Friday marks the end of a week devoted to campaigns by Yale College Council candidates promising to increase student voice in Yale’s decision-making, and the winding down of a school year marked by an absence of the activism that highlighted campus life last year.
It will also mark, some students hope, the beginning of a new era of student involvement in Yale’s administration.
A group of students, unhappy about issues ranging from dance space to environmental policies, from unions to financial aid, has been meeting to form what they call a student union. Union members say they want to use their common frustrations about a lack of student voice in University administration to push for a greater role for students. The group started meeting in residential colleges last week to marshall support and is working with graduate students and local unions.
The union will meet Friday afternoon to discuss and ratify an official platform, and will also decide on an official name for the as yet unnamed group, organizers said. Later that evening the union will take part in a rally on the New Haven Green with local labor unions. Some members said they hoped the rally would symbolize a burgeoning movement that will come to change the nature of student life at Yale.
“This is the kind of thing I think I’ll say ‘I was there when this movement began,'” said Karen Weise ’02, who has been involved in union efforts all year and has led meetings in residential colleges. “I feel bad for people who are not there and will miss out.”
“It’s one of those things where you don’t get a rehearsal,” she said. “People are saying that our generation doesn’t have a cause. Well this is us saying yeah we do. This is it.”
But some students, including many who were until recently identified with activist causes such as Students Against Sweatshops, are not so excited about the union. Instead, they fear the group and say it is responsible for what has been a year notable for its lack of activism.
A gradual development
From its beginnings as everyday conversations between frustrated students to its planned rally on the Green tomorrow, which Abbey Hudson ’03, one of the group’s organizers, calls its “great coming-out party,” the union’s formation and growth has been a process that has both revitalized excitement among students and drawn fire from among other campus activists.
The common thread, organizers said, was their lack of voice as undergraduates among campus decision makers. And they decided to take action.
After holding an initial meeting last semester to “see who was out there,” in Wiese’s words, students involved in the union met for a leadership conference in March. Weise said about 50 people attended the meeting.
Since then, union members have worked to lobby the Yale College Council on resolutions, including financial aid and Martin Luther King Day. In the financial aid resolution, union members wrote a portion which called for a committee which would include student representation and have binding decision-making power.
The group first achieved more widespread notice at an open forum with Yale President Richard C. Levin last month, when students stood up each time a question was asked. Levin thanked the students for being “yo-yos,” but for group members, the forum held deeper significance.
“At the open forum, when everyone was standing up, Levin knew there was something going on besides a group of ‘yo-yos,'” Weise said.
Since then, students have been meeting in groups organized by residential colleges.
Union members say they hope to use the power of a large consensus to affect change.
An unclear support base
Members describe the group as organized from the bottom up, aimed at addressing concerns of any student group that participate. Their power, they say, will come from the unity of students behind a common cause.
“What has made for the administration to listen in past is numbers, image, effort time, commitment,” Weise said. “When you have the entire student body, labor force, and community ready for it, they will make their voice heard.”
But others remain skeptical at the aims and promise of the organization. Some students said they believed the union, for all its talk of being organized from the bottom up, really represented a small group of leaders that drove the movement.
And others said the union had alienated many students who had been most deeply involved in activism in the past.
Jacob Remes ’02, who was heavily involved with SAS, said while he agreed with the need for more student voice in administration, he disagreed with the use of a union.
“I am concerned about any movement that treats undergraduates as consumers here only to buy a Yale degree,” Remes said. “I think what is needed is a cultural shift on campus among everyone involved to understand that students are a part of the University.”
Other students familiar with activist groups said they were supportive of the union cause but remained skeptical about its efforts.
“I’m supportive from a distance,” said Rob Smuts ’01, a longtime member of the Yale College Democrats who is active in local politics. “I do not want to spend my time working on that effort but I’m supportive of their goals. I still have questions about various aspects of their efforts.”
But Hudson noted the union has combined efforts with other activist groups.
And Weise thinks that replicating activism like SAS is not the goal of the union.
“I think SAS was seen as a bunch of activists sleeping out on Beinecke,” Weise said. “This isn’t a bunch of activists. This is an amazing breadth of people lobbying for dance space, for the environment, for different things. In that respect it’s really different.”
For the skepticism of some, Hudson said the union’s force would be its size.
“Because this is part of one big movement, we’re working in solidarity with other groups,” Hudson said. “If enough people standing together we can’t be ignored.”