Yale on harassment: No talk, no action

It is possible, though not likely, that Yale will have taken decisive action to resolve the “YALE SLUTS” dispute by the time this column goes to press. National blogs have picked up the story, and Yale as an institution never moves more rapidly than when its reputation is under threat (see also: last year’s stage weapons ban; Harvard’s financial-aid-reform proposal). Even if the whole thing has been forgotten by tomorrow, however, the administration’s refusal to intervene thus far in a threatened lawsuit between two groups of Yale undergraduates is disturbing.

Conventional wisdom has been that the Women’s Center should be seeking disciplinary action from the University rather than the courts. But the center’s response — that it doesn’t trust the University to take effective action — isn’t just the complaint of a few cranky feminists. Yale deliberately crafts its policies on speech issues to avoid direct engagement and arbitration between student groups. This week has shown how thoroughly these tactics have failed, exacerbating conflicts they hoped to resolve.

Most consider this incident another volley in the ongoing match between free-speech advocates and “hate speech” detractors — a dangerous characterization, as it is potentially more severe. Zeta Psi’s offense, in my opinion, was less the creation of the sign than the decision to have a dozen physically imposing and intoxicated pledges pose and chant with that sign outside the Women’s Center during a likely time for rape victims to visit the center seeking a “safe space.” The line between offense and intimidation — a line ardent defenders of free expression need to draw — requires understanding that the behavior that accompanies words is equally important.

But making judgments on intimidation that involves speech requires an ability to make judgments on speech-related issues as a whole. While Yale’s Web site contains statements both defending speech (the 1975 Woodward Report) and restricting it (its harassment policy), the University’s official actions have scrupulously avoided active enforcement of either. This seems to be a deliberate choice on the part of the administration, and indeed, letting students define acceptable speech among themselves rather than conforming to administrative dictate is a laudable goal.

But (as many libertarians on campus need to learn) nonintervention is itself a policy insofar as it allows certain factors to prevail over others. In this case, Yale’s nonpolicy assumes that debate among individuals will create a collective consensus that will be strong enough to dissuade offensive speech acts. In fact, individuals gravitate toward groups of like-minded individuals, often represented by undergraduate organizatiwons such as fraternities or the Women’s Center (or cultural houses or publications).

It is these groups, rather than the individuals who comprise them, that engage in public action. In cases of controversy, they become antagonistic rather than collaborative, preventing productive discussion from occurring without Yale’s intervention. Yale refuses to make the necessary waves, hoping instead that students will “learn their lesson” without having anyone actually do the teaching.

Yale can discipline individuals for these infractions without causing a stir, and occasionally it does — the lone ExComm appearance incurred for being offensive was related to the 2006 NOGAYS e-mail, traced to an individual rather than a group. (Even then, the official ExComm charge was one of technical violation of e-mail policy, though it seemed to be a case of selective enforcement.) If individuals lose liability when their actions are group actions, they also lose responsibility. Yale’s attempts to avoid interfering in students’ lives actually impede their moral development.

And as much as the phrase “moral development” may smack of Puritanism or the Christian right, it’s also an important component of creating global leaders — a goal Yale isn’t shy about proclaiming for its students. Professionally, Yale puts a lot of effort into grooming us for elite leadership. Ethically, it falls short.

This reflects an impoverished vision of what the “global leader” actually is. By pushing us to think of leadership by looking to a future outside of campus, rather than to our current environment, the University doesn’t just stunt our moral growth but makes it less likely that we will put in the necessary energy to resolve the conflicts we currently face — after all, doing so won’t pad our resumes. Joining an organization and leading protest efforts will.

Yale may hope that its inaction will cause students to sit down with each other and sort out their differences, but its efforts in other arenas incentivize anything but conflict resolution. Just because Yale doesn’t take institutional action doesn’t mean it can claim neutrality or respond to students’ anger by claiming it is not to blame.

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


  • Anonymous

    While suit discussions continue, members of the Women's Center should sit down with Dean Jeff Brenzel and explain to him that they did not choose to attend Yale College to endure being targeted a slut.

  • Anonymous

    well written; well said.

  • Anonymous

    Oh God, so much ado about so little.
    1- Isn't having a few drinks and behaving badly part of the college experience? So, some pledges got drunk, held up a silly sign and took a photo. This is surely not the first nor the last tongue-in-cheek defilement of the Women's Center or Women's Table. It does not translate to ANY violence or oppression.
    2- Slut, last I checked, describes a man or a woman who is seen as too "easy" and wantonly has sex. Fairly gender neutral. In fact, Yale has as many male sluts as female sluts. Perhaps these guys were simply describing themselves, and asking some Womens Center members to join them.
    3- I pity any woman (or man) at Yale who would be so frightened by a handful of frat pledges in the middle of the night. How pathetic.
    4- The administration has already gotten too involved. Most all of the protagonists are adults and do not need Daddy Salovey to mete out a resolution. This non-event will blow over by Valentine's Day.

  • Anonymous

    Very pithy comment devoid of profound thought. Frankly I didn't choose to attend Yale college because I wanted to be labeled as a liberal the rest of my life.

