Yale College Council President-elect Jeff Gordon ’12 has ambitious plans for next year.
Last week, Gordon emerged from a heated presidential election that centered on policy issues in a way current undergraduates have not seen in recent YCC elections. While in past years candidates campaigned mostly for student life-oriented goals such as increased funding for undergraduate organizations and extended nighttime dining hall hours, this year all three presidential candidates promised to reform Yale’s academics and services — by making science labs worth a full class credit, for example, or improving Yale’s mental health support.
But the incoming YCC’s promise to tackle weightier policy issues represents an effort to go beyond the council’s traditional reach.
Current YCC President Jon Wu ’11 said this year’s YCC has targeted four areas: ambitious policy advocacy such as the push for academic minors, student services such as the reevaluation of mental health services, short-term projects such as the creation of a bike sharing program and event planning, including for the Winter Show and Spring Fling.
But success in each of those four areas has been varied. While the administration this year did approve mixed-gender housing for rising seniors, the YCC had pushed for an option that also included sophomores and juniors. Furthermore, the YCC’s attempts to influence academic policy have stalled: The Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted in February not to endorse the creation of academic minors, and some faculty members agree that, despite next fall’s review of academic policy, switching back to an old system in which students were allowed to take distributional requirements Credit/D/Fail is unlikely.
Still, smaller YCC projects that often do not require administrative backing have gone more smoothly. (Wu tellingly refers to these as “tangible projects.”) For example, this year’s council established a cell-phone lender program with which students with broken or lost phones can borrow one until they find a permanent replacement, as well as a course packet exchange program that allows students to skip the sometimes high cost of course materials. The council has also set up an online advising Web site where it will post comments and advice from various seniors who have been successful in their respective majors.
Wu said that while these smaller projects do not necessarily meet the YCC’s goal of advocating for the student body to the administration, they fulfill another role of the YCC by enhancing the Yale student’s experience.
“It’s finding a proactive way to improve student life,” Wu said.
And despite the YCC’s comparative success in these smaller initiatives, Wu said that pursuing the larger ones is still worthwhile. With an ambitious agenda for next year, Gordon agreed: While he promises to continue planning events and improving student life in more easily achievable ways, Gordon said he thinks the time is right to increase the YCC’s influence on major administrative decisions. And based on interviews with past YCC presidents, this trend toward greater YCC impact has been years in the making.
Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry, who oversees undergraduate organizations including the YCC, said the council’s voice is always useful, no matter the issue.
“If I wasn’t listening to them, I would not spend 30 minutes every week meeting with them,” he said.
Still, when asked in what areas they remembered YCC successes, three administrators offered examples that fit specifically under Wu’s label of “tangible projects” — getting communal soap dispensers in residential bathrooms in 2006, for example — rather than larger academic policy.
“What I think is particularly important about the YCC is its ability to think creatively, to let new ideas emerge … and then to work with the administration to launch a program,” Yale College Dean Mary Miller said, citing this year’s news bike share program, which allows walking-weary Yalies to rent out bikes from master’s offices for hours or even days at a time.
Former Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg, who served in the post for the 20 years before Gentry came in fall 2007, said the YCC was useful because it challenged the administration in the interest of improving the student experience.
“They often have very good ideas about enhancing the life of the students,” Trachtenberg said of YCC members. “I think a very important part of the students’ experience, and it’s an important part of the administration’s experience.”
Trachtenberg acknowledged that when it came to outlandish Spring Fling acts or overly expensive programs, the administration had to take YCC suggestions with a “grain of salt” because they just were not plausible. But she also remembered years in which representatives had good ideas for which they pushed, and hard; she cited the creation of the YaleStation Web site and getting two-ply toilet paper in residential college bathrooms as examples. Again, the YCC met with its greatest successes on small, tangible changes to the quality of student life — not larger academic policies.
“The president of the YCC — really it was his life,” Trachtenberg said, referring to Zach Kaufman ’00, who served as president for the 1998-’99 academic year, “It was his life to get two ply toilet paper into the bathrooms.”
FROM RESOLUTIONS TO REPORTS
In order to transition from toilet-paper advocacy to more substantive issues, subsequent YCC’s under the leadership of presidents Rebecca Taber ’08 and Rich Tao ’10 conceived of a new way to make their council’s voices heard — by focusing on collaborating with administrators rather than passing resolutions that simply stated the YCC’s opinion on current issues.
“I think that actually having an impact in the way we have in the past few years is relatively new,” Taber said.
Taber, who served as YCC president for the 2007-’08 academic year, said YCC input on the major policy change enacted during her tenure — a financial aid overhaul — was successful in part because of a coincidence of timing: The administration was already looking to reform financial aid, she said, so it was particularly receptive to YCC opinion.
But when the timing is not right, persistence on the YCC’s part can be effective, Taber said.
For example, Tao, who served as president during the 2008-’09 academic year, said the search for Provost Peter Salovey’s replacement as dean of Yale College, a post from which he stepped down in fall 2008, was an opportunity for the YCC to show the administration that it was serious about getting involved, even where its input was unsolicited.
“People weren’t really listening,” Tao said. “People weren’t valuing student opinion.”
After sending out a college-wide request for applications, Tao said the council selected 15 students to discuss what undergraduates wanted in a Yale College dean and to formulate a letter, which the group then sent to the administration. University President Richard Levin read the whole report and replied with a long e-mail, Tao said.
