On Nov. 24, University President Peter Salovey sent the Yale community a message with the subject line, “On Gratitude.” In honor of Thanksgiving, Salovey wrote, Yalies should remember, “It was November, 1968 that Yale announced it would admit women undergraduates. The move to coeducation is a moment in Yale’s history for which all of us can feel thankful.”
I was vaguely put off by Salovey’s tone. Should Yale women really recall the decision to go co-ed by “expressing gratitude,” as he put it? But my own feelings were not entirely clear to me until I read a Facebook status from former News Opinion Editor Marissa Medansky ’15. She pointed out the absurdity of Yale students being “thankful” for coeducation, as if it came to be spontaneously or because of Yale’s generosity or wisdom.
We should not express “gratitude” to Yale for allowing women through its ivy-covered gates. To discuss coeducation in such a reductive manner is to disregard both the work that went into forcing Yale to admit women and the continuing efforts toward gender equality on this campus.
Brave women had been pushing and protesting and rallying for coeducation for a century before Yale went co-ed. Inspired by activists in the Women’s Rights Movement, Yale students began picketing in favor of coeducation as early as 1963. Then-President Kingman Brewster, torn between the calls of the students, the threats of intransigent alumni and his own feelings, delayed a decision for years. In 1968, nearly 1,000 protesters marched on Brewster’s home. Meanwhile, other colleges across the country had begun letting women in.
Administrators decided to let women matriculate for a variety of reasons, but in large part because of activism from women on the outside, protests from students on the inside and a desire to “preserve Yale’s position at a time when a rapidly changing environment threatened to push it into decline,” in the words of historian Jerome Karabel. The University became coeducational because of the concerted efforts of those whom Yale opposed for decades.
I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to suggest that President Salovey’s email glosses over this history. Worse, it asks Yalies to gloss over it too. It suggests that we merely say thank you.
Should black or Jewish students say thank you because they’re no longer restricted by punitive admissions quotas? Should Asian students say thank you because they’re not as excluded as they used to be? Should Native American students also say thank you for their admission — especially on Thanksgiving, a holiday Salovey apparently believes is “devoted to the simple acts of feeling and expressing gratitude.”
To be fair, Salovey does not specify exactly to whom Yalies should be saying ‘thank you.’ Salovey’s email names only one woman who played a role in the battles for coeducation.
That woman was Elga Wasserman LAW ’76, who “paved the way for generations of women.” Yet, as Medansky pointed out, we learn little about her except that she was an administrator, “a faculty spouse” who was “also a chemist.”
Salovey also wrote, “there is more still to be done.” Damn right. But this was as close as Salovey came to a specific call to arms. Considering Yale’s recent bad press surrounding sexual misconduct, I can think of a few initiatives Salovey could have put forward.
I don’t mean to pick on this single email, but to me it embodies the way the Yale administration wants students to view the University. If progress comes, students should be grateful. The idea that students play any role in spurring that progress — that’s absurd. If students were the driving force of change, rather than its passive recipients, they, and their successors, would have less cause to be thankful than to feel accomplished.
Yale does not make progress because the administration is so enlightened or because progress just happens. Yale makes progress because students, faculty, staff and outside activists demand progress. Yale adopted its recent sustainability initiatives because of student activism. Yale stepped up its policies aimed at combating sexual violence because of calls (and lawsuits) from students and the actions of peer universities.
The University offers wonderful financial aid, but, again, this did not come to be spontaneously or because of Yale’s generosity. Yale could not hope to compete with peer universities without such aid; more importantly, financial aid has improved over the decades because of the vocal, and sometimes physical, activism of students.
One day, when Yale recognizes the graduate student union, that too will be a result of sustained activism.
In the end, many administrators, as well as a number of alumni, don’t believe students are wise enough to play a substantive role in decision-making. If progress comes, they believe, it must — and should — come from the top. For that ideology, we cannot be thankful.
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His columns usually run on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.