VILLENA: Restructuring leadership

Earlier this year, I received an email informing me of mandatory leadership training sessions for the heads of registered student organizations. I was looking forward to the workshops, particularly the one focused on the psychology of hazing. But having attended one last week, I came away with a different perspective.

The mandatory workshops are geared toward promoting “a respectful, safe campus climate,” Dean Marichal Gentry told the News, and they focus on event planning and hazing. But these workshops are emblematic of the administration’s misguided attempt at generating a positive campus culture. The highly staged setting of these sessions is not conducive to productive conversation and present an infantilizing approach at teaching students how to be safe, effective leaders. Furthermore, they’re not structured in a way that deals directly with the specific concerns of the different types of undergraduate organizations.

The facilitators did a great job, considering the circumstances they were in. But several significant changes to the structure and script of these workshops could make better use of their skills and the participants’ time.

The Office of Student Affairs, which coordinates these sessions, should work on reducing the number of students in each, as well as segregating the kinds of undergraduate organizations present. At my session, we had representatives from the Yale Globalist and Kappa Kappa Gamma alongside students from organizations I didn’t even know existed, like the Anime Society and the Multiverse Undergraduate and Science-Fiction Association. The crossover was minimal, and the leaders had very little in common in terms of the events our organizations hold.

Though my workshop was initially supposed to be focused on hazing, the topic was switched to event planning after a quick survey revealed that only five or so out of over 20 students in the room held initiations for their organizations. To put it succinctly: It was awkward. We entered into a very scripted dialogue centered on basic questions like: What makes an event good or bad? The questions were often met with long periods of silence — students in the room did not seem willing to engage. Perhaps the demographics of my workshop contributed to the awkwardness; some of the students I spoke with who attended different sessions had more engaging experiences. But for all of us, the general takeaway was that we learned little that we hadn’t already known.

There was a weird subliminal message to the whole thing. I could tell that the workshop facilitators were trying to get at something deeper than just “events” and “leadership.” Maybe they were trying to promote the administration’s policies on alcohol, or maybe they were making grander statements about issues of consent at campus events. Whatever message they were trying to convey, they didn’t say it directly but instead used vague terms about problems that might arise at an event like “weird vibes.” Furthermore, “events” was used as a blanket term for anything that an organization might plan: a rager, a conference, a lecture or a game night. Open dialogue was dead on arrival as we tried to follow whatever vague guidelines had been set for the conversation.

The better part of the workshop was devoted to discussing hypothetical scenarios, which only added to the staged feeling of the session. One group had to give suggestions on how to improve a hypothetical event called “Pups and Pussies,” an animal adoption fundraiser that was charging a $5 entrance fee except for attendants dressed up in sexy animal costumes. I almost wish such an event were being held by an organization on campus — the public shaming that would arise out of that situation would ultimately be a more effective teaching tool than the stilted conversation we endured.

I cannot speak to the nature of the hazing workshop I have yet to attend, but my friends who have already been told me it’s much of the same. Perhaps facilitators should look to Cornell University’s model of hazing education. Its hazing website presents an honest, upfront take on the issue, exposing the hidden procedures in such a way that removes the allure of secrecy that often accompanies hazing.

Students are not opposed to being educated on how to be better leaders — just take a look at the popularity of classes like “Leadership” and “Grand Strategy.” And it’s nice that the administration is providing resources that deal with the more concrete aspects of leadership: planning events, using social media and the like. But when such resources become vehicles for a problematic approach to curbing drinking or improving campus culture, students are turned off and the likelihood of making a prolonged impact is markedly decreased.

All students at Yale have proven their capacity to lead — the administration must engage with us head-on in a way that does not condescend or underestimate our conception of appropriate behavior.

Andrea Villena is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact her at andrea.villena@yale.edu.

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