Once in a while, President Levin leaves the Woodbridge Hall world of policymakers to spend what is supposed to be a civil and honest evening with students — answering questions, telling stories, and explaining the inner workings of the University to anyone who wants to listen. And usually, that’s exactly what people want to do.
But not last Thursday, when packs of students hissed and heckled Levin into antagonism, and a Yale College Council-sponsored open forum devolved into a barely restrained audience sneer-fest. Students held up green “I agree” signs when like-minded students asked questions and red “Really?” signs when Levin answered them. Over occasional whistles and jeers, the president of the University answered questions about academics, investments and labor.
Levin meanwhile has been particularly approachable this fall, holding a question-and-answer-style Master’s Tea in Silliman College and a more personal one with his wife, professor Jane Levin, in Pierson College last month. He has talked peacefully about unions and investments, Eminem, his salary and his time as an undergraduate at Stanford. Students have had a chance to see President Levin the husband; President Levin the baseball nut; and President Levin the reluctant Jane Austen-lover. But Thursday, they saw President Levin the bull’s eye.
The scene in Sudler Hall that night was not pretty. It would be difficult to call it productive. And it would be nearly impossible to say the conduct of some of the 200 Yalies in attendance at last week’s forum provoked any useful long-term response from administrators or from students.
The signing and seething hurled his way did provoke a response from Levin, though, who not unreasonably let a defensive comment or two slip over the course of the night.
There is no doubt students hoping to communicate disagreement with the administration succeeded. But the booing tactic came with obvious consequences, including a less constructive discussion, a less cooperative official, and an atmosphere less conducive to understanding. There is a place for almost any kind of disagreement at Yale, when done in the appropriate forum. This was not the place for heckling.
The open forum should be just that: an open atmosphere not to be co-opted by disruptive protests. It has been a reasonably successful event in the past, and it would be unfortunate if a night of disrespectful participation made the president less accessible or the forum infeasible.
Open forums give the outspoken, the argumentative, and the strong-minded at Yale one means of expressing their opinions about how the University is run: questions. The forums become closed to more moderate students, though, when activists take advantage of Levin’s presence and use other techniques to get his attention. Students with innocuous questions about technology might think about not coming next time; Levin might think about not coming, too.
There is plenty of indignation in the Yale student body and ample opportunity to express it. But when students cannot do so in a civil manner, the open forum becomes anything but.