Cameras rolled, questions were fired out and stock phrases — “conversation with the administration,” “high-impact changes,” “real leadership is critical” — were bandied around like colorful sunglasses in the hands of Spring Fling revelers. The Yale College Council Election Debate on April 7 was a chance for the three Yalies competing to lead the council to outline their positions and to display what they had to offer.
In doing so, they were trying to entice more than the 57 percent of the student body that, according to a survey conducted by the News recently, plans to vote in the upcoming elections for the YCC Executive Board of 2012-’13. With 25 percent of students stating that they are undecided about whether to vote and 6 percent responding with an “I don’t know,” the electorate is far from clearly defined. Candidates are scrambling for every vote, making use of viral videos, Facebook and endorsements from over-eager friends.
But the results of this election might depend less on the campaigns or positions of each candidate than on Yalies’ faith in this campus’ system of student government. What next year’s — or any — YCC board focuses on and gets done is a function of how seriously students participate beyond the election season.
Four days after the debate, the YCC Executive Board of 2011-’12 released the 2011-’12 Annual Report, the first report of its kind since 2009. After five paragraphs outlining why the document is important, what this year’s Council has accomplished and which projects remain in the works, the report stated, “Above all, we have worked to ensure that the YCC acts as a mouthpiece for the student body.”
The concept of the YCC as a mouthpiece is not new, but when Courtney Pannell ’11 unsuccessfully ran for YCC president in 2010, she saw the voice in that mouthpiece coming from a different source.
“While I was running, I thought the YCC functioned as the administration’s mouthpiece to the student body,” she said. Pannell is a former multimedia editor for the News.
“If you took a poll about how many people felt the YCC championed their ideas, I don’t think the majority of the student body would say it did,” she added.
That concern doesn’t seem to deter candidates. Elections for next year’s Executive Board have been in full swing for a week. Voting ends at 9 p.m. tonight and student voters have been told at every turn and in every dining hall whom they should support.
Each candidate has a marginally distinct idea about what the YCC can and should do. Meanwhile, outgoing President Brandon Levin ’13 described himself as “very much a realist” about the YCC’s role. He said acting as a megaphone for student interests is part of the YCC’s job.
But for all the hype, 32 percent of Yalies describe themselves as “neither interested nor uninterested” in this year’s board elections, and 42 percent express some level of disinterest.
Sophie Nethercut ’14, a member of campus activist group Students Unite Now — formerly called the Undergraduate Organizing Committee — is not alone when she argues that the YCC is known for implementing small changes that add to student life but “stay[ing] away from controversial issues.”
The Annual Report includes photographs of laundry bins installed in residential colleges under the “Laundry Bin Program” and a description of the new YCC website among the accomplishments of the outgoing board.
Jimmy Murphy ’13, who ran for president against Levin last year, said a statement he overheard on Science Hill recently may well sum up perceptions of the YCC’s focus and abilities — “There needs to be a handle on the door of [Sterling Chemistry Lab]! I’m going to write to the YCC about this.”
“They may contribute in positive ways, but these small acts, unless they’re united by something much bigger, don’t change the conversation,” Nethercut said.
Yet Obaid Syed ’14, a Jonathan Edwards College representative on the council, argued that Yale students need to make a greater effort to have their voices heard by the council.
“When people think they have a problem, they don’t go to the YCC,” Syed said. “People have to make better use of the people who represent them.”
So is the megaphone Levin speaks of faulty, or are we just not picking it up?
PLAYING HOUSE WITH MARICHAL GENTRY
Perhaps what YCC members are most likely to tell you up front is that the strength of their organization lies in its ties with the Yale administration.
“By consolidating the student government and student representatives into one body, and having one point of access between students and administrators, you allow messages to be more condensed and stronger from one point,” Levin said. “So much of our successful policy this year was the result of collaboration and developing a relationship that was genuine.”
