Scene cover: Going into withdrawals

Late spring 2009, Pat Agnis ’11 withdrew from Yale. (Pat asked that we use a fictional name because she did not want to hurt her chances of readmission.) She had first considered leaving college over spring break but only tendered her official withdrawal a few days before reading period. Failing classes, far behind in distribution requirements, Pat was “over school,” she explained.

Having received no credit and no tuition dollars back on a semester-long investment of time and money, Pat is currently working in an undisclosed northeastern city undercover for a labor union (otherwise known as “salting”), saving up money and waiting to reapply. Her parents strongly disapprove of her decision to withdraw, and her decision has wreaked havoc on her family’s financial situation and Pat’s relationship with her father.

Every year, an unknown number of students withdraw from Yale, for reasons ranging from bad grades to bad health. (The University does not to keep statistics on this phenomenon, both the deans of admissions and readmissions said.)

When discussing Yale’s withdrawal and readmissions processes, a range of complicated issues immediately come into play — mental health and suicide not the least among them. More than 10 students interviewed, who have ever withdrawn or applied for readmission to Yale, said they think the process of readmission could be easier on the emotional health of undergraduates, more sensitive to their specific needs and more transparent.

In response, University officials say they do what they can to bring students back and that students who want to come back can do so.

“If you think about how hard it is to get into Yale, it’s pretty easy to get readmitted,” Dean Mary Miller commented Thursday. “I have overruled the committee before when the committee declined to grant readmission because each case is individual,” she added.

Still, Jill Cutler, who served as dean of readmission for over 30 years until this August, said this summer that there is room for improvement.

“We could be better. Yes, the process could be better,” Cutler said.

Regardless of circumstance, all who leave Yale more than 10 days into a semester must apply for their readmission. Which, by the report of those interviewed, can be an extremely trying process.

21 years old and a second-semester junior with only 19 credits from Yale to her name, Pat, in withdrawing from Yale, has rolled the dice and struck out on her own. The car pulled away from her old house on Howe Street last week, and Pat plunged into the uncertain months to come.

Handwritten

The letter Pat received from her dean notifying her that she had been “formally withdrawn” was hand-addressed. Such a touching flourish framed a notice that would throw Pat’s life so far off course.

With its strange punctuation, shifting verb tenses, and unexplained commands, the lingo concerning readmission can be rather Kafkaesque. Pat’s letter read: “Students who are not in academic good standing, i.e., students who withdrew while a term was in progress… [sic] must ordinarily complete the equivalent of at least two term courses, either in Yale Summer Programs or at another college or university, earning grades of A or B… [sic].”

The next page in the envelope read: “[Pat Agnis], 2010, ID Number 651489478, JE, withdrew for personal reasons.” Pat still isn’t sure if she herself withdrew or was withdrawn.

“I think I withdrew myself,” said Pat.

There are two ways not to finish a semester. One is to withdraw, which happens for personal, medical, academic or disciplinary reasons. The other is to take a leave of absence, the University-approved way of exiting a semester.

Students who withdraw are required to take two college credits before they can apply for readmission. Those credits can come from Yale Summer Session, where the price of a single class is $2500. For Pat, the two-class requirement poses the most costly and stressful chore in the withdrawal procedure. As she has assessed the situation, Pat can either take a “shitty night school course,” “save up money,” or “take out a loan.”

Pat lived off-campus in New Haven this summer with Hans Schoenburg ’10 and Kiki Turner ’11. The three were taking classes at Yale Summer Session (which counts for readmission credit) to try to catch up with their peers, though Pat eventually dropped out of her classes. “2007 ravaged our circle of friends,” Pat said. “We’re all depressives.”

Schoenburg almost found himself in the same situation. When Schoenburg told Yale last summer that he intended to leave school for cancer treatment, administrators, he felt, were pushing him toward the medical-withdraw option when he also could have done otherwise. “When a doctor from the Yale-New Haven Hospital called and I learned what that a medical withdrawal actually meant,” he said, “I told Yale to put me down as a leave of absence instead, because it’s so much easier.”

Even under the leave of absence program, Schoenburg says he felt marginalized when Yale deactivated his e-mail accounts and made him send his ID card back from Albuquerque.

