As I prepare to step down as dean of Yale College, I am frequently asked to reflect upon the most challenging and uplifting moments of my tenure. Without a doubt, the most challenging ones came in November 2015, when students spoke with so much pain and anger about their Yale experience. There was widespread disappointment with administrative responses (and lack thereof) to competing narratives about privilege, speech, inclusion, cultural misappropriation and the texture of the undergraduate experience.
The events of that month affected me deeply and changed the way I approach my work and how I think about the nature of a university community. I learned to listen more attentively and to be more explicit in my defense of students who feel marginalized — for any reason — on this campus. I also started paying much closer attention to the ways we communicate with each other.
We all understand that the advent and proliferation of social media have affected what we know about the world, how we share information and how we take action. It is safe to say that tweets and likes and hashtag politics have fomented radical changes in local, national and international sensibilities about citizenship and belonging. We also know that they have led to horrific acts of bullying, violence and the most opportunistic forms of political theater.
When I think about the positive and negative aspects of our socially mediated world I find myself returning to those weeks in November. They served as a powerful reminder of the good that can happen when you stop to listen to one another, when you actually make eye contact and see the person standing in front of you even if they happen to be sharing pain and anger. Sometimes you have to work hard to presume the best intentions in strangers or ideological opponents (or University administrators!), but when you are fully present in the moment you can accomplish a lot.
As you wrap up this school year let me urge all of you to reflect upon the radical, transformative potential of taking time to listen to one another, to talk with one another and to take the leap of faith — and it can be a true leap — that the stranger next to you has redeeming qualities even if that person holds views that clash with yours. I am not saying that you should abandon your beliefs or fail to push back against hackneyed or offensive ideas. You should do just the opposite. But, when you do push back and challenge, I want you to do so in authentic ways in which you are fully present in the moment. Put your phone down. All the way down. Look that stranger or classmate or teammate in the eye. Listen to what he or she or they have to say, and, in the process, take the time to recognize that individual’s basic humanity. Don’t “overhear” and post; invest in that moment. Listen and disagree if you need to. Dare to do it in person.
This last admonition may be the most important. What I take with me from those weeks in November — or from any moment that challenges our core tenets about decency, the value of complex ideas or our sense of our own mortality — is that our communities are incredibly fragile and complex, and they need constant care and attention. I can think of no more important and satisfying work than caring for and sustaining a community like this. My day-to-day experiences with Yale students demonstrate to me that so many of you feel the same way. Sometimes it is difficult to see it, but we humans are social creatures, not socially mediated ones.
I have focused my attention here on the most challenging moments of my deanship, but I want to close this column addressing the question about those moments that were the most uplifting. The answer to this is easy: It was all of those times when you saw me, and I saw you.
Jonathan Holloway is the Dean of Yale College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .