This article has been corrected. You may view this article’s correction here.
Yale is under attack.Except instead of holding the University at the point of a sword, aggressors have turned to something even more cutting edge: blogs.
When students were caught having sex in the shower last spring, the retaliation was swift. To much fanfare, Dan Gelernter ’09 declared on Critical Mass, his blog for college conservatives, that “in the moral vacuum that has been created by Yale intellectuals, students seem to be left without even the most basic guidelines for proper and decent behavior.”
After The New York Times Magazine exposed Rahmatullah Hashemi’s presence on campus in 2005, Clinton Taylor ’96 proclaimed, “it’s a good school, and I’m glad they let me in … but something has gone dreadfully wrong there.”
“Where the war-cry used to be ‘For God, For Country, and For Yale’, they have managed to betray all of these principles in, apparently, some bizarre rush to compete for trophy admits, good and evil be damned,” he wrote on Townahll.com.
The vitriol has not gone unnoticed by Yale administrators normally hesitant to comment on heated political issues.
“The Internet makes our job more challenging,” Yale Director of Public Affairs Helaine Klasky said Thursday. “There is a misperception out there that everyone at Yale is liberal.”
Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh is no stranger to the same breed of Internet infuriation. In reaction to a profile in the News exploring the possibility of Koh’s being nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court under a Democratic president, a handful of anonymous commentators reacted aggressively, some warning that he would wreak havoc on the U.S. Constitution.
And Koh reacted with his own dose of disdain for the blogs.
“It’s a way to get a splash, for people to write about leading institutions and label them a certain way,” he said. “It’s just easier now because you don’t have to get someone to choose your article and publish it. You publish it yourself.”
Koh said much of the criticism of Yale’s liberalism is unfounded. Many of the nation’s most prominent conservative jurists and legal minds — two of the more conservative members of the United States Supreme Court, for example — are alumni of the school, he said. Moreover, the criticism is not unique to Yale: They dislike his alma mater Harvard just as much, Koh said.
Jim Sleeper, a political science lecturer, went even farther, comparing the flurry of hostility toward Yale’s alleged liberalism to the Stalinist furor of the 1930s and 1940s.
But criticism of the politics of Yale’s faculty and administration is not a new phenomenon. Perhaps no part of Yale has attracted more contempt from the right than the Yale Law School.
References to the Law School as a bastion for liberal thinking date back to the 1920s, when then-dean Robert Hutchins ’21 LAW ’25 spoke out against the politically charged execution of Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian-American anarchists, in 1927. At the time, William Taft 1878, chief justice of the Supreme Court and a former U.S. president and Yale Law faculty member, wrote a letter to the president of Yale criticizing Hutchins’ comments, said history professor Gaddis Smith ’54, who is writing a book on the history of Yale.
Ten years later, the Chicago Tribune, whose owner was a Yale College graduate, ran an editorial entitled “The American Marxists,” which accused the Yale and Harvard law faculties of espousing and teaching radical views.
Despite these impressions of the Law School, the University as a whole and its president were staunchly conservative at that time, Smith said. The public perception of Yale as a liberal bastion began in earnest when Smith was a Yale undergraduate, he said. In 1951, William F. Buckley ’50 released his book “God and Man at Yale,” in which he condemned what he characterized as the prevailing liberal ideology among the Yale faculty.
Ever since then, the media has been quick to cite Yale as a liberal institution, Smith said.
“An awful lot of it was fueled by Buckley,” he said.
Yale’s left-leaning reputation was solidified during the social upheaval of the 1960s and early 1970s. Soon after Kingman Brewster took the helm of the University in 1963, he enraged some conservative alumni by ending quotas on Jewish students and admitting more minority students.
But perhaps the most controversial event in Yale’s political history came during the famous murder trial of Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers, which took place in New Haven in 1970. Brewster opened the campus to protesters and publicly questioned whether a black revolutionary could get a fair trial in the United States.
The fallout from Brewster’s comments led to the creation of a department dedicated to handling Yale’s relationship with the press: the Office of Public Information, the precursor to today’s Office of Public Affairs.
Political science lecturer and former Life Magazine correspondent Stanley Flink ’45W was the founder and first director of the office. He said providing accurate information and opening up the University to the press helped dispel the rumor and innuendo about Yale that sometimes turned up in newspapers around the country.
“Our job was to make sure that quotations made by Yale people were accurately rendered and reported,” Flink said. “The word Public Relations was deliberately not used; it was a public information office. We never attempted to direct coverage.”
But new media call for new measures. Klasky said the culture of instantaneous news and endless, round-the-clock commentary spawned by the Internet has led to the mischaracterization and exaggeration of relatively trivial occurrences on campus. Many commentators are quick to over-analyze such situations, she said. Whereas the Office of Public Information in the 1970s operated primarily as a resource for reporters, Klasky said her office has to be proactive in disseminating accurate information because of the blogosphere.
“We try to always get the facts out there as quickly as possible so we can counter any misinformation that might be floating around in cyberspace,” said Klasky, who worked in the Clinton administration before coming to Yale. “Sometimes [blogs are] a source to learn interesting information and to follow interesting discussions, and other times, due to the unattributable nature, it can be a challenge due to the rumor-mongering.”
When three students were arrested last year for setting an American flag on fire, pundits from Fox News to the National Review commented on how the incident illustrated rampant anti-Americanism at Yale. But Klasky said it was just a case of students being mischievous.
“I don’t think it was anything symbolic against America,” she said. “I think it was three students engaged in inappropriate behavior.”
But history professor and outspoken neo-conservative Donald Kagan said the public perception of Yale as a haven for liberals is largely deserved. Kagan said liberalism is endemic in academia and that he can think of few major universities that are not damagingly left-wing. Yale gets more attention because of its national prominence, he said.
“People are just reporting the truth,” Kagan said. “Yale is more important to the country than most other universities.”
Regardless of what the press and blogosphere think, Yale’s mission is not to be a font of liberal ideology, University President Richard Levin said, but instead to foster discussion. To do this, Levin and the officers of the University — which include the Provost and vice presidents — do not make political endorsements or donations to political causes, he said.
“What I tried to do here is create an atmosphere in which all sides of an issue can be explored and students and faculty can express their views, whatever they may be,” Levin said.