Despite the absence of the high-profile Students Against Sweatshops protests of two years ago, which included fervent rallies, long sit-ins and a 16-night camp-out, activism was still alive and well at Yale this past year.
During the 1999-2000 school year, SAS, an organization protesting the University’s apparel licensing policy, elicited an overwhelming amount of student support for their cause, with protests culminating in the sleep-in on Beinecke Plaza.
While there was no single cause that united students as powerfully this year, activists have tackled many campus issues, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Higher Education Act of 1998 and the formation of an undergraduate student union.
“I wouldn’t say that activism has declined,” said Chiraag Bains ’03, who is a co-moderator of the Asian-American Students Alliance. “We’re not as visible this year because you don’t see so many students rallying or sitting in, but activism is still happening on campus, just in different forms.”
Many believe that the drastic actions taken by SAS two years ago resulted from their failure to get a response from University officials, despite their widespread campus support and a Yale College Council resolution.
“All methods of making a point had been exhausted, and for that reason, we had to make it very high-profile,” said David Corson-Knowles ’03, a member of SAS. “When progress is being made, like most of these issues, you don’t need to do that much. We can quietly plot away at making positive social change.”
As activists witnessed more progress this past year, many said they believed a new type of activism was emerging.
“We’re seeing a new style of activism and we’re building on that from the grass-roots level,” said Abbey Hudson ’03, president of the Yale College Democrats and a YCC representative. “There’s been a lot of coalition-building this year, so different groups who otherwise wouldn’t be connected have a common cause. I think activism will become more prominent as we build on this more.”
This more discreet type of activism has resulted in many changes this year. The most notable one was that next year classes will be cancelled on MLK Day for the first time.
For many years, Yale had not recognized the holiday, mainly due to scheduling constraints. Under the leadership of Bains, Corson-Knowles, Black Student Alliance at Yale executive board member John Johnson ’03 and others, administrators and faculty members were persuaded that the issue was important.
On May 3 the faculty overwhelmingly voted to have the day off. Levin is very likely to change the policy as a result of this vote, Bains said.
“There’s a much larger philosophical issue here,” Johnson said. “It’s not just going to be a day off. We want to have something special so we can give appropriate recognition. The issue is more about what will be happening on Martin Luther King Day.”
Another group that took significant action this year was the Student Legal Action Movement, which held an April rally on Beinecke Plaza to protest criminal injustices in the American court system.
Although this was a national issue, Corson-Knowles said it had implications for the Yale community, particularly in terms of the Higher Education Act of 1998. This national act prevents any student with drug charges on their record from receiving federal aid for college for a limited amount of time.
“We want Yale to oppose this and make up any aid that the government cuts,” Corson-Knowles said. “This is unjust, especially since drug laws are used to target minorities.”
Another prominent group to emerge recently was the United Students at Yale, which is pressing for an undergraduate student union.
Hudson said that many people have a misconception of the group because of the word “union.” The organization aims to get a student voice on the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest policy making body, which currently has no undergraduate representatives.
“We’re finally getting the support we’ve been looking for,” Hudson said. “I’m content with the building that has occurred this year because a lot of people are now thinking about issues they haven’t thought about before. I think next year will be a big year for USAY.”
The Student Alliance to Reform Corporations has also gained much ground this year for their campaign to make sure that Yale spends its $10 billion endowment in a way that is socially responsible, STARC member Stephen Osserman ’02 said. In May the group had a preliminary meeting with the Corporation’s advisory committee on investments.
Despite the apparent lack of visibility this year, many student activists say they are confident that activism will take on a more prominent and public role on campus next year.
“Some people might be disappointed with the year,” Johnson said. “But I see that things naturally go in cycles, and what might appear like a lack of activism may just be a phase. I’m expecting activism to be a lot more public next year.”