I wore a string of pearls and a boat-necked blue dress for my day in front of the Executive Committee — periwinkle blue, because I thought it looked wholesome. It was a mid-September Wednesday morning in 2012 during my sophomore year at Yale, and as I stepped into the elevator of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall to make my way to the fourth floor ExComm meeting room, a gothic hall with high, mahogany-beamed ceilings that make you feel appropriately small, I remember thinking, “Shit.”
Three weeks before, I had been at a party at an off-campus fraternity house — an annual welcoming party for Yale’s international freshman hosted by their Orientation for International Students counselors, myself included. The music was loud, the house was crowded, and, in line with a then-well-established tradition that has since been abolished, booze was in plentiful supply. I was standing in the backyard when, shortly after midnight, I began to notice an all-too-common college party phenomenon: a mildly panicked exodus. An ambulance had been called, and an inebriated freshman was en route to Yale-New Haven Hospital for the night. The Yale Police were out front.
As I started to make my own way out of the party, I came across a freshman whose walk toward the door had devolved into a no longer-forward-moving stumble. I soon decided, along with another counselor and a friend of the freshman, that the freshman would benefit from a trip to Yale Student Health. We set off through the front door, only to be stopped at the sidewalk by four University police officers. They scolded us, saying that the freshman was too drunk to be helped at Student Health, took down our names, and subsequently delivered to Yale-New Haven its second freshman of the night.
On the following Wednesday, I received a charging letter (marked “CONFIDENTIAL”) from the Yale College Dean’s Office. The same one was issued for seven other students: three OIS head counselors, three non-senior OIS counselors (part of a group of counselors that totaled almost twenty-five), and one fraternity president. The fraternity president had not been present at the party — and, in fact, some of us had never met him. He was being charged because he had allowed us to host the event in his fraternity house. Still, on the day I wore my periwinkle dress, all seven of us appeared in front of ExComm together.
There, we sat across from a line of five or six Committee members (they never introduced themselves, but included Pamela George, the Secretary of ExComm, Carol Jacobs, its then-Chair, and a student member who sat awkwardly at the end of the line). The other charged students and I had brought a residential college master or dean along as a personal advisor, each of whom stood at the beginning of the hearing to give statements (primarily lists of extracurricular activities) on our behalf. A brief interrogation round followed in which questions like “Who bought the alcohol?” — directed at no one in particular — were thrown out into the room’s stale air. There were no satisfactory answers. Not having been involved in the alcohol purchase, I couldn’t say for sure who had been, and my guess is that this was the case for most of us. Eventually, all seven of us were asked to leave the room with our advisors while the members of the Committee deliberated.
The specific charges we faced were unclear, as was the potential punishment. Under paragraph C.3 of the Disciplinary Procedures of the Executive Committee in Yale’s Undergraduate Regulations, the Chair of ExComm has to provide any student brought through ExComm with “a written statement of the alleged infraction” at least four working days before his or her hearing, with “any statement prepared by the fact-finder [and] copies of all other relevant documents” attached. My charging letter stated that my conduct “may have violated” the “Yale College Regulations on Alcoholic Beverages” (a four-page section of the regulations) and the “Regulations on Social Functions” (a five-page section), but didn’t give any further detail. Of the attachments, one was a Yale Police Department Incident Report that listed the names of the seven students charged by ExComm (some labeled “participant,” others labeled simply “other”) and named our non-criminal offense (“Medical Assistance Needed,” “Suspected of Using: Alcohol”). The other attachment was a party registration form that one of the three head counselors had filled out and submitted to the Yale College Dean’s Office a few days before the event. The last question on the form read: “Will alcohol be available?” The response provided: “Yes.”
Still, I opted to accept what is called a “disposition without a formal hearing,” which my charging letter said would be taken as an “admission to the validity of the complaint.” I decided to do so after my Master warned me that asking for a formal hearing might result in harsher sentencing, and that it would involve appearing in front of the full Executive Committee rather than a subset of five or six members. In other words, I was advised to plea bargain.
