“Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard.” — Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”
April 13, while most students are focusing on final papers, 15 undergraduates will face the Yale Executive Committee. This date will mark the final chapter in the student led movement for greater economic diversity within the undergraduate population. How will Yale portray the 15 undergraduates facing disciplinary action for campus activism? Will Yale cast them, like Huck, as “pariahs,” lower than the lowest caste in the Brahmanical system, outsiders in the midst of true Blue? Or will Yale see them as “patriots,” loyal Bulldogs defending the constitutional tenets of the polis?
Yale governs by the book. According to the Undergraduate Regulations 2004-2005, Ex-Comm is the Yale faculty’s committee with the power to oversee discipline. Ex-Comm plays a formidable role not just in resolving complaints of an academic and nonacademic nature but in defining the Yale Community. How it frames issues, identifies “perpetrators” and “victims,” and disposes of cases is powerful business.
The youth of 2005 did not offend by “throw[ing] any thing against the College-buildings or fence,” a violation of the laws of Yale College 1795 for which a male scholar could be fined eight cents. Their so-called offenses — “trespass” and “occupation” of a University building — might, under today’s Undergraduate Regulations, lead to imposition of a reprimand or expulsion.
That the reprimand is listed as one of the possible “remedies” in Ex-Comm’s arsenal of progressive discipline assumes that there has been an “evil, fault or error” needing correction. The parenthetical remark following the word “reprimand” in the regulations tells the reader that the reprimand “is a matter of internal record only,” as if to say it’s a private matter and to discount the significance of formal rebuke. It is Yale’s own official records that are marked. The marking changes the student’s identity in relation to the college. What then is the significance of Yale altering its own records regarding its students if not to officially alter the citizen status of the student censured? The marking functions to render the student a “pariah,” an “outsider within” her own University. The reprimand can also have public consequences for Yale, particularly if the reprimand acts as a deterrent, silencing or chilling student voice.
Looking back at the actions of these students, are we to understand their agency — a parade into Hill House, distribution of colorful leaflets, a peaceful sit-in and a request to meet with President Levin — as “trespass” and an “occupation”? The place of their protest was not the Corporate Board room or the President’s offices or even the boiler room of a laboratory on Science Hill (a site the U.S. Justice Department might view as a potential target of post-Sept. 11 terrorism). No, the place of the offense was the symbolic object of student protest: the Yale offices for admissions and financial aid. The action did not involve an army of students; only 15 in number took part. They entered the building at a time of day (10:30 a.m.) when students routinely are “permitted” to come and go. Their tools were computers, not crowbars. Their weapons were words. The dozen ladies and three gentlemen did not significantly interrupt office workers in admissions, nor did their presence result in cancellation of tours for prospective students. Business continued, albeit with a few “juvenile pariahs” in its midst.
In a University that values diversity, traditional punishment may not make sense in this intra-family drama. Authoritarian power plays within a family rarely strengthen relationships or build character of young adults. Why activate the disciplinary apparatus of the University? Amnesty may do more for teaching tolerance and mutual respect than any of the punishments listed in the rule book. After all, amnesty offers a political solution for political action. Amnesty operates to free the would-be-disciplinarian and the would-be transgressor from oppositional roles. Amnesty repatriates, rather than reprimands, the rebel. The just deserts is a stronger citizenry, where student activists are neither infantilized nor marginalized by authoritarian discipline as “outsiders in our midst,” but recognized for their spirited part in the chorus for change and transformation. If the Executive Committee wants to be politic (“judicious” or “artful”) and liberate all the players in this drama, perhaps it should consider the unmentionable: a reprieve.
Peggy A. Wiesenberg is the parent of a Yale student who was involved in the sit-in. She wishes to acknowledge Ange-Marie Hancock, assistant professor of Political Science and African-American Studies, whose paper “The Double Consciousness of the Pariah: Identity, Agency and Citizenship in the work of Hannah Arendt and W.E.B. Dubois” prompted further thought about the actions of Ex-Comm and the Yale 15.