On March 15, 2011, while most of Yale’s undergraduate students took a respite from campus over the course of spring break, 16 students and alumni filed a federal Title IX complaint against the University, launching Yale to the forefront of national discourse and opening up an ongoing conversation about the University’s modus operandi.
In the weeks and months to come, a handful of Title IX complainants went public about their involvement in the action.
To some Yalies, these individuals seemed to have taken a step out of the bounds of acceptable criticism — they had gone too far, been too vocal.
They needed to tone it down.
“I heard that a lot, even from friends who were supportive: ‘Couldn’t you have done this in a quieter way?’” said Alexandra Brodsky ’12, one of the complainants.
Brodsky is skeptical of such calls for a less public effort more sympathetic to Yale’s reputation. She points out that the complaint was seen as “a last resort after years and years of student calls for changes” and that if the University had handled the Title IX issue well, it could have clearly shown that it cared about the problem and student concerns.
“To be honest, I care more about students not getting raped than I do about the University’s reputation,” Brodsky told me, her tone firm over the phone.
To ask whether her peers agreed with that prioritization might seem ludicrous. But to question how they perceived her methods is to look at how willing they are, how willing we are, to hear negative things about an institution we worked hard to get into, elected to join — and continue to benefit from.
That question is particularly salient now, as Yale students become increasingly willing to criticize how the University is run. Over the course of the last few weeks, the newly formed Y Syndicate has encouraged students to take a more active role in administrative decisions — and especially to fight for a voice on the search committee that will select the successor to University President Richard Levin. This Thursday, the activist group Students Unite Now sent a campus-wide email echoing that sentiment.
“Only by joining together can we ensure that the Yale Corporation will listen,” the email read.
The students aligning themselves with these and other movements are joining a group of activists already well aware that their public stances put them in a challenging position. Sarah Cox ’14, a SUN leader, said the chief difficulty lies in publicly faulting a University that most students love in an a near-unconditional way.
“I think there is very much a sense of gratitude towards Yale,” she said. “Both gratitude and loyalty to the institution, which I think in some cases is actually a real block for people in terms of being able to critique what’s going on.”
Another SUN member, Y Syndicate co-founder Elias Kleinbock ’14, said that critically examining Yale often feels like “cruelly biting the hand that feeds.” Speaking softly and rapidly, he adds: “Hopefully, it’s not cruel. I want Yale to live up to its own values.”
To activists, that generally means the principle of free speech and thought, one some argue has been sacrificed on the altar of image-consciousness. Restrictions on freedom of speech at Yale-NUS are an issue; limited channels for students to communicate with administrators are cited as problematic.
Kleinbock said he feels inspired by what he sees as Yale’s original message. For other Yale undergraduates, myriad issues inspire activism, whether it’s supporting workers in dining halls or reducing the student income contribution to Yale’s financial aid plans. And even as they work to change the system that enacts these policies, these students take classes, catch up on readings and rush to their deans’ offices to turn in their schedules. They are working to change the world, but not full-time.
“I think that it’s really important for me to pay my dues to New Haven by providing services to the people whom the University-hospital economy is screwing over … I say, ‘Yale, you have not really helped to bring back manufacturing jobs to New Haven or gotten New Haven people to do your jobs — I’m going to make up for that and do what you should be doing,” says Amalia Horan Skilton ’13, a veteran of Eli involvement in the city through her former roles as Ward 1 Democratic Committee co-chair and co-director of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project. “But I don’t at any of those times make the argument that I am not a Yale student — I spend 60 hours a week going to be class, labs and libraries. That is my job in the same way that other peoples’ jobs are 9-5. You can’t dis-identify with that and be very honest.”
Maintaining that student identity opens Yale students engaged in activism up to a host of concerns. They are at once associated with this institution and yet cynical about its motives and actions, desperate to mobilize and help their peers but vulnerable to their judgments. They form communities that they find supportive but run the risk of being typecast and excluded. They feel they have to work hard to even justify their views in the first place.
After all, it’s not easy being critical.
Kleinbock was motivated to help start the Y Syndicate by anger. He was “pissed off,” he said, “seeing stories about students in Quebec striking, stopping going to class and demanding fair tuition, and the thought that couldn’t happen here.”
Activists suggest that Yalies rarely go this far in part because they feel indebted to Yale. On average, students receive $37,500 from the University, part of its commitment to meet every student’s demonstrated financial need.
