By now, it is clear to most everyone that Dean Trachtenberg’s seemingly unilateral decision to ban realistic weapons from theatrical productions was a poor one. The entire Yale community — thespian or not — can breathe a collective sigh of relief now that the University has retracted the inane policy.
But the manner in which information about this development was disseminated is cause for concern. The administration’s failure to deal directly with students when creating or dissolving the policy has been inexplicable and frustrating. This latest affront to the whole student body came when news of the policy reversal was released by University spokeswoman Helaine Klasky first to an outside source, the Associated Press, rather than to the theater community that had initially expressed concern over Yale’s insulting disregard for free speech. While we appreciate the decision to reverse course on this unpopular policy, releasing the news first to the AP suggests that the reversal was based on a public relations calculation, rather than on the basis of any renewed respect for — or understanding of — the importance of allowing free speech to flourish on campus.
In treating Betty T’s decision as primarily a PR problem in the vein of last year’s “Yale Taliban” story or this year’s shower-sex or flag-burning episodes, our administration belies the true bizarreness of the initial decree (a decree issued, let the record show, by a dean who once maintained order on a cappella Tap Night with the aid of a high-powered water gun). Are they still concerned that guns on stage will scar us emotionally after the Virginia Tech massacre? We don’t know, because no one in the administration will explain the sudden about-face — ironic, considering how important open communication is in building the type of supportive community that can actually be effective in responding to and preventing tragedy.
If Betty T’s initial decision was wrong, just admit it so the Yale community can engage in a meaningful debate over how best to react to last week’s killings. In last fall’s fight over offensive material in campus publications, the administration did not choose to stop anyone’s presses, an admirable decision that led to a vigorous and still ongoing campus debate over how to balance free expression with responsible expression. It is unfortunate that Betty T’s generally effective tenure as dean of student affairs must be marred at its conclusion by such disregard for the value of open and transparent debate.
If this were an isolated incident, perhaps we would not have reason to be worried. But in other instances in which the University has been an object of ridicule on national opinion pages and in prominent blogs, particularly during the Hashemi debate, the administration has refused to open a line of communication to students and explain its actions before it was too late to do anything but rearguard rationalization. Instead of focusing solely on keeping Yale’s image pristine, University leaders should bear in mind that as it pertains to student life, their principal responsibility is to the students whom their decisions affect.