler Blackmon ’16 told The Politic, “We don’t want to control the decision-making process, we just want to be a part of it.”

Much of students’ frustration and anger is directed at the university’s governing body, the Yale Corporation. Yale Daily News (YDN) op-eds, dining hall conversations, and student rallies have all singled out this 19 member group as not prioritising Yale’s students. Scott Stern ’15, who criticised the Corporation in many of his YDN op-eds, said that its “corporate philosophy means that it [the Corporation] thinks big business can do whatever it wants to make money.” Most Corporation members are Yale alumni who now lead large companies, including Time Warner Inc. and Goodyear.

No students are present at the Corporation’s five annual meetings. Consequently, both Herbert and YCC Vice President Maia Eliasovich Sigal ’16 argue that the Corporation needs to be more involved with students. To Eliasovich Sigal,  it is strange that “students, who are most in touch with the issues are not in the room” when the Corporation is making important decisions for the student body. To Herbert, the current extent of contact between the entire student body and the Corporation—a ninety-minute meeting between a few members of the Corporation and a couple student YCC representatives—is “abnormal,” compared to other American universities.

However, Yale Corporation secretary and Yale University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews YC ’83, LAW ’86 contends that some of students’ frustration comes from a misunderstanding of the Corporation’s function.Said Goff-Crews, “It is the role of the Corporation to think of the institution [Yale] on a medium and long-term basis, taking into account everybody’s thought and expertise.” She stresses that she and other members of the Corporation were also activists in their college days and thus can understand students’ frustrations. But with the “advent of experience and responsibility, we are now working for the best solution that makes sense for the institution, while responding respectfully.”

However, the dialogue through which that “respectful” response takes place often leads to tension, highlighting the larger problem of communication between the administration and students. Herbert says that frustration sets in among students when administrators, instead of giving students clear answers, use “constructive dialogue to obfuscate [issues].” Herbert reported that the administration has called recommendations of the YCC “logistically infeasible,”; to Herbert, such language has “no real meaning.” When students receive such ambiguous responses, they are left feeling that administrators are trying to sidestep the issue under the guise of engagement.

Moreover, according to Blackmon, even when administrators do engage with student representatives and enact policies based on supposed student input, they are often “acting on misinformation.” This is especially true for financial aid, he said, arguing that the YCC discussions to which he has been privy reveal that the administration does not “understand how decisions are affecting students’ lives.” Secretary Goff-Crews admits that communication “is a problem,” but she is adamant that only “continuing, constant conversations” can help the administration respond better to students. Herbert’s and Blackmon’s statements suggest that this increase in communication has not led the university to better understand student opinions, frustrations, and experiences.

Moreover, the responsiveness of the university following such dialogue is ambiguous. As made clear by Elisovich Sigal’s questions, responsiveness can refer to many things: “Is it what they actually implement, or if they listen to our claims, or even if they take into consideration what we say at their next meetings?” Secretary Goff-Crews makes the distinction. “There’s a difference between constructive dialogue and getting absolutely everything you want. When we don’t agree with students, then we explain why we don’t.”

Yet, sometimes the perceived lack of response of the administration antagonizes many students. Glowa said that the November 2013 student referendum on divestment, in which 83 percent of students who participated voted for divestment (excluding abstentions), and FFY’s “close work” with the Committee on Investor Responsibility, did not prompt the university to change its policies. “[President] Salovey completely ignored our real concerns about divestment,” Glowa said. In a report released in 2014, the administration formally rejected FFY’s demands for changes to Yale’s position as an institutional investor with regards to fossil fuel companies, insisting that the demands are “neither the right means of addressing this serious threat nor would they be effective.” The activists aren’t the only ones who feel ignored. Herbert emphasized that the administration has not even responded to some YCC reports, which should be “an institutional check,” he said.