Alejandro Gutierrez ’13, a current SUN leader, said he was initially apprehensive about joining a financial aid reform movement spearheaded by SUN’s predecessor, the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, for precisely this reason. As a student on full financial aid, Gutierrez said, he did not want to criticize the system that in many ways enabled his enrollment. He decided to join only after conversations with SUN activists convinced him of the adverse effects of Yale’s student income contribution policy, which asks students on financial aid to earn $3,000 per year to pay toward their schooling.
“It’s completely valid to say, ‘Why do you expect me to pay $3,000 in the summer when the things you want me to do to advance my intellectual development are not going to make me that much money?’” Skilton said.
In joining the movement, Gutierrez said he discovered a group of students who could cut through what he sees as a Yale-promoted narrative that actively discourages student critique.
“A lot of Yale students are kind of spoon-fed this narrative of Yale that is very specific: that it fosters your growth and gives you so many opportunities, things that force you to think that you should be extremely grateful to Yale,” he said. “Which is true. I am very grateful. Without Yale’s help, I’d be back home at community college.”
Instead, he came here, joining a community where many feel — as he once did — that they are bound to their institution due to what a number of activists call a “Mother Yale” complex. But Kenneth Reveiz ’12, a former UOC activist and the co-founder of the People’s Art Collective of New Haven, said the real purpose of Yale is to encourage students “to do something actively.”
Critiquing the institution can fall within that realm. And, Brodsky said, exposing Yale’s flaws can be a way of displaying love for the University.
“While the Title IX [complaint] was obviously asking the administration to change its policies, I never understood that as being against Yale,” she said. “I saw that as being for Yale.”
This may be an attitude that current students find difficult to adopt because, according to some activists, Yale’s approach to education discourages critical thoughts and actions.
“What I quickly realized [after arriving here] is that Yale as an institution isn’t trying to cultivate serious intellectual, critical thinkers — it is trying to cultivate leaders,” said Matt Shafer ’13, a former UOC member and activist with the now-defunct group Christians for Social Justice. “The ethos of public leadership is at odds with the kind of social critique.”
Now, Shafer added, he sees that the philosophy most Yalies subscribe to is a form of what he calls ‘establishment liberalism.’
With less radical thought present in the campus conversation, though, those who seek to change social structures and systems more aggressively can begin to feel alone and out of place.
Seated at the People’s Art Collective blocks away from Yale’s campus, Reveiz reminisced about his time at Yale.
“People become insanely depressed for feeling like they don’t belong,” he said.
Feeling different can manifest itself in a range of decisions for activists at Yale, from finding a community that works, be it on or off campus, to considering leaving the school entirely.
SUN leader Cox, for instance, took last semester off to live and work in New Haven for a labor union. In the fall prior to that experience, she said she had strongly considered dropping out of Yale altogether. For a time, she considered transferring to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
“I have a hard time being here,” Cox said. “It was a debate I had with myself, whether to transfer to UNC. I feel a lot of guilt going to a private school when I believe in public schools.”
After giving the matter thought, Cox came to sympathize with a different view, one rooted, she said, in a sense that to leave Yale without tackling the problems she’d identified here would be “letting [herself] off the hook.” Had she not felt at home in a community of students committed to questioning the institution, though, Cox said staying would have been “impossible.”
Reveiz emphasized that students who find Yale’s policies problematic must make an effort to find these sympathetic communities as soon as possible, lest they face the kind of political isolation he said he felt during much of his time here.
That sense is rooted in a feeling that Yalies are reluctant to think about those whose loss their privilege is based in, to use their education to tackle social issues, which makes the conversations some undergraduates would like to have simply impossible on campus.
For Cox and Nia Holston ’14, the current Ward 1 co-chair and political action chair for the Black Student Alliance at Yale, that support came in the form of a guide: LaTisha Campbell ’12.
“She was the political action chair before me,” Holston said. “I met her at Bulldog Days and told her what I was interested in. She began almost grooming me to take over her role.”
This sort of guidance is common, Holston added, helping current activists pass on their ideas and values to future ones.
At the same time, reaching out only to likely supporters can result in what a number of student activists said they saw as a larger problem within the left, one that has manifested itself on a smaller scale within Yale organizations: a lack of self-critique and self-awareness.
“The UOC had this sort of attitude of a group of people who finally found each other after moments of, ‘Are we the only people at Yale, am I the only person at Yale [who thinks in a certain way]?’” Ben Crosby ’14, Holston’s co-chair on the Ward 1 Democratic Committee, said. “There was a certain circling-the-wagons approach to a lot of the things we did, which ultimately limited our effectiveness.”