“Yale systematically alienated me from the campus,” he said.

Throughout the evening, Schoenburg and Pat referred to the University as “a conservative, money-making operation posing as a liberal arts education.”

Denied

Takishima, who also requested we withhold his real name, lives alone on the top floor of an off-campus apartment. Although he has not attended Yale for almost two years, he has lived on its periphery since late summer 2008.

Takishima left via the medical-withdrawal option for clinical depression, which qualified him as a mental health case. As such, he was required to reapply when he wanted to return to school and, just like Pat, needed to complete two classes in the interim.

Taking two semesters away from his pre-med curriculum to recoup on the West Coast, Takishima got A’s and B’s in both of his summer classes at a local university, all the while working as an emergency medical technician.

But when Takishima reapplied for Spring 2008, he was denied readmission. The denial was sent by e-mail, and without what he felt was a valid explanation. Yale said he was “not psychologically ready to return or something,” Takishima explained. But Takishima thought he was ready.

When I spoke to Takishima this summer in his apartment, he said he still had no idea what else he could have done. He had felt confident throughout the readmission process. Takishima claimed he has never felt suicidal nor made statements along those lines to anyone at Yale.

The following is a copy of the e-mail Takishima received in late December 2008:

“Dear Mr. Takishima:

I am writing to report that the Committee on Readmission has declined to approve your return to Yale College for the Spring term, 2008-2009.

Should you be interested in returning to Yale at some future point, you must contact the Committee on Readmission again to initiate the process. Please note that the deadline for initiating written contact with our committee about a return to a spring term is September 30; for a fall-term readmission, the equivalent deadline is April 30. Once you write to the committee stating your intentions and requesting an application, the committee will respond with a new application form and a letter reviewing the steps that you will have to take thereafter.

Please do not hesitate to address to me or to your residential college dean any questions that you may have concerning readmission. In the meantime, I offer you all good wishes for the months ahead.

Yours,

Jill Cutler

Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs, Yale College

Secretary, Yale College Executive Committee

Chair, Readmissions Committee

Director, Transfer Program”

Takishima was shocked, as were his parents.

“My mom is still angry about the timing,” he said. “It was awful.”

Once the school notified Takishima, he was effectively trapped in New Haven: the lease to his off-campus apartment was already signed. Takishima stayed in New Haven for a whole year, waiting to reapply for the fall semester.

Why does Yale wait to notify students of its decision until the very end of summer or fall term, by which time it is extremely difficult to find on- or off-campus housing, escape from a lease, or find meaningful work elsewhere?

According to Cutler, one reason is because the vacation period of residential college deans lasts until Aug. 15. According to a residential college dean, it is so the University can wait and see the results from treatment programs and classes taken over the summer.

Especially daunting and infuriating to Takishima was the first line of the second paragraph: “Should you be interested in returning to Yale at some future point, you must contact the Committee on Readmission again to initiate the process.”

Was that a leading question, some sort of coded message? Was Yale baiting some deeper contemplation on Takishima’s part? Or had Yale overlooked the patent truth of the matter: that Takishima had followed company protocol to a “T,” meeting every deadline and checking every box in his application for readmission? Did Yale even really care whether he ever really existed, now that he was away?

These were a few of the worries that concerned Takishima. His dean had led him to believe that “once you’re in, you’re in,” but apparently that wasn’t always the case.

“This is basically my fault for not taking the possibility of not getting back in into account,” he said in an e-mail last week.

Two weeks ago, after reapplying a second time, Takishima was accepted for fall 2009. Nevertheless, his circumstances remain less than ideal.

When he was 17 years old, Takishima took a year off in high school for a bad case of pneumonia. When he was 21, he tried to take a semester off of college to treat his depression. That semester became a year and a half. When Takishima re-enters Yale in the fall, he will be 24-years-old and in class with students five years younger than he is.

Positions of the Administrators

While students contend that the process of withdrawal and readmission is unduly difficult, administrators maintain that it is not. Those that wish to be readmitted will be — eventually.

His eyebrows raised, Dean Hugh Flick of Silliman College expressed genuine surprise to hear that students were getting all riled up over the readmission process.