    It used to be liberals could talk of morality without being considered a member of the religious right. Perhaps this is why they've tapped in to anti-religious sentiment to label all conservatives who have any modicum of faith or any moral compass as some unthinking closed minded behemoth of another era. God forbid Yale ever be lumped in with this group, they've decided to remain amoral in most issues to avoid any misconceptions of their ideological leanings. The closest thing the university has to a moral compass is a politically correct meter which waves its finger at but does nothing about offensive speech.

  • Anonymous

    Nicely done, Dara.

  • Anonymous

    Yep - these guys held up a sign that said "sluts" on it. It was extremely stupid. Are we done yet? Seriously, what do you want to do, castrate them?

    "While suit discussions continue, members of the Women's Center should sit down with Dean Jeff Brenzel and explain to him that they did not choose to attend Yale College to endure being targeted a slut."

    I'd like to sit down with Dean Brenzel and tell him I didn't come to Yale to attend "PCU" and that he should admit whomever he damn well pleases without a student group giving him instructions. The same people who claim to support diversity are the first ones who want to silence a plurality of ideas or mindsets if those don't correspond to their PC status quo.

    This year has been unbelievable with the protests. Some of us are in college to learn and to have fun, and this relentless castigation is right on the border between hilariously entertaining and really annoying. Don't these activists have better things to do? I certainly hope none of them ever makes a mistake.

  • Anonymous

    Very well said. I hope the administration takes note of this editorial!

  • Anonymous


    Do you honestly believe that slut is a term that applies to both sexes? Which sex does it apply to a gross majority of the time? Regardless of its textbook definition, its connotation is clearly one that is derogatory towards women.

    Also, a crowd of 20-25 drunk frat boys, whether holding up that sign or chanting "dick" in front of the WC entrance, can be quite intimidating, especially to a single individual. Don't be so quick to dismiss fear others feel even if you don't feel it yourself.

  • Anonymous

    The men appologized. They made a mistake, they were drunk, were not thinking, what have you. It was not malicious, and they were not trying to intimidate or upset anybody. Time to move on.

  • Anonymous

    It shows a greater level of disrespect to have done this in front of the Yale Women's Center, a University sanctioned place of security and ideals, than had they simply walked around Cross Campus doing it. The wantonness they displayed by planting themselves where they did is a big part of the problem here. It's utterly dismissive of the Women's Center as a serious establishment within the university.

    Nice job on the editorial.

  • Anonymous

    There's no use in castrating them because they already go to Yale.

  • Anonymous

    @11:57 am. Get your facts straight: First of all, hasn't it been put forward that this event occurred at 12:30 am when the Women's Center was closed? Secondly, the Zeta Psi kids were probably shouting "DKE (deke) DKE DKE" in an attempt to frame their rival frat, an attempt that needless to say seriously backfired (There's no hard proof for this, but it is a known tradition for frats to frame each other this way, and "dick dick dick" makes much less sense). Thirdly, the picture shows 12 frat boys, not 20-25.

  • Anonymous

    I'm glad to see that students are dismissing the Women's Center as a serious establishment within the university. It isn't one. Of course, Zeta Psi isn't either…

    As we go through life, people are going to say stupid things and things that offend us. I hope that however Yale proceeds, it does not teach students that the way to handle such statements is to say "I was SOOOO scared! He made me feel BAD inside!" but to behave like a mature adult.

    Seriously, Yale Women. If you can't laugh at this, you're going to get a wake-up call in the real world, where no one gives a **** about your feelings.

    -A Yale alumna SM 98

  • Anonymous

    Re #10:

    Isn't disrespect sort of the point? Or is it now verboten to disrespect someone in the bizarro-world?

    To me this sounds like some old-school debauchery, making a fool of oneself and joking/picking on others. How is this any different than the rude, disrespectful and tasteless chants at football games, Tang, IMs or other good-spirited (albeit testosterone-driven) activities.

  • Anonymous

    In response to the third paragraph: how many were there in the picture? 12? And I don't know how to even respond to chanting. If your a half block away, "deek, deek, deek" (DKE, Zeta's rival frat) could easily be construed as offensive. Also, wasn't the center closed at the time? Sorry to be so to the point, but there seem to be some serious holes in the story.

  • Joe E.

    i hate to be called names also, but it is in the way that you use it…a girl calls me Fag,i don't get upset at all -in fact it's cute..a certain girl with a red face and angry screams Fag then i take offense and want to retaliate,i refrain from using certain monikers only ones that can sear the skin..
    Another thing, these Union dudes are screaming into cell phones in vans,at their wives/girlfriends, one Union priveleged gent was kicking a car and wailing at the top of his lungs..terrified kids in the car.
    i sat with one and started :jobs,jobs,who the frig is gettin all da jobs
    it built to a frenzy,the guy in the back seat went arrrrrr real loud..the driver went beserck and hit a parked car
    We fell out laughing
    Yes care starts at home ,then march on city hall with anger management and Yale Child Study,and the Law school,