The administration has responded to other student movements, however. Recently, it hired five new faculty members for the long understaffed Computer Science department after students started a campus-wide petition. Moreover, the university permitted mixed-gender housing for sophomores this year, introduced a “popular” alcohol policy last year, and retracted a grading proposal that would have replaced letters with numbers. Scott Greenberg ’15, another YDN columnist, called the administration “largely benevolent” for agreeing to these student demands. However, both Stern and Glowa say these responses are not representative of the administration’s overall tone in its responses to students’ desires. To Stern, money is always the deciding factor: “The administration is terrified of articles which say, ‘If you want to work for Apple, don’t go to Yale,’ whereas there is no money in the four issues at the [Unite Yale] Rally [financial aid reform, the condition of the cultural houses, divestment, mental health reform].” Glowa agreed and said that the university’s responsiveness depended who was making the petition.

Recent protests and YCC efforts show us two methods of effecting student change: activism and institutional change through student government. Blackmon stressed, “It is necessary to start with activism as we did with financial aid, while the YCC tries to institutionalize some of the activism.” But Blackmon also urged the YCC to be “more forceful.”

Yet others in student government disagree. Although Herbert admitted that activism around mental health provided leverage and more of an imperative to change, it also made it difficult to submit concrete proposals. Gregg Castellucci, President of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS), highlighted a related disadvantage of activists: “They don’t have access to information that student governments have, which gives us a realistic view of what’s going on.”

However, Castelluci also insisted, “Even if the demands aren’t realistic, the administration needs to be shown the feeling among the people.” But he also stressed, “You need to have reports—pieces of data you can point to every time—so that no one can deny that they don’t know the issue.” He underlined the importance of “institutional memory”and emphasized that if activism were to go away, the pressure on the administration would disappear, so activists need to create systems to “keep issues alive.”

Castelluci presented a model of collaboration: “On specific issues, student government can help activist groups fashion their ideas and tone to make it more accessible to administrators, who might otherwise be drawn to dismiss unrealistic signs they see” in an event such as a rally.  Eliasovich Sigal suggested that if the organizers of United Yale: Rally for Student Power had offered to co-host with the YCC, it would have been a “very powerful move.”

According to Herbert, “In 70 percent of public schools and 20 percent of private schools, not only do students have regular meetings with the Corporation, but you have students on the Corporation.” Yale is not alone: Herbert contends that a disconnect between students and their administration also exists at Harvard and Princeton. Student disillusionment is more pronounced in those two other institutions, Herbert argues, with joke candidates winning student government leadership elections at Harvard and Princeton.

Secretary Goff-Crews thinks that Yale’s student-administration relations are “uniquely good.” She elaborated, “Having been at other institutions, I’m sure we do it more than our peers—it is unusual for the President and the Provost to talk to students fairly consistently [as they do at Yale].”

Weeks urges that any debate about the structure of the university administration must be nuanced. “It is a lot more complicated than it seems, and the administration is not monolithic.” Both he and Juviler recall Corporation members who would meet with student activists for meals and express solidarity with them. Juviler recalls faculty who attended and participated in student rallies, like then Yale Professor Cornel West.

Castellucci conceded, “Yale has been very nice, the administration does care about what our experiences are, but they have other sets of responsibilities to staff, faculty, alumni and finances.”

Secretary Goff-Crews is adamant that she doesn’t “see any scope for change in our [administration’s] structures” in terms of the Corporation, because “there will always be one small group that’s trying to weigh issues and make reasonable decisions.” Yet administrators themselves are changing. Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway in particular was praised by almost every student interviewed for his receptiveness to student input and genuine desire to involve students in the decision-making process. Herbert, while calling Holloway “exceptional,” said that although Yale had good administrators, the system as a whole needed to change.

But while the Corporation shows no signs of change, student activism is certainly evolving. Said Blackmon, “There has been a major change among students who were not willing to go out on a limb and stand up for their convictions.” Stern agreed that his past four years at Yale have seen “more sustained student activism.”

In her conversation with The Politic in early April, Juviler thought that the administration in the 80s “lacked foresight” when it came to apartheid divestment. In twenty years, will we say the same of the way the Corporation is responding to fossil fuel divestment, mental health, cultural houses, and financial aid activists? If we do not collectively decide how Yale can better incorporate student opinion into its decision-making, it will seem more and more difficult to say that Yale is on our side.

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