In September, the search for Yale’s next president was the hot topic. We read about it in the News and debated it in dining halls. Come October, our interest waned. The Corporation stopped emailing and students stopped caring. Now, you almost never hear someone discuss the search process or predict whom the trustees will pick.
This short attention span is troubling. Our community has abandoned a once-in-two-decades chance to discuss how we should govern the University and what its very purpose is.
In some regards, Yale’s attention deficit is not surprising. We live in an American culture captivated by the shallow 24-hour media culture. Yale can do better. Our ivory towers are supposedly the last bastion of deep thinking, a place of complex ideas and rigorous thought. Our community should have the patience to sustain a public conversation about the search for more than a month.
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It’s easy to ask why we should care. The Corporation will choose the next president in a few months. What is to be gained from rehashing a moot point? Today, our input matters little, even less than it did a month ago.
Yes, our input won’t sway the process, at least not at this point. But when we talk about who we want to replace Levin, when we talk about the ideal Yale president and when we each talk about our own vision for the University — we broach larger conversations too often avoided. And having those conversations may very well influence the priorities and actions of Yale’s next president, regardless of who he or she may be.
Pick just one topic inherent in the debate over the presidential search: the role of higher education, and specifically Yale, in America. Contrast, for instance, Kingman Brewster’s moral leadership in the turbulent 1970s with current University President Richard Levin’s reluctance to articulate his own values over the course of his tenure.
Brewster’s speeches reverberated around the country; they provided not just Yale, but America with a moral vision. And Brewster surrounded himself with like-minded men, from civil rights activist and University Chaplain William Sloan Coffin, Jr. ’50 to corporation member John Lindsay ’44, the then-mayor of New York.
In contrast, President Levin, along with much of his administration, stays out of the public limelight, both at Yale and nationally (though the recent public discussions he chaired on economics and the election are a notable exception and, from my point of view, very welcome).
When we debate whether we want a Brewster or a Levin, we debate the purpose of a place like Yale. Are we simply a business (albeit, a unique one) bent on offering products called education and research? Or are universities more than that? Are they the moral and intellectual core of a society, with a responsibility to guide our nation?
What is holding Yale back from having these conversations? In addition to our short attention span, two other factors come into play.
First, we lack the vocabulary. Most students and faculty don’t know about Yale history or the history of higher education in America. We don’t know about the Yale Report of 1828 or the Harvard Red Book, to name just two important documents in the field of university history. Without facts or precedent, it’s difficult to discuss much of anything.
Second, we lack the mechanisms to have conversations. Sure, we have dining halls, where most serious Yale discussion happen. But we often self-segregate, choosing to talk to people with the same opinion.
In an ideal world, every freshman would take a class on the purpose of higher education, with a smattering of Yale history and traditions thrown in. In addition to facilitating these conversations, such a class would impact how students approach their four years at Yale.
Admittedly, this utopian curriculum is likely a pipe dream. Instead, we can only hope that the Yalies will once regain interest in the presidential search and, in the process, ask crucial questions about the nature of the university.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a senior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .