Four months after the first-ever external review of Yale’s four cultural centers revealed widespread problems, the University has committed to take action.
The external consulting group’s report, released in December, highlighted issues ranging from rundown facilities to ill-defined leadership roles. Now, after months of discussion and vocal student activism, the University said the majority of the group’s proposals will be implemented for the coming school year.
In a Monday afternoon email to the Yale community, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley and University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews promised to renovate three of the four houses, increase all of their budgets for the 2015–16 academic year, and restructure the roles of the cultural center directors. Specifically, the email promised renovations to the Asian American Cultural Center, La Casa Cultural and the Afro-American Cultural Center, increased responsibilities for the centers’ directors, and support and supervision for the centers from the new dean of student engagement and associate vice president for student life, Burgwell Howard, who will arrive this fall.
“As the University strengthens its commitment to diversity, recognizing that it cannot lay claim to excellence without simultaneously supporting a diverse campus, we see the cultural centers playing a vital role in what will surely be important conversations in the years ahead,” the email said. “The consultation group has made some recommendations, such as addressing needs in physical space, budgeting and personnel, that call for immediate action. That work has already begun. Other recommendations require continued engagement of the entire Yale community as well as the centers’ communities themselves.”
The planned changes fall into eight categories that correspond to areas for improvement highlighted by the consultation group, including the physical space of the centers, their leadership and their organizational structures. Although some of the email’s promised changes are more symbolic — a commitment to “honoring the [centers’] past while reaching toward the years and decades to come,” for example — others, such as the renovations, will involve significant financial and administrative reorganization.
According to Monday’s email, all four centers will be “improved and modernized.” The AACC and La Casa, which the email identified as needing the most attention, have been assessed by the Department of Facilities and will be upgraded by this fall, followed by the Af-Am House, the email said. The Native American Cultural Center, which just opened in 2013, will then be assessed for possible renovations.
While students in the cultural centers have campaigned for new spaces in more central locations, considerations about finding or building new centers would require more thought, the email said. The centers will not change location, the email added, but administrators have asked for input on how the centers might accommodate larger groups.
Additionally, the directors of the centers, who also serve as assistant deans of Yale College, will see a decrease in their decanal duties and will now be able to spend more time focusing on the centers’ programming, the email said.
“The new role of the director is great because I always thought [the directors] were overworked,” La Casa Student Coordinator Benjamin Bartolome ’16 said. “To have fewer responsibilities and be able to focus on the center will make the job far more sustainable.”
The centers will also have more oversight from the upper levels of the administration. When Howard assumes his role as dean of student engagement in August — a new University-wide position — he will be responsible for providing more direct guidance to the centers’ directors, the email said, helping them decide how best to allocate their resources.
Howard said that while it is too early for know what form his supervision will take, he is eager to listen to what community members have to say.
“When I arrive in New Haven later this summer, I will obviously want to meet with the staff of the centers, and better understand the needs and goals from their perspectives, and also hear from students who are heavily engaged in these communities to understand their hopes and needs,” Howard said.
Still, Monday’s email emphasized that the changes promised are a first step, not a conclusion to the dialogue surrounding Yale’s commitment to diversity.
Students, too, noted the importance of sustaining the conversation. But students emphasized that the need for new centers is a serious one.
Helder Toste ’16, a NACC peer liaison, said the changes are a “decent compromise” but added that the issue of space, while difficult to address, is critical.
“While it’s great they’re making these improvements, I don’t think they’ll be sufficient for serving the center in the long run,” said Casey Lee ’17, a member of the AACC. “We definitely need a center that has more expansive space … I hope that building or founding new buildings for the centers is not something that is brushed off as something beyond the scope of this consultation.”
Bartolome called the promised changes “the most exciting development for our [La Casa] community in a really long time,” but added that the renovations are only a first step toward making future generations of Latino students feel at home.
“We appreciate these first steps to improving the centers, and I’m confident that the [Asian-American] community, along with the other three centers, will continue to be in conversation with the administration and continue the trajectory they’re going on,” Lee said.