A young woman created a piece of art. It was to fulfill the third component of her senior project for the art major at Yale University. For this project, she was granted approval by her advisor, by the Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the Art Department and therefore by Yale University — months ago.
It should be noted: at Yale University, publicists don’t grant approval for academic projects. This has, so far, been considered a decision better left to academics.
Last Thursday morning, in meeting with the administrators of Yale University, Aliza Shvarts, the artist, told Peter Salovey, the Dean of Yale College, Marichal Gentry, the Dean of Student Affairs and Director of Public Affairs Helaine Klasky that she had artificially inseminated herself in the course of creating her senior art project. In fact, the whole project depended upon being artificially inseminated: her academic object was to make the viewer acknowledge that in using the word “miscarriage” or “menstruation” to explain the cause of her bleeding and cramps, they were making an ideological choice, not naming a phenomenon that could be factually verified.
Several academics and many students thought that this was a worthwhile project. Of course, the questions that it raised — of ontology, normative functioning and semiotics — were the kind that interest academics.
When the project entered the public realm, it was at a disadvantage.
Thousands of people denounced the project, Aliza Shvarts and Yale University as evil. Yale’s publicists, who are paid to care about what those people think, made a decision after meeting with Aliza Shvarts last Thursday. They decided to lie. On Thursday afternoon, in their first press release, they called Aliza Shvarts’ project a “creative fiction,” claimed that she had never artificially inseminated herself, and asserted that if “these acts been real, they would have violated basic ethical standards and raised serious mental and physical health concerns.”
Later that night, Aliza Shvarts told the press that this was inaccurate.
In their second (and more desperate) statement, Yale’s publicists assured skeptics that “her denial is part of her performance,” and concluded, rather absurdly, by relaying their “disappointment that she would deliberately lie to the press in the name of art.”
None of this is surprising: It is the publicists’ job to get the University good press. They lied because the truth was getting Yale University bad press. Helaine Klasky ought to get a raise.
Peter Salovey, on the other hand, should be fired as the Dean of Yale College. Dean Salovey was instrumental in concocting the lie that the publicists told.
But he should not be fired because he is a liar. He should be fired because he is a hypocrite. In the pages of this newspaper, Dean Salovey “urged” the student body to read the Woodward Report, which, as he put it, “affirms the special responsibility for a university community to uphold its members’ rights to ‘think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.’”
Throughout the year, Dean Salovey has defended the University’s limp reaction to racism, sexual harassment and anti-Semitism on free-speech grounds, and cited the Woodward Report — “one of the nation’s most respected documents on free expression” — as the official origin of Yale University’s commitment to free speech and to justify his own commitment to free speech in forming university policy.
According to the Woodward Report, students need freedom — “unfettered freedom” — if they are to “challenge the unchallengeable.” The role of the Dean of Yale College, by his own account, is to ensure that students of Yale University have that freedom while they are here.
Last Thursday, Dean Salovey should not have lied. He should known that there would be a student, in his time as dean, who would actually “challenge the unchallengable.” He could have felt proud that it was an academic work, rather than a Yale student’s drunken escapade, that required him to defend the freedom of expression that a university guarantees its students. Last Thursday, Dean Salovey should have calmly told everyone — the outraged parents, the horrified alumni, the scandalized high-school students and especially those whom threatened Aliza Shvarts with violence — that Shvarts’ exhibition would go up, that they should fight back with more speech. Last Thursday, Dean Salovey should have told Helaine Klasky that Aliza Shvarts’s art project was proof that the University was working, not something from which it could or should disassociate. Dean Salovey should have told the press, simply, to read the Woodward Report.
Last Thursday, Salovey himself should have re-read the Woodward Report. The document that he cites, quotes and hides behind so often says that we at Yale University must “take a chance, as the First Amendment takes a chance,” and “commit ourselves to the idea that the results of free expression are to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time.”
But he did not. And it is not the reputation of the University, but the University’s integrity, and his own, that have been damaged.
Chase Olivarius-McAllister is a junior in Branford College. She is the former political-action coordinator of the Yale Women’s Center.