“I don’t know of anybody discontented with it,” he said. “It’s more or less up to the student when they come back, a matter of fulfilling requirements and returning to full health.”

The Silliman dean also said he could not remember an instance in recent history when a Silliman student was denied readmission: “I’ve never heard of anyone who was kicked out of Yale and told never to come back.”

When asked where the statement “once you’re in Yale, you’re in” falls along a spectrum of “absolutely true” to “absolutely false,” Flick responded, “True.”

But then he makes an asterisk symbol with his hand.

“Yale works very hard to keep you here,” he added. “The only students I know of who don’t finish are those who just drop out and never return.”

Cutler came to Yale in 1979, when Davenport College hired her as a writing tutor. Since then, she has worn many hats around the English department and Dean’s Office, where she also serves as the secretary of the Executive Committee.

Since Cutler was first hired, “the [readmission’s] policy hasn’t changed at all,” she said in a July interview. Asked if she could provide breakdown of how many students pass through the readmissions office and for what reasons, she replied, “I really can’t because I don’t keep statistics. People can come back when they want.”

A long pause.

“I don’t keep statistics because every withdrawn student is the same … to me,” Cutler continued. “I don’t care why you were withdrawn: you have to comply with the requirements.”

Several people I interviewed, such as Schoenberg and Pat, believe the university is primarily concerned with protecting itself and its financial interests. What do you make of that?

“I maintain that the first concern is for the well-being of a student, and I don’t think you should underestimate that. And I can also say that not every student understands what their own well-being is in any given situation. But, yes, beyond that, the institution does have an interest. When you say ‘protecting itself,’ … I suppose we have to use those words, but it’s about protecting itself from something very terrible happening … on its watch.”

For students like Takishima, Cutler may have seemed a dispassionate gatekeeper in a difficult process, but to her peers in the administration, as was noted in the 2007 Executive Committee Chair’s Report, Cutler “leavens her rigorous sense of justice with an unfailingly compassionate humanity, and is truly the heart and soul of this crucial institution in Yale College.”

Sometime in August, Cutler was replaced by Dean Pamela George. For all who have lamented the oblique language of university form-letters, the lack of decision-related transparency, the untimely deadlines or the blanket two-course requirement involved in the readmission process, a change in personnel might signal a change in policy.

George, who is also the director of the Afro-American Cultural Center, declined to comment for this article because she was only becoming acquainted with the role, she said in an email. The note read as follows:

“I’d like to become well-acquainted with my new role before I comment on changes, if any. My very limited exposure, thus far, has seemed reasonable and straightforward. However, I need to experience a full-year cycle of Readmission, confer with my colleagues in Yale College, gain knowledge about the practices throughout the Ivy League, and I welcome comments from students about their experiences with the readmission process.”

George might have a big learning opportunity on her hands. The paranoia pouring out of Yale administrators’ e-mail accounts is enough to lead one to believe that the influenza type-A virus will soon start to wreak havoc on Yale campus – if it hasn’t already.

“Stay at home,” cautioners advise.

Will Yale students listen, missing classes and falling behind? Should an epidemic of swine flu sweep across Yale campus this fall, George could see an unprecedented influx of business next year. Which certainly would give her plenty of opportunity to get to know the system.

Comments

  • Y09

    These deans and administrators are nothing short of disingenuous when they try to make it sound like anyone who has taken a leave of absence will have safe passage back to Yale. Yale excels at covering its ass. Period.

  • ROFLCOPTER

    This is the most interesting piece of reporting that I’ve read in the YDN in the last two years. Good work, Mr. Dockendorf.

  • Withdrawn

    The withdrawal and readmission process is impersonal and completely demeaning, especially for those, like myself, who suffer from a mental illness. An example: Because my hospitalization occurred the week after a school semester was completed, I had Dean Unnecessary Post inform me that my withdrawal would be classified as ‘academic’ and not ‘medical’. Guidelines, of course, guidelines.

  • Alum

    Yale needs to seriously reform their policies.

