On April 9, 19 students were threatened with arrest for protesting Yale’s refusal to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Although I cannot be sure, I believe this situation would have unfolded differently if Kingman Brewster Jr., Yale’s 17th president, had been in charge.
No president had a better vision for Yale and its purpose than Brewster, whose 14-year tenure ran from 1963 to 1977. Trained in the law, he presided over the University’s transformation from a bastion of wealth to a melting pot of diversity predicated on merit and equal opportunity. He was a man with a creed and a firm understanding of the values of a liberal arts institution. On three fronts, Brewster redefined the purpose of the university in the postwar world to become a sanctuary for free thought, a place where ideas, in addition to people, were universally respected.
These accomplishments are even more impressive if we consider the context of higher education in America when he presided. Swept up in cultural upheaval and anti-Vietnam War sentiment, the student body’s militancy would have made the Occupy New Haven movement seem a mild inconvenience.
Brewster’s greatest challenge came in handling the intense scrutiny and student radicalism that surrounded the New Haven Black Panther trials of 1970. An ardent guardian of free speech, Brewster encouraged the University to debate the issue freely; classes were made optional and grades converted to Pass/Fail. Students such as Kurt Schmoke ’71, the future Baltimore mayor, were empowered to speak with faculty and administrators. When thousands of supporters of the Black Panthers congregated on the New Haven Green to protest the trial, Brewster knew that the size and vehemence of these protests posed a threat to campus safety. But unlike Harvard and Columbia administrators, Brewster welcomed demonstrators to Yale. He encouraged college masters to open their courtyards to house and feed earnest protestors. This hospitality defused the radicalism of the event and the protests proceeded more peacefully than the nation had anticipated. Brewster deftly steered Yale through a thorny situation that also reflected his tact regarding town-gown relations.
Administrative talent aside, Brewster understood academia too. “Tenure is for all normal purposes a guarantee of appointment until retirement age,” Brewster wrote in his treatise “On Tenure.” His policy on tenure spoke to his deep understanding of the life of a university professor. Among other reasons, he supported tenured faculty for the liberty that it offers the professor and for holding them to high educational standards. The modern university climate, with its preference for adjunct appointments, would have surely left Brewster displeased.
Lastly, he redefined Yale’s admission standards. Brewster put a swift end to the Yale of Dink Stover, when wealth and status meant more than merit and talent. Instead, Brewster asked for equal opportunity at Yale. He envisioned a place where, regardless of background, a diverse group of thoughtful students could share ideas and experiences. Then he made it happen. Despite strong backlash from old-money alumni, the admissions office took up a new rubric for evaluating applicants. Subsequently, the proportion of low-income and minority students increased. The backbone of Yale’s undergraduate admissions policy has been mostly left intact since his presidency.
The students who sat in Woodbridge Hall in support of the divestment campaign earlier this month did so because they believed only the specter of negative publicity would compel the University to engage with them. Although President Salovey spoke with the students, his remarks were deeply unsatisfying. According to a News article (“Fossil Free Yale stages Woodbridge Hall sit-in,” April 9), Salovey only told the FFY activists that he would pass along their message when they asked him for an opportunity to meet with select members of the Yale Corporation.
But what would Brewster have done? In April 1970, the Black Student Alliance and the Third World Liberation Front cooperated on a massive strike. It could have turned violent, yet Brewster welcomed the protestors with arms wide open. He let the students speak; he let them say what they wanted to say. His aptitude in handling these protests indicates that Brewster understood both the students and the times.
While I cannot assure FFY members that President Brewster would have divested from the fossil fuel industry, I guarantee that he would have handled the situation differently. So long as the unrest did not grow violent, he was happy to let students speak their minds. Even if Salovey cannot instruct the University to divest, he had the authority to ensure no one was threatened with arrest or fined just for acting peacefully on their conscience.
Every modern university president should strive to be like Kingman Brewster. Not only did Brewster have a firm grasp on university administration, but he also understood the larger objectives of higher education. Brewster revolutionized liberal arts at Yale. He understood that leadership began with listening.
Nathan Steinberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .