The Yale University Art Gallery auditorium echoed with hisses and fist-banging this weekend as about 140 current and former members of the Yale Political Union gathered for the organization’s 75th anniversary celebration.
Eighty-five YPU alumni returned to New Haven this weekend, joining scores of current YPU members to celebrate the organization’s history. Starting in 1934 with more than 150 people at its first debate, the YPU now boasts seven member parties and a membership of 350 undergraduates.
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At the reunion, alumni from every party gathered Saturday in the gallery’s lecture hall to debate: “Resolved: Government should be left to the experts.” Alumni were also treated to lectures from faculty, including Donald Kagan, David Bromwich ’73 GRD ’77, Charles Hill and Jane Levin GRD ’75, as well as individual events for each party Friday and a closing banquet Saturday evening.
During the banquet in the President’s Room Saturday evening, Law School professor Akhil Reed Amar ’80 LAW ’84, the former chairman of the Liberal Party, said in his keynote address that the exchange of ideas in the YPU fosters friendships among members.
“My apologies to Daniel Webster,” Amar quipped. He went on to quote the famous American statesman, replacing “liberty” with “friendship”: “Friendship and union. Now and forever. One and inseparable.”
In response, water glasses rattled and cutlery shook as audience members thumped their hands on the tables in unison, the customary way of expressing agreement in the YPU.
Keynote speaker Richard Brookhiser ’77, an award-winning journalist and a former chairman of the Party of the Right, said in an interview that while the organization gives members valuable intellectual experience, it also risks seeming insular at times.
Alexander Martone ’10 admitted that the YPU has had a problematic history with isolation, and he said he now hopes the YPU will become a forum for political discussion on campus.
“We are working on becoming more relevant on campus,” he said, adding that the YPU has made a push to include the rest of campus in its weekly activities.
The YPU has recently co-sponsored debates with other undergraduate organizations and held debates about issues concerning Yale and New Haven at least once every semester. The group is also working with WYBC Radio to broadcast their debates.
At the reunion over the weekend, former Conservative Party member and retired educator Douglas Ayer ’59 LAW ’62 said he was pleased by the renewed vibrancy of the YPU during the reunion. Students today take such open discussion for granted, he said, noting that when he was a Yale student in the ’50s, students were rarely vocal about their beliefs.
“In my time, political vibrancy was regarded as unfashionable,” Ayer said. “What the YPU intended to do was galvanize students by engaging them in political issues.”
But Norman Etherington ’63 GRD ’71 — the first YPU Speaker of the Union — said he experienced the YPU differently when he was at Yale. As war and civil rights protests began to define the ’60s era, the YPU also saw increasingly heated debates, Etherington said.
While the current YPU may have developed new traditions and new conventions, Etherington said, the participants’ underlying passion for politics is still strong.
“I now have a larger sense that what unites us is stronger than what divides us,” he said. “It’s been the same spirit for 46 years.”
Martone said the alumni’s experiences reveal a pattern: apathy comes and goes. The YPU has had high and low points that have served as a barometer of Yale political activity, he said. During the ’70s and ’90s, a quarter of Yalies were part of the YPU, according to Fernando Reyes ’10, the YPU’s director of development.
Martone added that the YPU maintains its original purpose of fighting apathy on campus by fostering engagement in politics and debating important issues.
“Apathy is not something you check off a list,” Martone said. “Unless we achieve utopia, there will always be a need for the Yale Political Union.”
Correction: Oct. 28, 2009
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the current membership of the Yale Political Union; that membership is 350, not 250.