    A close family member passed away while I was at Yale. I was told I couldn’t leave for just the remainder of the semester, but had to spend a minimum of three semesters away because my absence would be for “mental health” reasons and if I was too unwell to finish the semester, then I must qualify for some serious treatment. Forget needing to go home and help out other family members. Forget Yale recognizing that staying among my peers at Yale (rather than graduating with the class two years below me) would provide me with a much better support system when I returned to campus. Forget grieving. Thanks, Yale.

  • Curious

    How does the process at Yale differ from the processes at other schools? I went to a private New England boarding school, and they tried to force me to withdraw at one point. Private schools and colleges like to cover their asses because it’s bad for publicity when students kill themselves or fail out, and they try to protect themselves against that, even when it’s pretty unlikely. Is the process for re-entry to Yale comparatively better or worse than at other Ivies and major schools?

  • Yale 08

    Since when did graduating from Yale become a right in any respect? It seems that Yale owes a debt of dignity to alumni who completed their undergraduate educations in a timely manner when considering the readmission of students who demonstrate persistent academic difficulty as failing to do so undermines the perceived value of a Yale degree. While there is certainly plenty of concern among Yale-affiliated individuals and groups (including the YDN) about the detriment of even modest grade inflation to the meaning of a Yale student’s academic record, it is shortsighted to disregard how an oversimplified readmission process can dilute what it means to be a Yale graduate.

    Further still, if it is too much of an imposition to expect our students to describe why they should be allowed to return to Yale again after a hiatus, how the heck are they supposed to bring themselves to lead an organization? To lead our country? To lead our world? Even for students who leave Yale for non-academic reasons (e.g., medical withdrawals), one owes it to him or her self to consider why reentering Yale at any given time is an appropriate decision. It is unfortunate that measures put in place to maintain the integrity of one of western civilization’s premiere universities are considered “less than ideal.”

    Contrary to the sentiment of this article, we should ask ourselves why an institution such as Yale seemingly lowers its standards as much as it does to ensure that anyone granted a seat in a Yale College class may leave with a degree regardless of whether a student presents severe academic deficiencies. Doubting or neglecting this concern directly contradicts the very meritocracy on which Yale was founded and on which it continues to exist.

  • Readmitted

    I found this piece to be shallow and one-sided. It does nothing in terms of exploring the circumstances surrounding withdrawals and the nuances of ensuring that a student is ready for readmission.

    I was unhealthy and unable to function academically when I withdrew because of mental illness. I was permitted to apply for readmission after one semester away, and because I had sought the appropriate treatment and my health was greatly improved, I was allowed to return. Yes, Yale may want to cover their backs against negative publicity, but the process also prevents more tragedies from occurring. If students, particularly those suffering from mental illnesses, come back before they are emotionally ready, they are at great risk for recidivism, and even having to withdraw again (after which, readmission is usually not permitted).

  • reality

    I’m so glad someone finally wrote this article! Yale’s withdrawal/readmission system is a degrading piece of sh!t. I almost didn’t return to yale after I was forced to leave for medical reasons. No one should ever have to go through the utter lack of support and understanding (not to mention the insensitive flippant comments) I endured when I was simply too sick to finish some of my classes. Eventually my doctors figured out what was wrong, and I decided to reapply and finish, but I never really got over how needlessly demeaning the whole ordeal was.

    There’s definitely a prevailing sense at Yale, and even in some of the comments to this story, that people who leave do so because they can’t hack it academically, or just aren’t up to the rigors of Yale, which I think mischaracterizes many of the students forced to leave. It’s also quite hurtful to someone who needs legitimate medical treatment to imply that they’re just too lazy for Yale, or that they chose a school that was just too hard for them. And to the poster Yale 08 – graduating from Yale shouldn’t be a right, but being treated with basic human decency and compassion should be. I’m pretty sure you can “maintain the integrity of one of western civilization’s premiere universities” while still acting like a human being.

    All in all that experience left me convinced that Yale cares far more about guidelines and regulations than it does about students going through devastating times in their lives. I certainly hope Yale officials read some of these comments and change the remarkable indifference and insensitivity that characterizes the current system.

  • Interested Reader

    They don’t want no sue-me-sides, that’s pretty much it.

  • jdwdfw

    thank you for your article

  • summer

    I also was forced to withdraw for medical reasons…