For a program that is only three years old, the Larry Kramer Initiative for Gay and Lesbian Studies has a remarkably complex history. And now that Kramer has called for LKI’s overhaul, its future is unlikely to be much simpler.
Dissatisfied with “a direction too much one thing and not enough of what LKI was founded for,” Kramer wrote in these pages that the program should be moved to the History Department from its current location in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Today, Kramer will meet with History chair Paul Freedman to discuss this. But the renewed controversy over LKI raises two important questions that must be answered before any possible move. First, how much control should donors to the University have over programs they endow? And second, are the changes Kramer proposes in the best interest of gay and lesbian studies at Yale?
The first question is not a new one, at Yale or in American higher education. When alumni like Kramer give to the University, they do so because they believe in the value of supporting education at Yale, and it is no surprise that they frequently have clear ideas as to exactly what their money should be used for. But once money has been given to Yale, the University simply has the responsibility to uphold the terms under which the donations have been made — no more and no less. We cannot speak to whether the current form of LKI conforms to the terms under which Kramer made his donation — Kramer says it doesn’t — and we understand that Kramer’s involvement stems in part from the ongoing question of whether he will donate more to Yale in the future. But unless the University is violating the agreement it made with Kramer, Yale should maintain the freedom to determine how its own programs will operate.
But while we believe that donors should have very limited control over what happens with their money once it is in the University’s hands, we think Kramer is partially correct in his concerns over the course LKI has taken. We agree that both LKI and Yale would be better served if the initiative were not housed under the WGSS Department. But Kramer’s proposal — moving the program to the History Department — does not seem like the right solution, either. LKI’s attention should extend well beyond theories of sexuality, but the program’s impact will be no more complete if it shifts all its attention to discussing gay historical figures, either.
Still, broadening LKI to increase its focus on history — not to mention other disciplines like political science or literature — makes sense. It is not just that these areas offer important opportunities for research in a rapidly growing field; a more interdisciplinary program also has the potential to draw students not naturally attracted to the WGSS Department. One promising option would be to make LKI more independent, using the model of programs like Latin American Studies or Urban Studies that are closely linked to several departments yet whose character is not determined by any single one of them. But until it finds a distinct place in Yale’s academic world, gay and lesbian studies at this University will not have the impact it can and should have.