Fun, tradition key to Yale experience

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of opinion columns about what current and former students want to see in the new dean of student affairs. To join the conversation, e-mail jay.buchanan@yale.edu.

At the end of this semester, Betty Trachtenberg will step down from her role as the Yale College dean of student affairs, a position she has held since 1987. The majority of Yale students have a misconception of Dean Trachtenberg, who is perhaps better known as “Betty T.” People are quick to criticize her and assume that her primary goal is to suck as much enjoyment out of student life as she can. And I’ll tell you what: She is tough. Dean Trachtenberg is not afraid to lay down the law when need be and few who have dealt with her would characterize her as warm and fuzzy. That being said, she is a fair, open-minded and straightforward dean, and this University will be hard-pressed to find a replacement that can create as wonderful a college experience as the one that Dean Trachtenberg has overseen for 20 years.

In 2005, as Yale readied for the Harvard-Yale tailgate in New Haven, Dean Trachtenberg held an open forum for any students interested in discussing the University’s announced rules for The Game. A couple of us in the crowd mentioned our displeasure with a regulation that all student groups besides residential colleges had to tailgate in a separate area, away from the traditional location. We argued that putting a cappella groups, fraternities, teams and clubs away from the residential colleges divided the student body, defeating the goal of school spirit that The Game is meant to encourage. And secondly, by putting undergrads together with the non-student tailgating population, the University was encouraging unruly behavior in areas that were populated by families with young children. Instead, we suggested that all student groups — colleges and extracurricular activities alike — should be allowed to enjoy Harvard-Yale together as they always had.

Rather than brush us off, Dean Trachtenberg listened to us and adjusted the policy as we requested. She realized that our proposal unified the student body and ensured a better experience for everyone at the tailgate. That day, I gained a tremendous amount of respect for the woman who before had only been branded as an anti-good-times administrator. And I cannot find a single person who did not have a great time at that tailgate. (It was certainly more fun than anything that has ever gone on in Cambridge.)

In my capacity as a fraternity president last fall, I saw more of the same from Dean Trachtenberg. Those who do not know her are quick to assume that all she wants is the dissolution of the Greek system. In reality, however, this could not be further from the truth. She may not agree with everything fraternities do, but she also understands that the residential college system is not enough for every Yale student and many people wish to supplement it with Greek life. In my meetings with Dean Trachtenberg, she was certainly firm. When she disagreed with us, she would make her displeasure clear. Yet she was also reasonable and candid. She never patronized us and was never condescending. Moreover, she sincerely wanted to have an open dialogue and partnership between the fraternities and the administration.

Dean Trachtenberg’s retirement is a huge loss for the Yale community, and her replacement should hold many similar views toward student life to those she does. The new Dean of Student Affairs should consider student safety a top priority, eschewing policies centered on punishment. He or she should also recognize the need for social life outside of the residential colleges. There is more to Yale than classes and colleges — and these extracurricular activities often mean more to students than anything else. Moreover, the new dean needs to understand that many Yale student organizations are centered around a number of traditions — such as initiation and tap nights for sports teams, a cappella groups, societies, fraternities, sororities and other organizations — that may involve what some could characterize as risque behavior, but are tremendously important and deserve to be respected, as long as safety is kept in mind.

Most importantly, the incoming dean must realize that Yale students love Yale. Regardless of their particular social niche, most Yalies wouldn’t trade their experiences for that of any other college student in America. I believe that we are among the luckiest people in the country to be at Yale, and that is because of what happens both inside and outside of the classroom. Of course, Yale has its flaws, but on the whole, life is pretty great here. Thus, my message to Betty T’s replacement is to let the good times roll.

Bill Deitch is a senior in Silliman College. He was the president of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity in fall 2005.

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