Shafer said the inability of the UOC to criticize itself from within contributed to the frustration he personally felt with the organization — though he harked back to a Yalie fix-it mindset by tacking on that it was “a failing on his part to stay within it and try to fix it.”
In a New Journal profile of SUN, the UOC’s new incarnation, UOC member Mac Herring ’12 said that she saw the organization as more concerned with effecting change than boosting its numbers.
SUN, though, seems more likely to target both goals. The organization has been surveying undergraduate students across residential colleges since the spring, sending volunteers to knock on doors and ask individuals — and even whole suites — to respond to a survey that presented facts students may not have known about the University’s policies.
Crosby, one of the leaders of the new group, summed up his philosophy about the direction he’d like to take compared to that of the UOC: “It is very easy to say that Yale students are apathetic — that’s the easy thing to say — [but] for me, the response to that cannot be, ‘So, I’m just going to sit in my little activist corner.’
“It has to be going out knocking on doors and talking to Yalies who don’t identify as leftists or activists.”
Will the student body be more receptive today than activists have perceived them to be in the past?
Thinking back to his experience with the Ward 1 campaign of now-Alderwoman Sarah Eidelson ’12, Crosby said he believes so. He said the number of students who chose to vote in that local government election broke all records he’s previously seen — and, in some way, justified a shift towards the methods the campaign asked its activists to use, which focused more heavily on interpersonal relationships and conversations than outright demands to support a cause.
“Having spoken to thousands of students,” Eidelson said, “I found that students by and large wanted to be more connected to New Haven than they were and wanted to know more about that.”
Activists even beyond the SUN platform seem largely optimistic that reaching out to more Yalies could improve their efficacy and bring more students into the fold, making critique less of an outsider move and more central to the way students here think.
For instance, the case the Y Syndicate has been making for increased student involvement in the presidential search, through emails and social networks, has piqued Yalie curiosity.
Indeed, this moment might be one of the most clear opportunities for activists to demand that Elis ensure that they have agency in the system they’ve chosen to be part of
“This presidential search is a great way for [activists] to say, ‘Look, you are not being represented — that is a physically demonstrable fact. You are not having a voice in perhaps the first important decision for the University you’re lending your name to and that’s lending its name to you for the rest of your life,’” said Kleinbock.
If that message doesn’t get through, it seems difficult to imagine what would.
Meanwhile, one’s ability to be at once a Yalie and an activist in the real world is growing, with recent progressive developments in New Haven, such as the increase in labor representation on the Board of Aldermen in last fall’s elections and the establishment of the activist umbrella organization New Haven Rising this summer, exciting the socially conscious on our campus.
Cox said that the fact the “fight is so right” in the city at present was a major deterrent to her leaving Yale.
“New Haven is such an on-fire place right now,” she said. “Things are moving here, it’s not true anywhere else. It’s such a tremendous opportunity to be part of something really big and really effective and really important, to learn how to organize and how to change the world.”
Both Cox and Crosby have taken semesters off to work with unions in New Haven. Reveiz too has reached out to platforms in the city, in his case to the New Haven’s burgeoning arts scene, due to interests and loyalties that extend beyond the University.
But engagement with the city in that form reminds Yalies, at the same time, of the privilege they are associated with in the city, and even the wider world.
“Around New Haven, I keep it very low that I went to Yale,” Reveiz said.
For Crosby, the key to engagement with those aware of his enrollment at the University was to develop the sort of relationships that enabled city residents with whom he was working to “call [him] out … if [he] was not being sufficiently aware of [his] privilege.”
Disassociating oneself from that privilege is integral, Skilton said.
“What I personally feel compelled to do is, when in conversation with someone who isn’t a Yale student, … disidentify with the wealth of Yale,” she added. “I feel the need to tell people explicitly that not everyone at Yale is rich — I don’t want people to assume that the typical Yale student is New York money.”
In the city, being a Yale student means being associated with memories of urban planning gone wrong, grievances from the past and divisions of which everything from Yale’s freshman orientation to New Haveners’ responses to Yale police emails remind us.
On campus, being a critic means taking a look at where one stands, how one benefits and what one would change.
At no point, though, does the Yale student brand of activism incorporate comfort with the status quo or tradition for tradition’s sake.
“I feel zero need to identify with Yale,” Skilton said. “I want Yale to look more like me.”