The “Yale College Class of 2018” Facebook page launched on Dec. 16, 2013, the same day that admissions decisions were delivered to the University’s early action applicants. Within minutes, the site’s membership swelled with excited prefrosh, who peppered the “timeline” with exclamation marks, congratulations, caps-locked comments and other expressions of sheer elation.
Just a few years ago, I stood in their shoes. I posted overeager comments and questions in the group, made new Facebook friends and planned out the next four years in my head, considering all the interesting people I was sure to meet and the enlightening courses that I would take.
“So excited to bond with you guys over Taylor Swift’s new album!”
“Any other people here who are interested in both pre-med and the humanities?”
“What is everyone’s favorite movie?
But this winter break, I was the one congratulating students and offering some answers. As an undergraduate recruitment coordinator for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, I engaged with admitted high school students whose attitudes ranged from relieved to overwhelmed, extroverted to insecure.
One sentiment, however, was common among the new admits: They were all happy with their acceptance. They all appeared to be unmistakably in love with the University.
When I arrived outside of Lanman-Wright Hall in 2012, suitcases in tow, I shared in this idealism. It took just a few weeks for me to realize that Yale was not the fairytale fortress that I had envisioned. There were people I didn’t like, classes that were at once boring and incredibly stressful, and a social culture that I wasn’t used to.
But I was still happy — and am still happy — with my time here at Yale. For a while, I assumed that we all were. Even if I can never seem to muster the level of school spirit that pervades Harvard-Yale Games, or if I sometimes wonder whether I would have been “a better fit” at Harvard or Princeton, I am content with where I am.
Recently, however, I have been getting a far different impression. If my Twitter feed and the string of national headlines are any indication, Yale has been faltering under the limelight.
In a Jan. 21 New York Times piece, the University was described as having “gotten a schooling” from the founders of Yale Bluebook Plus, an online course catalog that was conspicuously shut down by the administration on the first day of the semester’s shopping period. Students and onlookers alike denounced Yale for practicing censorship, and for its opaque handling of the situation.
This incident, along with a slew of others including negative reactions to Title IX reports and criticism of the search for the new Yale College Dean, pointed to a striking dissonance between our professed pride for our school and our willingness to condemn it.
When I revisited the Class of 2018 Facebook group in early January, I saw that the Times story had been posted by an admitted student. The bad news had reached the incoming class — a group of students just recently inundated with reasons for why Yale was the ideal place to spend the next four years — and I wondered what I would have thought if the controversy had surfaced two years ago. I wondered if I would still have chosen to be a bulldog.
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Suzanne Ingram ’86 gets the Yale Daily News delivered to her door each morning in Wilton, Conn. At the end of the week, after she’s done with the papers, she walks over to the house of her neighbor, Adrian Offinger ’42. They look at the papers again together, and oftentimes, they talk about some of the pieces for a few minutes.
Lately, Offinger has been dismayed by the paper’s opinion section. Every piece seems to argue against something or advocate for some sort of change, he told Ingram.
If everyone wants to change the University so badly, why do they even choose to attend Yale? he asked her one day.
Offinger attended Yale during a completely different era — a time in which, for instance, there were still no female students on campus. But his concerns about criticism of the University are shared by some students today.
“There are a lot of things that we can’t understand because we’re not on the administration side,” Hannah Gonzales ’16 said, adding that she often wonders if students are too forceful in their demands for change.
While she generally supports student initiatives, she said she sometimes feels out of place for not agreeing wholeheartedly with some of the arguments made against the University. As a prestigious brand, Yale has to protect itself, she said, which may mean restricting student voices — the University’s power to do so is one Gonzales does not always support, but ultimately accepts.
It’s possible that this more sympathetic view toward administrative control is something that comes with age. All three Freshman Counselors interviewed acknowledged that there exists, to some extent, a “culture of controversy” — or more crassly, complaining — within the student body.
Yale students enjoy the attention that accompanies having their opinion heard, Gonzales observed.
This social impulse is rooted in psychology. According to Professor John Bargh, people generally pay more attention to negative events because they challenge our survival and are unusual occurrences in our otherwise consistent lives. When compounded with the human instinct to focus on the local, this negativity bias causes students to focus their attention on even minor incidents.