Describing the process of policy reform as “top-down,” Syed said the YCC often reintroduces issues that have a precedent and allows administrators to “mull them over” for a year or two before pushing for significant reform.
“In terms of setting trends, the YCC hasn’t been able to invoke policies that are very innovative,” he added, explaining that doing so would make the administration “queasy.”
Calling the platforms of some of the current candidates to succeed him “adversarial,” Levin said the YCC must engage administrators, as they have the ultimate power to enact broad-based policy changes.
Twenty-four percent of respondents to the News’ survey said they believe Levin’s administration has been more effective than any since 2008-’09. Compared to 45 percent stating that they do not know which board merits that plaudit, and 14 percent (the third-largest proportion) awarding it to that of the president before Levin, Jeff Gordon ’12, this is a significant number.
Omar Njie ’13, vice president for 2011-’12, said he and Levin were fortunate to have a good relationship with the Yale College Dean’s Office before taking over.
Improvements they made, Njie said, include a greater culture of “advertising achievements” via concise emails, a greater focus on public relations, and cooperation with groups like the International Students’ Organization and representatives of Greek life.
After our interview, Njie promptly left for his last official meeting with Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry.
Njie credited his close relationship with Gentry, and Levin’s with Yale College Dean Mary Miller, with “making this year a lot more efficient in terms of bringing more proposals.”
“I don’t think most students have a clear mental picture about what the interaction between YCC members and administrators looks like,” former president Gordon said. “It’s tough because on the one hand, it would be nice to give students a clear narrative … but, on the other hand, the crucial relationship with those people relies on discretion and the understanding that the YCC won’t go complaining to the [News] about which administrator is being intransigent.”
Levin said his approach was similar to Gordon’s; the latter described it as a case of not reinventing the model but tackling the same issues across a range of years.
But Nethercut, who in her role at Students Unite Now organizes direct action campaigns and seeks to address campus issues she believes other groups neglect, said the YCC’s working relationship with the administration can lead to a reluctance for the council to challenge University officials.
“There’s a point where some issues will inevitably challenge the administration,” Nethercut said. In a frustrated tone, she added, “The YCC bills itself as caring about and representing students, but what happens when student interests conflict with those of the administration?”
Alexandra Brodsky ’12, a former co-coordinator of Dwight Hall and a signatory of last year’s Title IX complaint, said she would like to see the council fighting for more “meaningful” changes but does not see that as likely.
“It seems that the council has such little power in the face of the secretive, faceless Yale [Corporation] that it’s unlikely ever to take such a controversial stand [as mixed-gender housing for all],” Brodsky said. “It seems, then, that the generally conservative nature of the YCC is less a matter of the individuals involved … than the structure of the council within the context of the larger University administration.”
Gordon and Levin believe students must be more aware of what they describe as the process for change at Yale.
“A lot of the most interesting, most popular issues are out of the reach of a single YCC contingent,” Gordon said. He explained that he believes three to five years of YCC boards must focus on a particular policy change to make it a reality, meanwhile undertaking efforts such as fostering discussions among the individual representatives at meetings and conducting polls to convince administrators of student support.
“And frankly,” added the former president, “I think this is a very reasonable way to decide [what issues students care about].”
The recent introduction of gender-neutral housing for juniors is an example of such an approach, according to Syed. The policy was first proposed in 2009, he said, and was considered by administrators until 2012, by which time they considered it viable.
In an interview with the News last week, Gentry also cited the expansion of gender-neutral housing as an instance of building on a policy over some years. He said it must be noted that the YCC is a one-term institution, while the University is not.
Former president Gordon expressed sympathy for the idea that administrators must take a long-term view of pressing student life issues. “If you’re an administrator, you’re concerned with how students are affected over a five- to 10-year scale,” Gordon said. “You’re interested in the future. They’re interested in what students now have to say, but they are interested in a broader perspective so they’re less likely to become agitated and shift policy back and forth.”
“Some of these issues aren’t going to be resolved in one academic year,” Gentry said.
