STERN: The face in the president’s office

A Stern Perspective

For the majority of its existence, Yale did not count most minorities — or women, for that matter — among its students. Yale’s name was practically synonymous with lily-white, WASPish, moneyed roots. But we are now living in the 21st century. It is time to show the world — and prospective applicants — that Yale is a changed place. It is time for Yale to appoint a woman, a gay person or a minority as its next president.

There are those who will loudly demand (or have already demanded) that the next president must be the absolute best possible candidate, no matter his or her gender, ethnicity or sexuality. The assumption here is that race, gender and sexuality contribute nothing to a candidate; degrees, job experience and vision are all that matter.

This logic is predicated on a faulty assumption. Those who follow it do not understand that life experiences are as important a qualification as one’s alma mater or previous employer. Minorities, women and gay people are not solely defined by their race, gender or sexual orientation, but each of those things is an important part of who they are. And the adversity they may have experienced — or the broader worldview they possess — can enrich an institution looking to the future. When it comes to choosing Yale’s next president, I am in favor of a strict meritocracy, but merit is not limited to what is on a résumé.

Universities should not seek diversity for diversity’s sake — as a mere bragging right — but for the varied perspectives it brings to a campus. To Brown, in 2001, a president unlike her predecessors brought a unique sense of empathy that demystified Brown for poor kids. Ruth Simmons, the daughter of a sharecropper and the product of segregated schools, became the institution’s first minority president.

Simmons grew up in the desperately poor, staunchly racist world of Houston’s Fifth Ward. A black woman in the Jim Crow South, she was not expected to attend college. After spending a semester at the prestigious, primarily white Wellesley College, Simmons realized she could compete intellectually with wealthy whites. “Now I knew the truth, and an electric bolt went through me,” she recalled in an interview years later. She had always been told she was inherently inferior, yet she overcame the institutionalized and socialized bigotry.

As president of Brown, Simmons was instrumental in securing a $100 million donation to eliminate loans for Brown students. Would a president from a more privileged upbringing have understood the need to lessen the load for poor students?

Mere months into Simmons’s tenure, she gave a major address following the 9/11 terrorist attacks; surrounded by fear and rage, Simmons spoke passionately about combating prejudice and embracing tolerance. Would a president who did not viscerally understand bigotry and hate have understood the complex emotions after a national tragedy in such a nuanced way?

Simmons also brought something more important to Brown: the appearance that the school was a modern and accepting place. That Brown — a member of the historically notoriously white Ivy League — would choose a black woman as its president proved how far the institution had come. It admitted the university’s less-than-accepting past, acknowledged the unique challenges minorities and women seeking to succeed in higher education face, and accepted a world that is changing.

For every $100 white men earn, white women earn $80.50, black men earn $74.50 and black women earn $69.60. African-Americans and Hispanics were stopped roughly nine times as often as whites under New York’s stop-and-frisk law, and black men are in prison at rates six times those of white men. Even ignoring the issue of gay marriage, gay people have trouble obtaining all manner of benefits from the government, and homosexual sodomy laws were still on the books until 2003.

Bigotry is real and pervasive. The challenges women and minorities and gay people face should not be ignored; rather, we should use the wisdom they can glean from those unique challenges.

Appointing a female or a minority or a gay president would not be affirmative action; it would be Yale acting in its own self-interest. We could all benefit from a president with a more nuanced worldview and a true understanding of adversity. We could all benefit from the appearance — and, more important, the reality — that Yale is an accepting and wholly modern place.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    Vermont elected a Jewish woman as governor TWO DECADES ago.

  • River_Tam

    I find this column morally repugnant (and sophomoric in both language and tone, but that’s a given).

    Dr. King exhorted our nation to judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. To suggest that Dr. Simmons was appointed for her skin color, or that her compassion and wisdom was the result of her melanin rather than her character is disgusting. Sure, her experiences shaped her personality, but that’s true of everyone.

    Suggesting that women, gays, and racial minorities inherently have something more to offer than a straight white man is the DEFINITION of racism and of sexism.

    You know who would bring a varied perspective to the Yale President’s Office?

    Computer Science Professor David Gelernter is a conservative on a campus that’s not AND a visionary writer and computer scientist (Yale needs more leaders with backgrounds in the mathematical disciplines). He also survived an attack by the unabomber, so if you want “varied life experiences” and “overcoming diversity”, you got it. But wait – he’s white. And a dude. And straight. Negative points for being Jewish (Levin was Jewish – can’t have the same religion in charge two turns in a row). Plus points for being Orthodox though.

    Do you see how ridiculous it is?

    >The assumption here is that race, gender and sexuality contribute nothing to a candidate; degrees, job experience and vision are all that matter.

    Race, gender, and sexuality do not inherently contribute anything to a candidate. They shape every person’s experiences, but they do not make them a better or worse person for. Someone is not a better or worse candidate for being white or for being black. They are not a better or worse candidate for having sex with men, women, or both.

    • MapleLeaf14

      Wait, so is all affirmative action or race-conscious admissions “morally repugnant”?

      • River_Tam

        I’m a little offended by race-conscious college admissions on a personal level. I think the offensiveness increases the higher up the ladder we take it though, since with each incident the insult, condescension, and racism is compounded.

        We admit a student by taking race into account. And then we give admit her to grad school taking race into account. And then we give her a professorship because she’s the best qualified racial minority available.. And then she gets tenure because of her race and heck, we need more black professors, more women professors, or both. And then we appoint her President because we need a black, female President?

        It’s disgusting. I can almost see the point of view of someone who supports race-based affirmative action for college admissions (I still disagree with it wholeheartedly, but I respect it at as a position). But we’re comparing distinguished scholars who have years of professional experience and we still boil it down to race?

