Gitlin talks history of minority activism

Over the past 50 years, the push to create a more inclusive campus at Yale came from minority students themselves, according to history professor Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02.

On Thursday evening, Gitlin spoke to about 30 members of the Yale community about the history of minority groups and student activism at Yale. In his talk, which was hosted by the Yale Historical Review, Gitlin drew from his own experiences as a Yale student and from a research paper that Jasmine Zhuang ’13 originally wrote for Gitlin’s “Yale in America” course that was later published in the Review.

In relation to college admissions, the notion of “diversity” has changed significantly in recent decades, Gitlin said.

“Diversity is itself a concept, a moving target. It changes over time,” Gitlin said, adding that Yale’s version of diversity used to be primarily based on admitting students from different states and countries.

When Gitlin was a student, he said that he felt he had to hide the fact that he was Jewish because so few Jews attended Yale. In the 1960s, the University had the lowest percentage of Jews of the Ivy League school — around 10 percent — according to Marvin Arons ’48, a guest of Gitlin’s who participated in the talk.

Even when the Admissions Office began to accept applicants from different minority groups, the lack of high populations and support structures at the University made minority students feel isolated and socially ostracized.

Gitlin said an institution needs a “critical mass” of any minority group in order to prevent members of that group from feeling like token representatives and enable them to form a supportive community.

“We have made a mistake as Americans of thinking equality as the same thing as equivalency,” Gitlin said.

External forces that led the University to transform its approach toward minority students included World War II and the civil right movement of the 1960s, Gitlin said. Gitlin added that he was personally affected by these events — for example, the G.I. Bill enabled his father to attend Yale, and the Black Panther trial took place in New Haven during his senior year.

Under the leadership of former Director of Undergraduate Admissions R. Inslee Clark Jr. in the 1960s, the Admissions Office was restaffed and began to reach out to more public schools. Over the next few decades, during the tenure of former University President Kingman Brewster Jr., Yale moved toward a need-blind admission policy and began to provide more financial aid than ever before. The percentage of legacy students dropped by almost half.

Still, Zhaung’s paper stressed that students led the movement for a more diverse and welcoming campus, Gitlin said. Students founded cultural houses for different minority groups such as the Black Student Alliance, which is now known as the Afro-American Cultural Center, and the Asian-American Students Association, which is now known as the Asian-American Cultural Center. In response to student pressure for more diversity, the administration established a Minority Recruitment Committee, which Sam Chauncey ’57, a former secretary to the president who remains a Davenport fellow today, helped form. Assistant deanships that focused on the student experiences of minority groups were also created.

While Arons said the cultural houses often created a form of segregation instead of making minority students more comfortable with the rest of the student body, Gitlin disagreed.

“You’re here because it’s an opportunity to become a Yale person and then go back to your community,” Gitlin said. “I don’t think the associate deans or cultural houses are there for segregation. [They] are there so people can have a little relief, so they can speak in a comfortable way [and] so they don’t always have to be ‘others.’”

Gitlin said he thinks the cultural houses allowed minorities to engage with one another and discuss ways to improve the Yale experience for people with similar backgrounds.

During the question and answer session that followed the talk, Gitlin and audience members discussed how socioeconomic status has entered the diversity discussion. Gitlin referenced University President Peter Salovey’s freshman address this fall, in which Salovey confronted the issue of socioeconomic diversity directly in a highly public setting.

Ivonne Gonzalez ’16, who attended Gitlin’s talk, said she found the fact that a dialogue on diversity has existed at Yale for decades fascinating.

“It’s really comforting to see someone else has done it in the past,” she said.

Gonzalez said Yale still faces challenges in incorporating students from different backgrounds, though she commended programs such as Freshman Scholars at Yale — a summer program designed to ease the transition from high school to college for approximately 30 selected incoming freshmen — that provide extra assistance for students coming from different backgrounds.

Zhuang’s paper can be found on the Yale Historical Review website.

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