Strategic ‘toolishness’ doesn’t suit Levin

I don’t usually have a problem with nouns used as verbs, but I never want to hear the word “networking” again. In Washington, D.C., where I worked this summer, it was used incessantly, and always with a warm connotation. Once, a guest speaker for an audience of college interns used it as an icebreaker activity: Pairing us off with one another for a brief conversation, she signaled that time was up by shouting “Network!”, and we each found a new partner.

I’m sure most people who use the term “networking” don’t see it taking place under such duress, but the example highlights how mechanical the concept is. “With whom should I associate myself?” is certainly an important question in considering the path of one’s future; the strategy of networking provides the answer “only the people who can get me something later.” It’s what middle-schoolers call “sucking up,” but with fewer pleasantries and more arrogance.

It’s not that this practice is unfamiliar at Yale, but it’s addressed differently. Residential college deans and others talk about “building relationships” with those with influence — hence practices such as college-sponsored “Take Your Professor to Dinner” nights. While students may forge these relationships partly for personal gain, we at least recognize that there is more value to a genuine relationship between two human beings than to the creation of a node in the network; those who don’t are “tools.”

But Yale’s reputation in the outside world is determined not only by the character of its students but also by its own actions on wider stages. President Levin has recognized this from the beginning of his tenure, marked by initiatives to make Yale both a more local and a more global university. But the University’s actions, or refusals to act, on a handful of recent issues are bringing it dangerously close to a kind of institutional toolishness, refusing to take action unless it carries direct benefit.

What is called “toolishness” in individuals is often called “strategy” when applied to larger organizations, such as corporations and universities; a partnership with China, for example, is strategically good for Yale, regardless of its human-rights implications. But the line between the two gets trickier to navigate for leaders of those institutions, who are both individuals and symbols.

President Levin clearly understands that this line exists. His persona is not wholly independent of the University, but it is unique — students in the Yale delegation that visited China this summer, for example, reported that he was recognized everywhere and sought out for autographs and pictures.

It is puzzling, therefore, that Levin should be so cautious in taking action as a leader and an individual. When issuing a statement this summer on his refusal to sign a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, he said that he is categorically “not comfortable signing group statements or petitions.” He claimed to agree with the statement the petition made, but said the boycott itself “serves no functional purpose.”

Regardless of the merits of that reasoning, there are places where University action would serve a purpose. One of those is the city of New Haven, whose recent approval of a municipal ID program sparked national controversy. The issue prompted the city government, activist groups, churches and businesses to speak out; as the most durable and significant institution in New Haven, Yale’s silence was curious, and President Levin did not respond to a student petition that he get an ID card himself.

But while Levin and Yale at least held the same position on the ID issue — that is, no apparent position at all — one event last month saw a divergence. A group of university presidents engaged in a protest against “college rankings” provided by U.S. News and others; the public letter indicating participation in this protest was, of course, not signed by Levin. However, the University is not exactly neutral on the issue; it is hosting a conference of these colleges in November. The press release on the conference quoted Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions rather than Levin himself.

If Yale is willing to host the conference, why couldn’t Levin have been quoted in the press release, rather than seeming too good for his peers at lesser institutions? Why will he publicly agree with a petition but refuse to affix his name to it? I’m not asking President Levin to pursue a particular political agenda, or any agenda at all. I’m just asking that he back up the beliefs he professes to hold, especially when asked to do so by peers, rather than restricting his influence to forwarding the University’s strategic goals. Signing autographs in China, but refusing to sign public letters, seems toolish.

Dara Lind is a junior in Berkeley College. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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