Lately, Yale students seem to love protesting. Over the past few months, students have gathered in front of Woodbridge Hall to protest the University’s financial aid policies, its refusal to divest from fossil fuels (twice) and its war on Christmas (actually). While none of the events in question attracted more than 100 people, protests have occurred more frequently this semester than at any other point while I’ve been at Yale.
This Friday, another student protest will take place on campus, entitled “Unite Yale: Rally for Student Power.” Unlike the other recent protests, the Rally for Student Power doesn’t revolve around one particular issue. Rather, the attendees plan to call attention to four different grievances against the administration: the neglect of cultural centers and students of color; the burdensome student contribution; the inaccessibility of mental health services; and the University’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels.
What do these four grievances have in common? The organizers describe the overall rationale of the protest on the event’s Facebook page: “Student demands have been left unaddressed by the Yale Corporation and our administrators long enough … Together, we JOIN HANDS and forge powerful solidarities in our intertwined struggles for a better, more responsible university.”
I’ve written in this newspaper before that Yale’s administration, contrary to what student activists would have us think, has shown a tremendous amount of respect for students’ voices and ideas. On nearly a dozen occasions within the last three years, the administration has taken substantial action in response to student concerns. Most recently, the administration extended gender-neutral housing to sophomores following a report from the Yale College Council and considerable student support. Not a single protest was held on behalf of gender-neutral housing for sophomores; not a single demand was necessary.
In general, I tend to think that protests fall short of the level of rational discourse about issues that we expect at a place like Yale. Instead of penning letters and scheduling meetings, protesters chant slogans and hold signs. But I don’t usually criticize specific protests on campus. After all, most protests aren’t really about presenting ideas and arguments. They’re about “pressuring” the administration into action by threatening it with bad publicity — in short, blackmail, which many Yalies seem to be perfectly okay with. Far be it from me to deny my fellow students the pleasure of standing up to The Man.
Yet Friday’s upcoming protest is different. Unlike the last several protests, this event doesn’t even have a pretense of trying to persuade the administration about a specific issue. Instead, Friday’s protest seems to have a much broader agenda. The protest is called the “Rally for Student Power,” and the theme of the protest is just that: students who think that they should have more power — in other words, that they should get their way more often.
I’ve taken enough political philosophy classes to know that when people claim they deserve more power, the appropriate response is, “By what right?”Friday’s protest isn’t about a single issue; it’s a group of people claiming power for themselves more generally. The attendees of the Rally for Student Power should be called upon to defend why students deserve more power.
Yesterday morning, when I began writing this column, I emailed all 11 organizers of the protest, asking them why students are entitled to a larger role in University governance. None answered my question, but we can test out a few theories. Do students deserve power because they usually know better than administrators? This seems unlikely. We spend only four short years at Yale, while administrators are stewards of an educational tradition and have a much broader view of what is likely to benefit the University. Furthermore, the administration is sufficiently committed to soliciting student opinion that students’ insights are always taken into account. Do students deserve power because they care more than administrators about justice? For every student who has RSVP’d to show up to Friday’s protest, there are four who will become investment bankers. Do students deserve power because administrators are perpetually blinded by greed and outside interests? This amounts to an outlandish conspiracy theory. Do students deserve power because they are constituents of the University? Constituent interests can be addressed without institutionalized representation. Do students deserve power because they are less privileged than administrators? If so, let the population of New Haven govern the University!
At Friday’s protest, students will air grievances about four important issues of University governance. But really, the question at stake is whether the protesters deserve the power to make demands and get their way. I urge them to address this question directly. See if you buy their case.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .