Waiting for Swensen

It was not your average sit-in. Yale Police Department Chief James Perrotti, several raw parsnips and a California hotel worker converged outside the Yale Investments Office on Tuesday morning.

To protest Yale’s investment in what they say are ethically questionable firms, about 20 students from the Undergraduate Organizing Committee led a four-hour sit-in of the Yale Investments Office on Tuesday. Yale Investments Office officials, who called in half a dozen police officers after the students refused to leave, declined to talk to the UOC members. The protestors left the 55 Whitney Ave. building at 1:45 p.m. without a meeting, though they maintained the event had been a success.

Members of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee participate in a sit-in at the Yale Investments Office at 55 Whitney Ave.
Nick Bayless
Members of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee participate in a sit-in at the Yale Investments Office at 55 Whitney Ave.

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said the students’ concerns had already been heard at a meeting of the University’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. The committee meets regularly to hear concerns and advise action on the University’s investments.

“It’s the proper forum for students and others to raise concerns regarding investment policy,” Conroy said in an e-mail.

UOC members said Tuesday that they were not satisfied with the outcome of their meeting with the ACIR.

The idea to request a meeting with the Investment Office first surfaced late Monday night during a brief UOC meeting. UOC students then called other members to meet at 9:30 a.m. at the corner of Church and Grove streets before heading to the Yale Investments Office. Their aim: To meet with investment officials and persuade them to support better working conditions for workers at the HEI Hotels and Resorts, one of Yale’s investments. After the meeting was refused, the gathering turned into an unplanned sit-in.

“The working conditions of the hotel are terrible,” Hans Schoenburg ’11 said. “Yale has the power to do something about it and should.”

Joining the students in the elevator bank lobby on the fifth floor was Jose Landino, a California hotel worker who, at a kickoff panel for the Responsible Endowment Project on Monday night, said he and his coworkers are mistreated by HEI.

At about 9:40 a.m., students were met by Investments Office Senior Financial Analyst Alex Hetherington ’06 outside the fifth floor office. But Hetherington said he could not discuss Yale’s investments and advised the students to meet with the ACIR instead.

After telling the students at 10:15 a.m. he would call the police if they did not leave, Hetherington returned to his office, and about five students departed from 55 Whitney.

Five minutes later, two YPD officers arrived, but the remaining students stayed in their positions in the fifth-floor lobby.

“We swore to stay here until someone sees us or officially tells us to leave,” Timmia Hearn Feldman ’12, the designated UOC spokeswoman for the sit-in, said at the time.

By noon, the two Yale police officers stationed in the lobby stopped allowing students to go the fifth floor, while three or four others — including Perrotti, for a short period — guarded the office.

Only students who had appointments at Undergraduate Career Services and the Office of Fellowship Programs — also housed at 55 Whitney, but on the third floor — were allowed to pass by the security desk. The security officer manning the ground-level desk called to confirm each student’s appointment.

At 12:30 p.m., the 16 remaining students — 15 undergraduates and one law student — had taken seats along the walls of the wood-paneled hallway outside the office. Some did homework on their MacBooks, while others surfed the Internet. Others talked on their cell phones to fellow UOC members who could not enter the building.

As time passed, many students began to complain that they were hungry and hot. One representative dashed out for food. She came back with parsnips.

The students reported seeing Yale Investment chief David Swensen GRD ’80 come up in an elevator after they arrived in the morning. After seeing the students, the protesters said, Swensen closed the elevator door and went back down.

Swensen did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite the close quarters, relations between protestors and the four police officers stationed on the fifth floor remained friendly. The police officers acted as liaisons between students and the investment office, even attempting to set up a meeting for the students. Yale Police Department Assistant Chief Ronnell Higgins chatted with Landino about California.

But, in the end, the students did not meet with anyone in the office. At 1:45 p.m., Landino had to leave to catch a flight back to California so he could report to work at 5 a.m. on Wednesday. As Landino left, the student protesters applauded him and then packed up their belongings. All 16 students crammed into one elevator for the trip downstairs chanting, “We’ll be back.”

Though no meeting materialized, the students and Landino said they still considered the event a success.

“We did not speak with him but we left a very clear message,” Landino said through a translator. “Like farmers we’ve planted something that is going to grow and we will reap the rewards.”

Before they left, the students wrote a note for Swensen on a yellow legal pad, which concluded, “We are firmly resolved to see this matter through to the end.”

UOC’s last major sit-in was in 2005, when 15 UOC members sat in the admissions office for eight hours to protest Yale’s financial aid policy. During the protest, trespassing citations were issued to the students holding the sit-in.

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