Univ. plans panels to address racism

With the graffiti on Pierson College and the University Theatre now mostly faded following exposure to a host of caustic chemicals and three weeks of sunlight, University administrators plan to open the battle against racism and intolerance on campus in a setting familiar to students — the lecture hall.

The University is organizing a series of four panel discussions throughout the year — the first of which is scheduled for next week — that will deconstruct the origins of hate speech and action in academic terms, Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry told the News this week.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey talks with a student during the “Rally Against Hate” protest on Nov. 14. The Univ. is planning four panels to discuss hate speech.
Nick Bayless
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey talks with a student during the “Rally Against Hate” protest on Nov. 14. The Univ. is planning four panels to discuss hate speech.

Administrators in Yale College and the Graduate School said they hope this new method of tackling intolerance will spark a new kind of dialogue about hate that previous approaches have failed to produce. Students and student cultural groups familiar with the issue said they applaud the idea, but they cautioned that such discussions must not be the only form of response from the Yale community.

On Nov. 6, Davenport College dining hall workers discovered the words “nigger school” scrawled in red spray paint on a wall near Pierson College as they arrived for work. A day later, several undergraduates leaving the University Theatre late at night found the words “drama fags” displayed in similar writing an exterior wall of the theatre.

“We want to lend some disciplined understanding of the character, origin and range of hatred in historical and contemporary cultures,” Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said of the contributions the discussion series can make to campus dialogue. “You can’t deal with any phenomenon without understanding what it is.”

Citing the graffiti incidents and what they called a “history of intolerance” at Yale, concerned students staged a “Rally Against Hate” on Nov. 14, at which marchers spoke about their own experience with intolerance on campus and demanded a response from the University.

While the rally focused on bigotry within the Yale community, the first panel — to be held Dec. 4 in Sudler Hall — will probe deeper, drawing on multiple examples of public hatred in American history to provide a broader explanation for intolerance, Butler said.

Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway and history professors Glenda Gilmore and Ben Kiernan will serve as panelists, Gentry said.

Holloway said he thinks the panel is necessary to promote campus dialogue.

“I never get excited talking about hate,” he said. “But if we don’t talk about it, we run the danger of making it worse.”

Members of student groups involved in organizing the Rally Against Hate reacted to the idea for the panels with guarded enthusiasm.

Coalition for Campus Unity co-founder Joshua Williams ’08 said he thinks the panels represent a “multifaceted approach to issues of racism and bigotry,” but he said he hopes the panels are a starting point, not a finish.

“Questions of free speech and satire are highly academic, and it’s great that we can have an academic conversation about them,” Williams said.

But it remains to be seen how many students will be listening.

Although Dean of Students Marichal Gentry said administrators chose to hold the first discussion in the spacious Sudler Hall so they could accommodate a large audience, Merlyn Deng ’11 said she thinks interest in the panels is likely to fall short of administrators’ hopes. The panel audiences will self-select and draw a demographic dominated by students who are already interested, she said.

“It’s not that people don’t know [about these issues] — it’s just not on their minds,” Deng said. “The people who come are likely to be involved [with the campus response] or want to be involved.”

Holloway acknowledged the difficulty of drawing students he termed “skeptics” to the discussion, but he said involved students also stand to gain from the panels.

“[Seeing] people representing the institution at some level [discussing hate] will be an affirmation that [students] aren’t the only ones who think about these things,” he said.

After the graffiti was discovered three weeks ago, Butler and Yale College Dean Salovey acted independently in e-mailing the college and graduate school communities with thoughts on the incident, Gentry said. Shortly thereafter, he said, administrators in the dean’s offices of the College and the Graduate School joined together to formulate a response tailored to their respective academic disciplines.

To that end, Gentry said, Butler, a professor of American studies, will moderate Tuesday’s panel on history, while Salovey, a professor of psychology, will moderate a discussion of the psychology of hate that is scheduled for late January.

The last two panels, scheduled for later in the spring term, will focus on the sociology and politics of hate, Gentry said.

In addition to the panels, Gentry said administrators hope to unveil a new, University-wide protocol for addressing incidents of hate speech on campus by the beginning of spring term. The University is likely to move on the proposal soon, Salovey said.

“I would see this as just one of the things that an educational institution can and should do in response to the kinds of incidents we saw before Thanksgiving,” he said. “But I don’t want to in any way create the impression that I think it’s the only thing we should do.”

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