For the majority of its existence, Yale did not count most minorities — or women, for that matter — among its students. Yale’s name was practically synonymous with lily-white, WASPish, moneyed roots. But we are now living in the 21st century. It is time to show the world — and prospective applicants — that Yale is a changed place. It is time for Yale to appoint a woman, a gay person or a minority as its next president.
There are those who will loudly demand (or have already demanded) that the next president must be the absolute best possible candidate, no matter his or her gender, ethnicity or sexuality. The assumption here is that race, gender and sexuality contribute nothing to a candidate; degrees, job experience and vision are all that matter.
This logic is predicated on a faulty assumption. Those who follow it do not understand that life experiences are as important a qualification as one’s alma mater or previous employer. Minorities, women and gay people are not solely defined by their race, gender or sexual orientation, but each of those things is an important part of who they are. And the adversity they may have experienced — or the broader worldview they possess — can enrich an institution looking to the future. When it comes to choosing Yale’s next president, I am in favor of a strict meritocracy, but merit is not limited to what is on a résumé.
Universities should not seek diversity for diversity’s sake — as a mere bragging right — but for the varied perspectives it brings to a campus. To Brown, in 2001, a president unlike her predecessors brought a unique sense of empathy that demystified Brown for poor kids. Ruth Simmons, the daughter of a sharecropper and the product of segregated schools, became the institution’s first minority president.
Simmons grew up in the desperately poor, staunchly racist world of Houston’s Fifth Ward. A black woman in the Jim Crow South, she was not expected to attend college. After spending a semester at the prestigious, primarily white Wellesley College, Simmons realized she could compete intellectually with wealthy whites. “Now I knew the truth, and an electric bolt went through me,” she recalled in an interview years later. She had always been told she was inherently inferior, yet she overcame the institutionalized and socialized bigotry.
As president of Brown, Simmons was instrumental in securing a $100 million donation to eliminate loans for Brown students. Would a president from a more privileged upbringing have understood the need to lessen the load for poor students?
Mere months into Simmons’s tenure, she gave a major address following the 9/11 terrorist attacks; surrounded by fear and rage, Simmons spoke passionately about combating prejudice and embracing tolerance. Would a president who did not viscerally understand bigotry and hate have understood the complex emotions after a national tragedy in such a nuanced way?
Simmons also brought something more important to Brown: the appearance that the school was a modern and accepting place. That Brown — a member of the historically notoriously white Ivy League — would choose a black woman as its president proved how far the institution had come. It admitted the university’s less-than-accepting past, acknowledged the unique challenges minorities and women seeking to succeed in higher education face, and accepted a world that is changing.
For every $100 white men earn, white women earn $80.50, black men earn $74.50 and black women earn $69.60. African-Americans and Hispanics were stopped roughly nine times as often as whites under New York’s stop-and-frisk law, and black men are in prison at rates six times those of white men. Even ignoring the issue of gay marriage, gay people have trouble obtaining all manner of benefits from the government, and homosexual sodomy laws were still on the books until 2003.
Bigotry is real and pervasive. The challenges women and minorities and gay people face should not be ignored; rather, we should use the wisdom they can glean from those unique challenges.
Appointing a female or a minority or a gay president would not be affirmative action; it would be Yale acting in its own self-interest. We could all benefit from a president with a more nuanced worldview and a true understanding of adversity. We could all benefit from the appearance — and, more important, the reality — that Yale is an accepting and wholly modern place.