Many Yalies share the attitude that the University administration is not responsive to undergraduates’ concerns. Pointing to slow progress on financial aid reform and gender-neutral housing, continuing issues with sexual violence and mental health on campus and the University’s decision not to divest from fossil fuels, some have concluded that the administration simply doesn’t care very much what students think.
Columnists on this page have accused the administration of “very limited respect for the student voice,” and have called on students to “push administrators to change.” The implication of these claims is that, unless undergraduates express their opinions forcefully, or even hostilely, to administrators, they will not be taken seriously.
Frankly, I sometimes think that those who don’t believe the Yale administration is responsive to undergraduates’ concerns attend a different university than I do. Off the top of my head, I can think of eight occasions in recent memory in which students communicated concerns civilly and respectfully to administrators, who thereupon took substantial, and often prompt, action in response.
One example is the new alcohol policy, announced by the Yale College Dean’s Office last May, which guarantees students will not face discipline if they seek medical help for themselves or their friends in alcohol-related emergencies. Beforehand, students had regularly criticized Yale’s alcohol policies as unclear and counterproductive; in response, the Dean’s Office convened a committee of 12 undergraduates, held several open meetings to discuss alcohol on campus and delivered a policy that was exactly what students had asked for.
The administration has also been extremely responsive to student concerns about the academic calendar. After several calls for a three-day fall break, the administration introduced one in 2012; when students expressed dissatisfaction with the resulting shortened reading period, the administration restored it to four weekdays; and this year, the administration reformed the term paper deadline in response to substantial student consensus that term papers ought to be due at the end of the examination period.
Beyond the mundane concerns of student life, the administration has taken its lead from undergraduates on several, more politically sensitive issues. Partially in response to student concerns, Yale Health announced in April 2013 that its insurance plan would begin covering sex reassignment surgery for students. Similarly, only a month after Alejandro Gutierrez ’13 wrote a column about the difficulties faced by low-income, first-generation college students (“Easing the transition to Yale,” Feb. 19, 2013), the administration announced the creation of Freshman Scholars at Yale, a pre-college summer bridge program. (Whether or not Gutierrez’s column had a material effect on the decision, many other students had previously vocalized similar concerns to the administration.)
Finally, the administration has often been willing to back down from proposed actions that have proven unpopular with the student body. After a petition opposing proposed changes to Yale’s grading policy garnered 1,300 signatures in the spring of 2013, the administration promptly shelved the proposal. Similarly, the administration backed down quickly from its decision to block Yale Bluebook Plus (now CourseTable) last spring after the Yale community expressed its dissatisfaction. In both cases, the administration responded promptly to student opinion.
These eight incidents represent moments when the administration paid attention to students who expressed their opinions publicly. I suspect there have been yet many more occasions in which student opinion, expressed privately to administrators, has helped drive University decisions. Several institutions connect students to administrators regularly, including the over 25 standing committees with student representatives, the weekly meetings between leaders of the Yale College Council and high-ranking administrators and Dean Jonathan Holloway’s semiweekly meals with students. Less formal ways to convey student opinion to administrators exist as well: Last year, the admin of the “Yale Ideas” student Facebook page was easily able to set up a meeting with now-Dean Tamar Gendler, to discuss some of the proposals floated by students.
Obviously there are areas where the administration has taken a stance opposite to that of the majority of students. This is not fundamentally a problem — any college administration will, from time to time, do things we don’t agree with. The Yale administration does not derive its legitimacy from the general will of the student body, and it would be a poor administration that took direction from everything its undergraduates demanded. Rather, all we can ask of the administration is that it listen to what the student body has to say and use its best judgment.
I suspect that student distrust of and antipathy toward the administration is born out of a general suspicion of authority, or perhaps a romantic nostalgia for the student protests of decades past. Whether or not these attitudes are worthwhile, the claim that Yale’s administration does not take students’ opinions seriously warrants actual examination.
The bulk of the evidence shows that the administration has indeed been responsive to the undergraduate student body. Claims that we must engage with the administration forcefully and hostilely, through demands and protests, are almost certainly counterproductive and should be ignored.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.