He also praised the transfer of power and continuity of focus between the Gordon and Levin administrations.
While it may seem admirable to him, however, that kind of development isn’t visible to the student community. And that, Levin said, can be “unfortunate” for the Council’s reputation.
Nethercut, for instance, said that it is important for the YCC to show students the process behind its work, not just results. She condemned a ‘behind closed doors’ approach, and suggested that “the final result is less satisfactory than it would be if students were engaged throughout the whole process.”
“It appears we’re not doing anything,” Levin conceded. “Hopefully, the end result will pardon the couple of weeks of people thinking we’re not doing anything because we don’t want to upend or undermine [our efforts].”
Levin added that not having meetings, say, plastered on the front page of the News helps maintain a level of trust with administrators.
But it may cost them the confidence of students, according to Gordon. “I kind of doubt that students trust the YCC as strong advocates for policy change,” he said, “and that’s because the process of changing policy is slow, obscure, invisible and hard to relate to.”
Evidence of the YCC’s most intensive work is located in places not open to the student body, such as an online database Syed described which holds information such as survey results from past administrations, candidacy platforms, and proposals both successful and rejected.
“It’s a very long process,” Syed said.
Gordon stands by it: “It’s still worth doing.”
DEVELOPING A WORKABLE MODEL
The current model of YCC organization developed from changes brought about by Rebecca Taber ’08, said Pannell.
“Before Rebecca Taber, the YCC was very much unnecessarily bureaucratic,” Pannell said. “Taber introduced the idea of committees, developing sections of the YCC that champion specific issues and make connections with administrators over those issues.”
Having observed the administrations of Rich Tao ’10, Jon Wu ’11 and Gordon, Pannell said she did not see a great deal of change following Taber’s precedent.
Peter Croughan ’12, who ran against Gordon and Pannell for president and served as chair of the Spring Fling Committee for 2008-’09, said the committee model can lead to “entirely basing policy on the opinions of elected officials.”
“They try to evaluate student opinion quantitatively for every issue, but that has marginal returns, because more and more people get tired of responding to surveys,” he added. “There’s no one solution, and that’s where town halls and campus-wide discussion events come in.”
Pannell said she would have liked to see more groups outside the YCC, such as athletic teams and the Women’s Center, brought in to work with the committees. That same policy was suggested by Rustin Fakheri ’12, who unsuccessfully ran against Levin last year.
However, Gordon claimed that YCC members’ involvement with other organizations may enable them to identify specific issues those groups might want to lobby for, Gordon said.
“Outside the [Executive Board], most of the 24 YCC members have some other activity or commitment that is a larger part of their Yale experience than YCC,” he added. “What this means is that the members of the council tend to be pretty well informed about what students are talking about.”
In addition, some student groups have approached the YCC to work on specific issues, Levin said, citing the example of the LGBTQ Co-op and its involvement in the push for gender-neutral housing.
Yoshi Shapiro ’11, a former co-coordinator of the Co-op, said the YCC was “pretty involved” in the passage of the first proposals for gender-neutral housing, and helped engender support for the idea among diverse groups on campus.
“When the Corporation blocked it for a year, there was a huge student outcry,” Shapiro recalled. “A lot of it was people in the LGBTQ community, but a lot was other people, and part of the reason why so many other people got involved was because the YCC helped make it an issue.”
While praising the YCC in that specific instance, she was clear about how organizations like the Co-op function: on the basis of opportunity and the strength of their contacts at any given point in time.
“Sometimes, your best connection is to talk to your YCC rep,” Shapiro said. “But I also think that if you maybe know the director of the office of LGBTQ resources, and your group has an issue, sometimes that’s who you’ll go to.”
OTHER, BETTER RESOURCES — ELSEWHERE
Today, the LGBTQ Co-op is looking for different allies for its advocacy efforts, in large part because of a disenchantment with the YCC.
