Aid reform is a necessity, but protest tactics are not

Believe it or not, I agree with the ideas underpinning the Undergraduate Organizing Committee’s financial aid reform proposal.

No, you did not read that incorrectly.

It is inexcusable that Yale lags behind rival institutions like Princeton and Harvard when it comes to the generosity of financial aid packages. Administrators in the provost’s office may worry about how much Yale can afford in terms of aid, but what the University cannot afford is to lose desired students to other Ivy League schools. That Yale experienced a 1.2 percent decrease in applications last year while Harvard and Princeton witnessed 15 and 20 percent increases, respectively, is not only a dishonor to the University, but a very serious problem as well — despite the embarrassing attempts of Yale’s number crunchers to excuse the figure away. Money should not be an issue for the bright and energetic students who want to study here or the parents who will end up footing the bill. The best way for Yale to live up to its meritorious function is allow for economic diversity — not the phony “racial diversity” that discriminates on the basis of an applicant’s skin color.

But before we enshrine the Admissions Office 15 alongside the Chicago 7, the Gainseville 8 or the Catonsville 9 in the pantheon of social reformers, it would be edifying to take a look at how the administration and our elected officials — the members of the Yale College Council — are dealing with the topic of financial aid reform.

For months, the Yale College Council has been working diligently with Dean Salovey and other relevant administrators to address the very real concerns that students have with regard to financial aid. In spite of this, members of the UOC have repeatedly expressed their resentment that University officials refuse to meet with them. These self-appointed spokespersons for the “university community” refuse to accept the fact that there is an institutional apparatus through which they can air their grievances — the YCC — and that an alternative exists to grandstanding in front of The New York Times. But hey, it’s just not as much fun to go through the unglamorous process of legislating change as it is to wave a trespassing citation in the air before exploding flashbulbs.

Jealous of their lynch-mob comrades at Harvard who gained national attention in their own quest to denigrate a university president, the UOC imputes the most nefarious motives to those with whom they disagree. This is instructive, for their attitude toward the administration reflects the sort of adversarial relationship that would form were Yale to recognize a graduate student union. That what separates the two sides might just be a good-faith disagreement over budgeting and financial formulas is not even a remote possibility for these activists. No, President Levin is an evil capitalist who takes pleasure forcing financial aid recipients into indentured servitude in the basement of Betts House. This is not intellectual debate. It is crudity.

Whether they were trying to compare themselves to democracy activists in Ukraine or simply piggy-backing on the popular recognition of Jean-Claude and Christo’s saffron gates, the UOC’s decision to adorn themselves in orange had just a hint of pomposity. When the UOC discovered that a Times reporter would be covering their protest, an e-mail went out to the list with the subject line “Rock Stars.” During the sit-in, protesters sang “Kumbaya.” Yes, something’s dying, Lord — and it’s their dignity.

When I was asked, via e-mail or in person, to sign onto their petition “demanding” (has the UOC ever considered simply “asking” for something? It would get them a lot farther) financial aid reform, not once did I consider signing it — even though I largely agree with its aims. While the UOC may tout the “over 1,000″ students who signed onto their petition, 4,000 of us did not, and some of those who did have now renounced their doing so. I knew from the start that no matter how the University responded to the UOC’s demands, nothing would be enough. Last Thursday’s sit-in was only a matter of time.

More than one member of the Yale College Council, hardly a bastion of the political right, anonymously informed me in no uncertain terms that the tactics of the UOC have made them feel eerily like campus conservatives. R. David Edelman ’07, a Calhoun representative to the Council, said that “the YCC is willing to discuss the matter free from accusation and emotional outburst,” precisely the reason why the administration has chosen consistently to engage the YCC — and not the UOC — on this issue. A former member of the YCC told me, “I think it would be far more productive for any student interested in financial aid reform to work with the administration, not against it. We’re not fighting segregation in Memphis.”

Like GESO, the UOC’s sole motivation is to perpetuate its own existence. One would think that nearly 20 years without University recognition would have pulled the rug from under GESO’s feet, or that the signing of a contract with Yale’s unions would have put the complaints of the UOC to rest. But when the continued survival of your organization — an organization that gives your life meaning — is at stake, institutional irrelevance cannot stand in the way of getting your mug on Channel 8.

But it is not just curmudgeons like me who find this sort of behavior so troubling. Jesse Wolfson ’07, a founder of Yale’s Roosevelt Institution, a progressive student think-tank, has defied many of his vocally liberal peers in decrying the protest tactics of the campus left. He told me, “Civil disobedience is only effective as a last resort, after all the normal means of negotiation have broken down. Used otherwise, people no longer take it seriously.” He feels, rightly, that the UOC’s tactics are turning many students off to any sort of political involvement. Wolfson says that “this protest weakened one of the most powerful tools for social change which we as college students possess.” Despite its pretensions, what’s important about the Roosevelt Institution, as opposed to the UOC, is that the former is committed to thinking about issues, while the latter is committed to screaming about them.

Those occupying the admissions office last Thursday would have us believe that their ultimate concern is the welfare of others. That assurance would be easier to swallow were it not so clear that they’re only in this for themselves.



James Kirchick is a junior in Pierson College. He is an occasional columnist.

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