On Friday, Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead announced a fundamental change to the freshman pre-orientation program Cultural Connections, opening the formerly minority-only program to all incoming students. In his e-mail, Brodhead cited the 2003 Supreme Court decision that “makes it harder to justify programs that separate student communities instead of building them into an interactive whole.”
Brodhead got it right in his statement. In the past, Cultural Connections has received some criticism for fostering self-segregation, and the restructuring is an important step toward a more united campus. We hope the new program will be able to retain the most valuable aspects of the old, and is successful in sparking honest cultural exchanges.
Brodhead’s e-mail was remarkable for the frankness with which he addressed the problem. The decision was made, he said, in consultation with Yale’s General Counsel, and in part because of “external considerations.” Such considerations include primarily last year’s Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action, which reinforced the right of colleges to pursue diversity in admissions but not to use quota systems that make the race of applicants a deciding factor. The decision has forced a re-evaluation of programs that are limited to minorities.
Cultural Connections occasionally came under attack on campus even before the Supreme Court decision. Some students argue that it prompts minorities to self-segregate even before the rest of their classmates arrive. Others point out that it draws minority students away from other pre-orientation programs, like FOOT, making those programs even less diverse. Even the revamped Cultural Connections will likely still have some of these effects, and the program is not perfect. But the change may reduce these problems, while still allowing the opportunity to bond that many participants have said is invaluable.
Including all students is a much better approach than eliminating the program altogether, which may have been an easier solution to the problem as minority-only programs across the nation come under legal fire. A program that focuses on diversity can only hope to bring about change by including all racial and ethnic groups. If students are to have constructive dialogue about culture and identity, they must begin their time at Yale with that experience, not one of University-endorsed segregation. If we are to push for equality, we must do it together.
Of course, it will not be as easy or utopian as it all sounds. The focus, goals and tone of the program may change with the demographic. It may initially prove more difficult to have open and frank conversations about race, and certain elements of the experience may inevitably be lost. But, in time, we hope the expansion will lead to more honest and real discussions that are more reflective of actual life experiences — on campus and off.
The program should remain dedicated to fostering a united student body, and its new focus makes it more poised to do so. It’s unfortunate that such change came from legal pressure, which threatens many programs that have the potential to be positive forces on campuses nationwide. Certain aspects of the program may suffer, but incoming freshmen should still be able to connect, make friends, and begin a dialogue that is more likely to last the four years at Yale and beyond.