Speaking about her attempts to challenge the reintroduction of ROTC to campus because of the program’s stated exclusion of transgender students, Amalia Horan Skilton ’13, a LGBTQ Co-op board member, said she has brought up the ethical issues surrounding the question multiple times, and seen no follow-through on the YCC end.
“There are much better advocates to the administration than the YCC,” said Skilton, citing specific administrators responsible for certain issues, and arguing that, were she to have “a huge problem” as a queer person, she would approach Maria Trumpler, the director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources.
Murphy who ran against Levin for president and served on the YCC for two years, said it ”killed” him to see Co-op members present to the YCC committee and then have council representatives not discuss their decisions’ implications thoroughly enough.
Repeated attempts to engage the YCC, and the limited response she received, Skilton said, have convinced her that the council is not the right forum for her to push for reform.
Skilton’s sentiments were echoed in interviews with other leaders on campus. The YCC often is not the first port of call for student organizations attempting to effect policy changes on campus.
Nia Holston ’14, political action chair of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, said she would not approach the YCC over support for advocacy issues because the idea would never occur to her.
Fakheri said student groups can often go to the administration directly with many of their concerns; Gentry, in his interview, made a similar point.
“The YCC has been able to bring up any issue and present it to any committee that’s out there, because they can do that — any student group can do that,” Gentry said.
And with that option open, negative experiences with the YCC can mean that groups simply choose not to take a direct path to administrators. Croughan said that, under administrations prior to those of Gordon and Levin, “the only exposure some groups had to the YCC was when it made a decree that impacted [their] life, or didn’t approve [their] reservation.”
Brodsky said she did not even consider seeking YCC support for the Title IX complaint because the council seemed to her to be less of an advocate for student voices than a student extension of the administration.
Speaking specifically in reference to the Title IX complaint, Syed said the council had to consider student support for issues, and could not take steps if they would be seen as “political.”
“We couldn’t say it unless the Corporation and the administration could say it,” he added. “The student body has been split over the sexual misconduct question; Broad Recognition and the Women’s Center have made very good proposals, and I personally agree with them, but the YCC can’t.”
But Skilton said the YCC must also recognize problems that are tied not to what all Yale students but to specific policy changes that could make the Yale experience better for some students.
She added that tackling points of contention, such as Yale’s policies towards transgender students, is also part of managing and bettering the student experience on campus.
“The YCC can be a voice for students with the administration on issues on which [Yale] has decided not to move, such as Yale HEALTH providing comprehensive trans-related care to all employees but deciding that students do not get that medical care,” Skilton said. “There’s no reason not to be.”
Nethercut said the YCC must present students with larger issues, such as financial aid, Yale-New Haven relations or Yale investments, as it has the “voice and power” to do so. She suggested forums, discussions and polls as potential ways for the Council to engage students about these “deeper issues and bigger ideas.”
Citing the question of UCS becoming more accessible to central campus, Skilton said the YCC can often choose to focus on matters that “affect [her] Yale experience a little bit,” but that these problems pale in comparison to an issue that affects students’ college experience, such as a student income contribution that requires students on financial aid to work multiple summer jobs and the denial of health care to trans students.
There’s a reason for this, Murphy said, secure in the Davenport Dive, the heart of the residential college that formed the core of his presidential campaign.
“The YCC is a very conciliatory body,” he added. “They want to get change, and it’s easier to get small changes if they’re very polite and very nice about it — summer storage is not a philosophical change, it doesn’t question values.”
How that affects Yale at large is a cause of concern for Nethercut, who is currently trying to involve 500 students in a Students Unite Now march for jobs on April 25.
“It only contributes to what’s already a high level of apathy on this campus when the student governing body is unwilling to tackle issues that are really weighty and substantive,” Nethercut said.
An image problem is another significant reason student organizations view the council as peripheral to their efforts, some YCC insiders said.
