Updated: 11:52 a.m.
Members of the Afro-American Cultural Center presented a petition calling for the removal of Assistant Dean of Yale College and Director of the Af-Am House Rodney Cohen at an external review meeting on Tuesday evening.
During the meeting — which was chaired by Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews — Elisia Ceballo-Countryman ’18, a member of the Af-Am House and freshman liaison for the Black Student Alliance at Yale, presented a 60-page petition signed by 147 students, outlining the students’ grievances about Cohen’s leadership. Students who spoke during the meeting, which drew roughly 40 attendees, and who wrote letters that were included in the petition shared complaints about Cohen’s lack of accessibility, his character and financial management of the cultural center. They also unanimously expressed the view that Cohen should be relieved of his directorship.
“We demand widespread change that begins with the termination of Rodney Cohen’s term as director of the Afro-American Cultural Center,” the petition reads.
Cohen could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning.
The petition, which includes letters from current students and alumni, lists steps taken by house members to improve Cohen’s leadership of the house since he stepped into the position in 2010. Complaints were already lobbied against Cohen after his first semester, and two internal reviews were conducted regarding his leadership between 2010 and 2014, petition organizer Micah Jones ’16 said in an interview with the News. In February 2014, the Af-Am House submitted a first petition calling for Cohen to undergo further training for his position. Jones added that, despite this, Cohen’s contract has been since renewed.
Many issues presented in the petition had to do with Cohen’s handling of house finances. Dara Huggins ’17, treasurer of the Yale Black Women’s Coalition and member of the new Af-Am House Funding Committee, told the News that Cohen has rendered less funding available than his predecessors. While Jones acknowledged funding for cultural houses has been cut across the board, she noted that Cohen never discusses with students the state of the house’s total budget, even though this was standard practice under the previous dean.
Abdul-Razak Zachariah ’17, a member of the Black Men’s Union and Shades, told the News that the Af-Am House has an endowment that traditionally functioned as a funding source to students, but it is no longer openly advertised. A student would have to already know this funding is available, check in the house’s paper records, or directly ask Cohen to take advantage of these resources, Zachariah said.
Further, students who spoke at the forum highlighted a fear of retaliation for their actions. Staff members have been fired in the past because of resistance against Cohen, said Ceballo-Countryman during the meeting. Currently, all other cultural houses have 12 or more student staff members, while the Af-Am House only has five.
“Those of us employed by the house have our jobs on the line,” she added, referring to the large risk that signees took in compiling the petition.
According to Huggins, it is also very difficult for students to communicate with Cohen since he is rarely in his office in the house, opting to spend his time in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall instead. While Zachariah acknowledged that students normally use the house in the evenings, after normal working hours, he agreed that Cohen lacks a physical presence in the house.
“Not only can we never find him, we can also never contact him,” a signatory said in the petition. “The ‘Rodney Cohen is currently out of the office’ automated response has hit my inbox too many times (aka every time I or anyone else in my group have ever sent him an email).”
According to Zachariah, this lack of visibility comes in stark contrast to the relationship between the former house director Pamela George, now assistant dean of academic affairs, and students who used the Af-Am House between 1999 and 2010. Students felt that George was an active presence in the house, Zachariah said.
Huggins said cultural houses are important for minority students since they facilitate discussions that would be difficult to have elsewhere on campus. But the climate at the Af-Am House is not as welcoming as it used to be, she added.
Zachariah, who spends six hours per week at the House due to his involvement in the Black Men’s Union and Shades A Cappella group, agreed with Huggins. He said the house is not a “home-y” communal space, adding that he feels he must have a reason to spend time in the house.
Although students present at Tuesday’s meeting pushed the administration for concrete responses to their grievances, specifically regarding Cohen’s removal, Holloway maintained that he is unable to comment on any issues having to do with personnel.
Julianna Simms ’18, a member of the Af-Am House, said that given the emotional response of the student body, she wishes the conversation were more transparent and honest.
Jacob Neis ’17, who was invited to the meeting by BSAY and was one of 10 Liberal Party members present, said after the meeting that it is troubling that the wider student body is not aware of the issues the house is having, given that they have been going on for so long.
Moving forward, the African-American student community is looking for written confirmation that the administration will remove Cohen by the end of the year, Eshe Sherley ’16 said after the meeting.
“That is the only thing that will show us as they’ve heard us,” Sherley added.