On Friday the 13th, Dean Jonathan Holloway sent an email to the student body: “A message about sexual misconduct and the Yale College community.” It included a letter from “The Brothers of SAE” regarding the fraternity’s violation of Yale’s policy on sexual misconduct. Cue campus buzz that lasted a couple of days, maybe even a week.
Pretty soon the conversations died down. After all, the letter contained little concrete information. There were no particulars to ground discussion. And maybe this is a good thing. Letters like this one toe a dangerous line — they may fuel productive conversation, or they may just breed gossip.
Still, Holloway concluded his email by calling on students to read SAE’s letter closely: “I urge you to read it because it contributes to discussions aimed at improving our campus climate.” Those discussions have yet to emerge in concrete ways, but they are critically important. Now is an opportune moment for discourse on reforming Greek life at Yale.
In the past year, Greek life has made waves across national headlines. In November, Rolling Stone reported on the troubling abuses of a fraternity at the University of Virginia. At Stanford, a swimmer was accused of assaulting a woman after a fraternity party. And just last month director Kirby Dick released the documentary “The Hunting Ground,” an exposé on campus rape. Holloway’s email reminds us that Yale is not immune to this pervasive culture of misogyny and abuse.
The letter’s release was critical for a number of reasons. As Holloway explained to me in an email, “One of the UWC’s goals is to find ways to educate involved parties in any situation.” With the SAE incident, Holloway and other administrators felt there was an opportunity to educate the community without violating the confidentiality of parties involved in the case.
Holloway’s email also figures importantly in a case in which SAE otherwise escaped with little retribution. According to the email sent to the Yale community, the UWC’s sanctions against SAE included: “a ban on on-campus activities;” a ban on communication through university emails; a two-year prohibition on use of the SAE name in conjunction with Yale.
Effectively, all of this means very little. Because SAE’s house is off campus, the on-campus ban has barely any impact. They can advertise their functions through Gmail rather than Yale email. Since the case closed last fall, the fraternity has frequently hosted parties and events. An anonymous member of the fraternity acknowledged that the UWC sanctions changed very little in the way that SAE operates. “The sanctions themselves have basically no effect on us,” he told me.
Admittedly, University administrators are limited in their ability to place sanctions on organizations that primarily operate off campus. In SAE’s case, Yale recognized a flagrant violation of the school’s sexual misconduct policies — but administrators struggled to devise sanctions that would actually impact the fraternity’s activities.
That’s where the Feb. 13 letter factors in. It’s a call to action of sorts. We can’t feign ignorance of the fact that our community is plagued by many of the same abuses present at UVA, at Stanford, at schools across the country. And the burden is not just on administrators, but also on students to identify areas for improvement in Yale’s social and sexual culture.
At a national level, survivors and activists have floated many powerful ideas for reform. One of the most innovative and potentially effective is the move to make fraternities coed. Nearby Wesleyan University implemented this initiative last fall; university spokesperson Kate Carlisle told CNN the decision aimed to make the campus “as fair, inclusive and equitable as possible.” Yale might consider an initiative of this sort, one with large-scale impact that would demonstrate leadership at a national level.
But in the meantime, to borrow the White House and the Yale College Council’s language on the subject — it’s on us. Institutions are bogged down by forces of inertia, but students don’t have to be. We can take our superficial conversations about SAE’s letter and deepen them, using them to re-examine ourselves and our school culture.
Emma Goldberg is a junior in Saybrook College and a former opinion editor for the News. Her column usually runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.