Hundreds of leaders of campus student groups gathered Monday night and again last night in a leadership training session about sexual misconduct and hazing. What actually occurred Monday was less than helpful, both because the administration did not seem fully prepared to discuss the difficult questions of sexual harassment, but also because students were unwilling to engage in the discussion in general. The presenters read off scripts while students slept, distracted themselves with homework and laughed at the speakers, and each other.
Yes, our campus faces problems of sexual misconduct, as do many other places. And it’s good that people here were willing to question the status quo, point out those problems and make the plea to change things for the better. We should be working towards minimizing sexual harassment and encouraging a campus climate where people feel comfortable talking about issues of sexism, bad traditions and apathy. Yet when Yale’s effort to start conversations about these issues is this poorly executed, I worry that these leadership sessions were more of a public relations move than a genuine attempt to further a dialogue.
It was not an engaging presentation. It was cheesy at times. Presenters spoke in vague terms about how aligning individual values with Yale’s institutional values will prevent untoward behavior. One speaker told a story with no clear point about how she had the time of her life in a food fight her high school administration frowned on. We watched a video about a softball player, which made great points about sportsmanship and exactly no points about sexual misconduct.
The final portion, led by Hannah Peck DIV ’11 and Ben Flores ’10, was the only one relevant to the sexual climate at Yale. The rest of the session seemed to direct the conversation away from the serious issues of sexual misconduct and hazing toward a more abstract conversation about institutional values and leadership, which, though potentially useful, seemed an easy way to hide from bigger issues. Tuesday and Wednesday’s sessions may be different. But as problematic and unhelpful as Monday’s presentation may have been, I was also troubled by my own response and the responses of many of the students I observed.
I came into the session thinking this was a productive step from the administration — but also expecting to be bored. And I think many students shared this attitude of apathy. Three girls behind me even passed a flask during the presentation and constantly disrupted attempts to take the session seriously by quietly — and not so quietly — heckling the speakers. I was internally annoyed, but I did nothing to stop their behavior, even though I knew one of the girls. I just turned around and laughed at them once or twice and sank back further into my seat, disengaging. I am disappointed with myself that I was unable or unwilling to even ask them to be quiet, much less to ask them to think about what they were doing.
At one point, we were instructed to turn to our neighbors and discuss our individual and organizational values. I suspect that maybe 5 percent of the conversations that followed took these questions seriously, probably because discussing large, vague concepts like values with strangers is not comfortable.
The speaker then asked, “What are Yale’s institutional values?” After several seconds of sideways glances and stifled giggling, she sternly followed with “Silence?” which was met with laughter.
But this point is serious. If we cannot discuss Yale’s institutional values in a meeting held expressly for that purpose, how are we going to change them in our day to day interactions? We should be conscious of the way we approach problems of hazing and sexual discrimination. That awareness begins with trying seriously to talk about these issues.
I’m not saying the lecture was worth an hour and 15 minutes of busy Yale students’ time — because, due to the way it was organized, I don’t think it was — but it became a complete waste of time when the majority of students couldn’t be bothered to engage. Perhaps the administration needs to invest more fully in addressing problems of sexual misconduct. But it was students who raised these complaints, students who asked for this discussion, and if students are too apathetic to support the University’s small attempt to start this discussion — imperfect though it may be — then maybe silence has become something we value.
Zeke Blackwell is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.