ZELINSKY: In memory of Dahl

On Point

Yesterday, we lost a great American, an outstanding scholar and an unparalleled Yalie.

nathaniel_zelinksy_headshot_by_kat_oshmanWe mourn Robert Dahl, who passed away at 98. Over the coming days, many will note Dahl’s distinguished service in the Second World War, for which he received the Bronze Star. Others will review his impressive scholarship, including the groundbreaking study and defense of democracy that is “Who Governs?” Fewer, however, will praise him for his service to Yale.

Robert Dahl played an unassuming but incredibly important part in shaping this University at crucial moments in the 1960s and 1970s. On numerous occasions, President Kingman Brewster turned to him in moments of crisis, which Dahl handled with superb aplomb.

On May 1 1969, Yale students and faculty packed the Whale to debate the status of ROTC on campus. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and opposition to the military was fierce. The thousands-strong crowd threatened to turn raucous when the moderator, Provost Charles Taylor, announced he would only accept preselected speeches. It was Dahl who replaced Taylor, calmed the crowd, and transformed a potential disaster into a civilized conversation.

Dahl was a consensus builder, someone who could balance the competing passions in the stadium that evening — and the entire campus respected him, from radical students to conservative professors.

His greatest service to the University came in a form that every academic dreads most: committees. Despite striking a personal agreement with Brewster that he not undertake this particular burden, Dahl repeatedly answered the president’s call to serve his small community.

In 1965, a committee he led established the criteria by which Yale faculty achieve tenure. The resulting document has remained a landmark to which every subsequent tenure policy has, at least in part, returned.

We have Dahl to thank for Yale adopting applicants without regard to their sex. From 1971 to 1972, he chaired the five-person Study Group on Yale College, which Brewster tasked with reinventing undergraduate education. To make a long story short, the University faced a sizable deficit at a time when the country was also rethinking the scope and purpose of higher education. Dahl’s committee was supposed to remake Yale into a financially sustainable, innovative institution.

For six months, Dahl and his four colleagues placed their professional lives on hold. They traveled the nation to investigate best practices at peer schools, interviewed every stakeholder at the University and devoured enormous reams of research. In April of 1972, the Study Group published its report, which among other suggestions called for a three-year bachelor’s degree and a tutorial system based on the Oxbridge model.

But as current undergraduates well know, Yale is still a four-year college. The faculty rejected Dahl’s more interesting recommendations, a defeat which greatly disappointed him at the time. One part of the report, however, did gain approval: a proposal to remove sex as a consideration in admissions. While women had first come to Yale in 1969, their numbers were limited. It was Dahl who fully opened the door, so that today there are as many female as male undergraduates.

Dahl’s most vital service, however, does not bear his name. He was a key member of the famous Woodward Committee, which codified the University’s policy on free speech in 1975. To this day, it remains our community’s expression of its principles: that we abhor censorship and tolerate all ideas in a quest for knowledge. Dahl wrote the report’s first section, entitled “Of Values and Priorities.” His words and their elegance speak for themselves four decades later:

“The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable … We take a chance, as the First Amendment takes a chance, when we commit ourselves to the idea that the results of free expression are to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time.”

Two paragraphs later, he went on to write that universities are “a special kind of small society.” This one is that much better off for the life and service of Robert Dahl.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a 2013 graduate of Davenport College. His senior thesis examined the Dahl and Woodward Committees.

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