Yale’s cultural houses are in a transition period, seeking to bolster the services they offer despite limited resources, and to reaffirm the value of supportive, tight-knit communities as our University prepares to expand.
Yet one cultural house, the Afro-American Cultural Center, is plagued by a more particular problem: the failed leadership of Rodney Cohen, assistant dean of Yale College and the center’s director. One hundred and forty-seven students have signed a 69-page petition outlining grievances against Cohen, spanning matters of accessibility, character and financial management. Several students with leadership positions in the house expressed doubt that Cohen even knew their names, which is a disgrace.
“The [Af-Am House] is no longer fulfilling its historic mission of serving as a cultural, social and academic space for Black students,” read one statement, among dozens from students appended to the petition. “The apathy and disengagement of Center Director Rodney Cohen is at the center of the issues we face.”
Another student put it in equally frank terms: “Finding a supportive black community here at Yale for me has happened not because of Dean Cohen, but in spite of him.”
To restore faith in the Af-Am House, Cohen must resign as director. This is vital not only to the wellbeing of students who rely on the house, but also to the broader mission of rehabilitating the centers. Actions — or rather, inaction — must have consequences, and this is not a first offense on Cohen’s part.
Complaints were lodged against him in 2010, in an internal assessment of his first year as director. Students asked that Cohen complete further training and demonstrate improvement over the course of the following year, or risk being removed. Two internal reviews were conducted in the next four years. In February 2014, students submitted an internal petition calling, again, for Cohen to complete further training. No action was taken, at least none apparent to students who spend hours every week at the house.
At an open meeting held in November, Cohen said students were ungrateful for the house, which he described as an academic space, not a social one, according to one student in attendance.
This is Cohen’s third strike. His position at the helm of the center has become an impediment to its mission: to anchor black students at Yale, to cultivate a strong sense of community and, according to the center’s website, to propel “black Yalies to become some of the Nation’s leading thinkers, activists and professionals.”
So, too, does Cohen’s continued directorship impede the effort to improve the services of all four cultural centers, found lacking in financial and administrative resources by a review board earlier this month. A report, compiled by the external consultants, highlighted uneven resources, deteriorating physical infrastructure and organizational confusion as some of the centers’ primary woes. These are all matters on which Cohen has been, at best, absent and, at worst, deceptive, according to students who have worked under him as staff and depended on him as leaders of organizations subsidized by the center.
The News attempted to reach Cohen for comment over the past five days, but he was unresponsive.
Dozens of students testified in the petition to Cohen’s pervasive absence, failure to maintain basic upkeep of facilities, inability to answer emails and obstinate refusal to listen to student suggestions and requests.
The problem is perhaps a broader one.
Students at the Native American Cultural Center encountered similar difficulties with former Director Ted Van Alst. Yet a student who took his complaints to Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry said his name was revealed to Van Alst. His grievance was never addressed, and Van Alst subsequently chose not to fund the student’s NACC organization, the student said.
Currently, there is no mechanism that affords students anonymity in voicing concerns about cultural center directors. Without a system that holds directors accountable, students are left wondering if their complaints are taken seriously. Being able to write to Dean Gentry is demonstrably not enough.
In the wake of the external review of the cultural centers, many students have highlighted the vexed dual role of the directors. All four directors also serve as assistant deans of Yale College. Some say students rely on cultural center directors as “personal lifelines,” even as therapists. It is difficult to shoulder this responsibility while balancing administrative tasks in the Dean’s Office.
One idea students have suggested is to create two separate positions: an administrator in charge of the center and an assistant dean whose obligations lie solely in SSS. We urge Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway to examine this proposal. It is quite possible that Cohen’s role as assistant dean should outlast his directorship of the Af-Am House.
Many important decisions await the University with regard to the cultural centers. Some are complex budgetary matters. Others concern the precise job responsibilities of the directors.
But this decision — whether Cohen should continue to head the Af-Am House — is a simpler one. Having lost the support of students, his sole constituents, he must go.