        Wholly disgusting.

        • jamesdakrn

          Yeah I just can’t see how a minority student from Exeter or Andover should be given preferential treatment in admissions. They should just get rid of anything about race and focus on socioeconomic hardships that the person may have faced.

    • RexMottram08

      +1000 for David Gelernter.

  • eli1

    It is time for Yale to appoint a gregarious white male with a great mustache. His name is Peter Salovey. He is clearly the most qualified. If anyone besides him gets the job we will all know it is due to affirmative action and not qualifications to lead.

  • RexMottram08

    We already tried an affirmative action Presidency… where has that gotten our country?

    8.3% unemployment

    • ohno

      lol. that’s all

  • cincinnatus

    River_Tam,

    If you are so disgusted by affirmative action, then I imagine that you must be disgusted by the longest running and most pervasive instance in the history of western civilization — the “good ol’ boys’ club” that has ensured that white males were almost exclusively in positions of power in this country and in Europe until the 1960s.

    Affirmative action for women and underrepresented groups has not resulted in the disenfranchisement of white men, despite the hysterical narratives of right-wing conservatives who are very slightly less likely to dominate everything than they were before. This mild corrective has hardly caused the collapse of the long-existing structures of white male privilege, and those who oppose it so stridently and mask their opposition in a desire for a so-called “color-blind” society would seemingly prefer a return to society in which women are seen but not heard and in which ethnic minorities are on the whole not seen at all.

    • River_Tam

      Yes, you caught me. I am seeking a return to a society where women are seen but not heard and in which ethnic minorities are not seen at all. It’s just my privilege showing.

    • Stephanie_Nichole

      I certainly can’t speak for River_Tam, but as I share a similar view point on this issue I would like to answer your goading comment. I absolutely agree that the supremacy of white males in society is a situation that required (and to some extent, still does require) remedy but I disagree that affirmative action is the appropriate way to go about this. When I say that applicants for any given position; be it university students, company workers, or the position of Yale president; should be looked at on merit alone, I mean merit alone. I would even espouse a system in which race and gender are completely expunged from the application, in order to prevent any bias on the part of the recruiter.

      Your argument that a “color-blind” society would result in a return of racism and sexism presupposes that all people currently in positions of hiring are racist and sexist. I disagree that this is so, but even if your assumption held true, I think that the best course of action should be to change the viewpoints of those people and all those who will follow in those positions, not artificially skew the application process.

      On a more personal note, I find affirmative action a bit insulting. To me it seems to say that women and minorities (I belong to both categories) are not quite as good as the rest and therefore need a leg-up if they are going to have a chance to succeed. Because of this, I decline to include my race or ethnic background on any sort of application; gender, of course, is rather impossible to leave out.

      • cincinnatus

        The problem with your ideas around merit, Stephanie, is that it presumes that everyone has the same starting point — and clearly they do not. Some people start, to use the anology of a race, very close to the finish line — and thus no one should be surprised when they win.

        Affirmative action is, undoubtedly, a crude mechanism. But it is no worse than the prevalent system whereby one is selected because of his similarity in terms of life experience, gender, race, education, and the like.

        I, too, wish that we could live in a society in which merit were the primary factor for consideration — but let’s not pretend that the reason white men of certain educational and class backgrounds are so dominant in this society (and only now is this dominance showing any signs of lessening, outliers like Obama notwithstanding) is because they have so much more merit than anyone else. It simply isn’t true.

    • CrazyBus

      I think you missed River_Tam’s point.

  • The Anti-Yale

    To River Tam’s point about submisssion I offer this quote from Margaret Farley’s book, gloriously censured by Pope Benedict XVI:

    “Anyone who thinks carefully about experiences in families [ and that includes the Yale Presidential Search Committee 'family' ] is in favor of transforming practices that are oppressive, although there is not always a consensus about what counts as oppression and what transformation should look like . . .

    Structures of marriage, for example, that retain inequality between husband and wife — the one the ‘head’ or leader, the other the ‘helper’; the one by stipulation the breadwinner, the other economically dependent; the one the representative of the family to society and church, the other only the ‘represented’ — can severely limit or prohibit the full functioning of marriage and the attainment of its goals” (p. 259, 265,6)

    Margaret Farley

    A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

    My addition:

    It is the family itself which is a tutorial for the transmission from one generation to the next of power structures in our society.

    Unless the members of the Search Committee were raised in a
    matriarchy or an egalitarian partnership, they will inexorably mimic the choreography danced by their own family in the first five years of their life.

    Freud said it, and the Roman Catholic Church echoed it in my lifetime: “Give me a child for the first five years of his[her] life, and you can have him[ her] after that.”

    PK

    • jamesdakrn

      What?

  • The Anti-Yale

    Boiled down: We’re sexist clones, passing on patriarchal power structures including Ivy League presidencies.

    (EXCEPTION (Interruption?): Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust.)

  • tomago1

    What an absolutely preposterous ignorant diatribe by someone whose life experience consists solely of a well-worn library card. Defining someone by their outward appearance or sexual preference is **the de facto definition**of prejudice.

    The author of this article has taken the path of least resistance; i.e., select someone for a position via contrived political sanctimony, since it is easier and more publicly gratifying than actually including those based on character and competency.

    You don’t get any higher ratings on the “I’m-so-non-biased-everyone-applaud” meter, by writing disingenuous rhetoric that insults anyone whose resume expands beyond the womb of their parents’ basement.

    Take a guess, bucko, what race am I…or would that “color” your judgment?

  • cincinnatus