Levin, for his part, said that although he also used input from the faculty search committee and “other sources,” the YCC’s input was helpful in providing a sense of student opinion in selecting the new dean.
That opened the door to formal student reports on administrative issues. Tao said the same process was repeated, for example, when Miller marked up every page of the report the YCC submitted to her in the fall of 2008 advocating for implementation of academic minors. Tao said writing and submitting reports to the administration is an effective methodology when the reports are based not only on student surveys but also YCC analysis.
“To get the administration’s attention … you have to do things in a substantive manner,” Tao said. “The reports indicate that the student body can think analytically about issues.”
THE NEW APPROACH AT WORK
In the past three years, the YCC put this approach to good use, perhaps most notably, with the issue of mixed-gender housing.
The mixed-gender housing saga began in November 2007, when Edward Chang ’10, then the queer resources coordinator for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Cooperative, approached the Council of Masters with a proposal to allow students to live with whomever they like, regardless of gender. The Council of Masters rejected the proposal; Katrina Landeta ’10, who was a Branford College YCC representative at the time and who eventually chaired the YCC’s gender-neutral housing committee, said the Council of Masters suggested that Chang work with the YCC to gauge student opinion on the subject.
Landeta said the YCC committee, along with Chang, began to survey the feasibility of mixed-gender housing at Yale. Independently of the YCC work, however, an ad-hoc committee of administrators — which included Dean of Physical Resources and Planning John Meeske, Gentry, then-Council of Masters Chair Judith Krauss and Maria Trumpler, special assistant to the deans on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues — also began exploring the issue, attending higher education housing conferences and discussing the experiences with Yale’s Ivy League peers.
The YCC eventually submitted a report to the ad-hoc committee that pushed administrators to research the option further. Landeta said a mixture of factors led to the administration’s serious consideration of mixed-gender housing, but that she believes the YCC’s backing of Chang added to the proposal’s gravity.
“This one student and the YCC bringing more attention to it made them take it more seriously,” Landeta said. “Twenty-six of us had voted on the resolution, so we wanted them to know that that should mean something.”
After putting the issue on the table for another year of consideration in the spring of 2009, Levin and the Yale Corporation this year approved mixed-gender housing for seniors in the 2010-’11 academic year. He said there is “absolutely no question” that YCC involvement influenced his and the Corporation’s decision.
Though the YCC’s push for mixed-gender housing had mixed success — the council would have preferred a policy that applies to sophomores and juniors too — it set a precedent for student involvement in major administrative decisions.
Tao said one of the YCC’s successes in the past few years has been to cultivate an environment in which students, rather than being cynical, believe that they themselves can create change.
“One thing that I hoped the YCC did during the past year was to create a culture in which students take these issues more seriously,” Tao said. “Where we have potentially changed minds is that the average Yale kid now can think: ‘I can actually have a chance of getting those things done.’ ”
THE ROAD AHEAD
But that average student could also seek out more direct contact with administrators, as some currently do through University standing committees. In that case, Tao posited, the YCC would not need to serve as the student body’s advocate to the administration.
“At the end of the day, I care a lot about the YCC, but I care more about the student body,” Tao said. “What’s important to me is whether students have a greater role.”
But Gordon said the YCC is a representative democracy and, therefore, is the most well-equipped body to approach the administration about student affairs.
“When we go as representatives of the student body, it means something to the deans,” Gordon said. “For us to say that it’s not worth it to pursue large policy changes conveys the message that we don’t care.”
Indeed, as he prepares to take on the presidency, Gordon said he is looking to tackle the academic issues administrators have been putting off until the fall, when the Committee on Yale Education will review the academic policy changes it made in 2005, including a move to a new system of distributional requirements and the creation of freshman seminars.
Gordon said he will take the opportunity to push for implementing academic minors or language certificates, making Yale science labs full credit courses and allowing for the Credit/D/Fail option to apply to distributional requirements. Beyond the fall academic review, he said he will work on streamlining student communication and representation with Undergraduate Career Services, expanding mental health services and financial aid boundaries, and making Yale meal plans more flexible.
Gordon added that he plans to employ the report-writing tactics used by both Wu and Tao. Though he said the reports can come off as “pretentious,” he said he knows faculty read and circulate them.
But more than just the right tactics, Gordon said he thinks the environment is right for large-scale policy reform next year, adding that it would be cynical to think the administration is not open to making significant changes during the upcoming review.
“The whole reason they’re holding the review is that policies don’t always work out,” he said. “My assumption is that they’ll change something.”
Ultimately, though, Levin said the YCC has met with more success on issues that are approved by the administration, like mixed-gender housing, not those approved by the faculty, like academic minors. Some faculty have already expressed resistance to the YCC’s input on academic issues up for review, particularly the Credit/D/Fail proposal.
“I think there’s going to be very little support from the faculty,” Charles Bailyn, an astronomy and physics professor who helped draft the Committee on Yale Education’s report in 2003, said in an interview last month.
Despite such reservations, Gordon said that with a committed YCC executive board for next year, a successful reevaluation of academic policies is within reach.
“I think we have the leaders and the institutional framework and the timing to make that happen,” he said.
Nora Caplan-Bricker and Lauren Rosenthal contributed reporting.