When three Yale doctoral candidates published “Yale, Slavery and Abolition,” a strongly worded essay intended to uncover Yale’s sordid and tangled past relationship with slavery, an alarmed campus reacted immediately.
But amid the cyclone of calls to rename the residential colleges, appeals to the University to admit its past mistakes, and efforts by undergraduate organizations to dissociate themselves from the alleged sins of their namesakes, few took the time simply to question the accuracy and motives of the report.
As we reported on today’s front page, a monthlong Yale Daily News investigation has turned up many troubling deficiencies within the report. Furthermore, a probe into the background of and motives for the publication have raised broader concerns about the distinction between academic scholarship and political propaganda.
Yale’s involvement in slavery is certainly a topic worthy of investigation, and one about which the Yale community ought to be informed — especially when juxtaposed with the University’s recent, and perhaps understandable, self-congratulatory theme during its tercentennial celebration.
If the aim of the report’s authors was to put the slavery issue in the spotlight, they succeeded. The report has served not only to reveal how many New England intellectual elites supported slavery or did little to oppose it, but also to remind us that prominent Yale alumni are no more immune than anyone else to moral blindness and turpitude.
But it also sacrificed historical subtlety and academic integrity for sensationalism. The report’s appendix includes a table cross-listing Yale landmarks with the classification of their namesakes as pro- or anti-slavery in a manner so overly simplistic that it blatantly contradicts the rest of the research. Historical precision is secondary, it seems, to fostering a sense of grievance and outrage against the University.
One cannot lightly dismiss the fact that the research for the report was funded by Yale’s unions, which put considerable time and manpower into mailing out thousands of copies of the report and making it available online. At every step of its writing and distribution, the report received funds from an organization with a vested interest in rallying community members and media alike against Yale and its administration.
That Antony Dugdale, J.J. Fueser GRD ’02 and J. Celso de Castro Alves GRD ’02 are committed to Yale’s unions is no grounds for reproach. Nor is the desire to reveal the less pleasant side of Yale’s history. It is the confusion of the roles of scholar and political operative that makes their report ethically troubling rather than commendable.
At best, “Yale, Slavery and Abolition,” is a well-intentioned work marred by unnecessary antagonism and the appearance of impropriety. At worst, it represents the co-opting of the darkest chapters of American history for present-day political gain.
We hope that the report, both in spite of its failings and because of them, provokes an incisive, morally rigorous debate over Yale’s relationship to slavery. We also hope that it produces a campuswide examination of the use and abuse of scholarship, especially in a year when Yale and its unions will often be at odds.