“There are broader Yale cultural issues, like some aversion to your classic type-A high school go-getter-type people that students associate with their high school student governments,” Croughan said, hastening to add that he believes that stereotype is incorrectly applied to the YCC.
Pannell said student organizations on campus are likely to view the YCC as attracting a certain type of individual, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and result in the council not necessarily being representative of the student body.
“I don’t remember if we ever had an athlete,” she said.
Because a large proportion of YCC members do have high school student government experience with experiences like organzing dances, Fakheri said, they are often oriented towards the events part of the YCC’s traditional events-policy divide. To him, paying attention to those events is “legitimate, very tangible and usually successful.”
Still, he added, student organizations with specific causes attract another kind of person, who may be more “gung-ho” about pushing for change, and more willing to put in the energy and time to bring about parituclar reforms.
To Croughan, it seems that YCC committees’ focus depends on the priorities of the representatives on that specific body. He proposed boosting that representativeness, again with individuals from across campus organizations.
But the YCC’s image and perception on campus are a barrier to that development.
“What Rebecca Taber gave the YCC was both a blessing and a curse,” Fakheri said. “She made it a much more legitimate organization … but what she also did in legitimizing it was make it a position people wanted for the sake of another laurel.”
Perhaps, he added, if the YCC were seen as less official and “legitimate,” it could be more effective.
“I would love it to be an organization where the people who run are the people who are genuinely interested in specific initiatives,” Fakheri said. He floated the idea of a YCC comprising representatives of different student organizations, a concept Nethercut discussed as well.
She said that she believes the YCC would pay attention if students were to rally together in larger numbers and create a bigger stir. Yet, Nethercut added, “the problem becomes then that if you can mobilize and organize enough students to get noticed, why even go through the YCC?”
If one reimagines the YCC as a student-driven coalition of interests, it could actually be the ideal forum for activists like Nethercut, who said that students’ otherwise-powerful voice can be much less effective when splintered across various organizations.
“It becomes less defining, less powerful and, ultimately, less effective,” Nethercut said. “If we can unite under one organization, the possibilities for change are right here.”
WHO GIVES A FLYING VOTE?
The YCC might not be that organization. But considering the state of activism and student protest at Yale, it’s doubtful whether any group will or can be.
Mac Herring ’12 has spent years organizing Yalies. She managed Alderwoman Sarah Eidelson’s ’12 campaign last semester; she became involved with the now-defunct Undergraduate Organizing Committee her freshman year. And sitting at Blue State on a sunny afternoon, after half an hour of off-the-record straight talk, she said that she is uncertain about the capacity of Yale students to change the status quo.
“Yale’s a really static place,” Herring said. “It’s really hard to articulate these things, because students don’t talk to each other about issues like class and financial aid packages.”
She continued: “We do not have a space within this institution to articulate our discontent.”
And that’s what she and Nethercut have seen the UOC and Students Unite Now, its new incarnation, as being able to do. But as for the prospects of such developments coming through the YCC, student advocates both on and outside the council spoke about its limitations with a certain weariness.
What’s stopping students from making the trek to that meeting, or even putting it on their Google Calendars, seems to be the way they think.
“It’s almost not the YCC’s problem; it’s other students not holding them accountable for what they’re doing,” Nethercut said. To her, it seems that Yalies have a sense of “complacency” around larger issues.
“Take Yale-New Haven relations,” she suggested. “Everyone will say they want them to be better, but how many are actually telling their student representatives to do something about these things? I’d love to know how many students have actually talked to their reps about the big issues that need to be discussed.”
If students were to propose that the council tackle such problems, Fakheri said he believes YCC members would sit up and take notice.
Skilton is not so sure.
“There’s not a sense of what the problems are because people don’t want to talk about them,” she said. “It’s a culture of silence, right? … It’s a cultural problem. And the YCC is not innocent.”
And yet, according to Syed, as intimidating as the YCC may seem to outsiders, it is “literally just people in a random room in WLH or LC.”