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Prospective students don’t appear to be fazed by this year’s controversies. This winter, Yale College received more applications for admission than ever before in its history.
Stephen Hall ’14, a Jonathan Edwards College freshman counselor, isn’t surprised by this development. To him, the national headlines don’t signify scandal. Rather, they are manifestations of the student body’s culture of activism and innovation — traits for which Yale recruits.
Moreover, Hall said the current student body forgets that these controversies are often preceded by prior instances of cooperation between students and the administration. He recalled entering an app competition in which Yale Bluebook was a contender. Although Yale Bluebook was not selected as the contest winner, the then-newly designed website was eventually acquired by the University.
“It’s not like they’re quelling all the innovation,” Hall said, adding that the University’s move to buy a student-developed application was “just as revolutionary” as its recent blocking of Yale Bluebook Plus.
If we really looked, Hall said, we would be able to find examples of the University paying attention to student voices everywhere. Newer developments include the implementation of fall break and the extension of dining hall hours after Commons was closed for dinner in 2011. Hall said even his job as FroCo could be viewed as teamwork between the administration and students. Few other universities have such a position that juggles being an employee of the residential college administration with being a student and representing that voice.
Michael Protacio ’14 added that he believes we pay insufficient attention to the positive happenings around us. Even the claim that there are no positive voices in campus publications, he said, is ignoring writing venues such as Vita Bella, the student magazine celebrating all forms of beauty in life. Still, he conceded that Vita’s small campus presence is perhaps another indication of our fixation on the negative.
“This is an environment where everyone has been successful by meticulous self-improvement,” he observed. “It’s logical when you see something that you think could be improved to take action.”
All students interviewed came to a similar conclusion — that the criticisms against Yale only persist because the students behind them love the institution and are driven to improve it.
For activists such as Sophie Nethercut ’14, a former member of Students Unite Now, vocalizations of student opinion are the only way to propel the University’s progress. She noted that many of the University’s most triumphant policy changes have come about as a result of persistent activism, citing principally the movement to bring coeducation to campus decades ago.
“Without student voices, you fall behind the times,” Nethercut said. “I think some people are afraid to speak up because they are so thankful to be here, but you can still voice your demands in a way that is respectful.”
Hall viewed the desire to take action as generally positive. Students may be perceived to be complaining, but they’re largely making things better, he said.
And it’s this process and act of fighting for change, Hall said, that might actually make Yalies happy — not just the ultimate change itself.
“If they’re seeing themselves as making a difference and growing here,” Hall noted, “then in some sense they’re achieving their goals and being happy.”
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Dec. 15, 2011
It was 5:09 p.m. when I received my decision. In my excitement, I had clicked past the singing bulldog — my sound was off — and arrived immediately at the welcome letter, so it took me a while to realize what the verdict was.
No one else was home except for my Bichon puppy Lily, who wagged her tail and shared in my happiness.
My parents had already each called me twice in the nine minutes between the expected decision time and when the news arrived. My mother later confessed to me that she had gone to church every day that week and kept a Bible in her purse, praying for good news. My father, ever the solemn and quiet type, did nothing of the sort. Instead, he offered words of support over the phone.
I called my mother first. She cried and yelled the announcement to her colleagues in the bank where she works. I called my father, who said, “Good job, son.” I understood then that this was his way of freaking out.
My mother and I went out for sushi. I had been too nervous to eat during the day, but even at dinner, I could only bring myself to pick at a few pieces. I was still in disbelief.
Later that night, my father arrived home and we replayed the opening greeting a few times, to make sure it wasn’t all a mistake. We would do so every day for the next week, just in case.
I like this story because it reminds me of the good that Yale tries to do. The University’s decision to grant me admission, as unlikely a candidate as I saw myself to be, brought my family together for a moment that has never left me.
I’ve had my doubts about my place inside Yale’s gothic walls. My idealistic notions have been replaced with sentiments much more muted and complex. And maybe that makes my school spirit more real than the image that first attracted me as a prospective student commenting excitedly on the Class of 2016’s Facebook group.
I’ve realized, much like the students interviewed, that my dissatisfactions with Yale are rooted in a deep gratitude: for me, everything changed on December 15, 2011, at 5:09 p.m.