As the Undergraduate Regulations currently stand, according to rule II.A of the regulations for “Social Functions,” anyone and everyone of legal drinking age who is affiliated with a party’s hosting organization can be held liable for alcohol violations at that party — serving to minors, for example — if a specific responsible party within the group or the host of the party can’t be identified. The only exception to this rule comes from Yale’s Medical Emergency Policy, which offers amnesty from disciplinary action to students who seek help for another student during a medical emergency. But in September 2012, the Undergraduate Regulations were different. There was no anyone-and-everyone-affiliated rule; no Medical Emergency Policy. In a case like ours, the only person who could have reasonably been held responsible for alcohol violations, according to the Undergraduate Regulations as they then read, was an of-legal-drinking-age, registered host of the party. Our party registration form listed just one name as this of-legal-drinking-age host. Yet there we sat, all seven of us.
This reading of the regulations may or may not have had any bearing on the sentences doled out to the three non-senior counselors who were charged by ExComm. The Committee elected to withdraw all charges, and the three of us went unpunished. For the other charged students in the room, however — the three head counselors and the fraternity president — such a reading seemed to have no effect. They all received a reprimand (an innocuous sentence that doesn’t appear on a student’s disciplinary record), but the two head counselors who also happened to be in the fraternity at whose house the party was held also received a second sentence. They were told that their deactivation from their fraternity would be effective immediately, that they were prohibited from entering the fraternity residence for the rest of their time at Yale, and that should the fraternity president encounter them there and fail to report the incident to ExComm, all three of them would face more serious consequences. Ironically, it was the third head counselor — the one who received just a reprimand — who had been listed on the party registration form as its host.
We were ultimately dismissed from the hearing, but not without a caveat: the details of our case, along with the proceedings of that day, were to be kept entirely confidential.
Two years later, there are no visible traces of the ordeal. Our academic records are unmarred. Some of us have already graduated; the rest of us soon will. The Orientation for International Students has reformed its welcome rituals: The counselors have everyone play Capture the Flag on its last night, and no one tells the freshmen the story of why. My residential college master now knows my name, and asks how I am when we pass on the street. I’m fine; unscathed.
This, however, is a story about invisibility: about the dozens of students that have since appeared before ExComm, the hundreds that appeared prior, the potentially thousands that will follow; students whose disciplinary processes have been hushed by variably welcome and unwelcome but uniformly unexplained demands that they keep their cases confidential. It’s a story about what it means for our University to administer extralegal disciplinary rulings, and for these rulings to occur behind closed and confidential-or-else doors.
The Quiet Rule
Between the 1998–1999 and 2012–2013 academic years, the years for which Yale’s Executive Committee Report is publicly archived on its website, 1625 students and approximately 1,000 cases (cases often include more than one student) have gone in front of ExComm. Only 75 of these students had their cases adjudicated in formal trials, fact-finders and all. The rest chose, as I did, to have a disposition without a formal hearing. A little more than a third of these 1625 students were charged with some form of academic dishonesty, while the rest were charged with offenses ranging from drug and alcohol violations to hazing to hitting other students with snowballs and even to fraud, as in an incident during the 2004–2005 school year in which 22 students changed their birthdays on their student accounts so they could obtain fake IDs. Until 2011, when the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct was formed, ExComm also handled cases of sexual misconduct (though the conclusion of the federal Title IX investigation against Yale suggested that it did so inadequately). For the fifteen academic years covered in these reports, ExComm outcomes for all dispositions and formal hearings — for all offenses — break down roughly as follows:
A little less than 1% of students had their degrees withheld;
8% were suspended;
15% were put on probation;
62% received reprimands;
14% saw their charges dropped.
This averages out to about 108 students being ExCommed in any given academic year—about 2% of the student body—resulting in one degree withheld, nine suspensions, 16 students on probation, 67 students reprimanded and 15 sets of charges dropped. It’s a small but not insignificant population, sketched vaguely by one-sentence summaries within the chairs’ reports, “Four juniors were reprimanded for setting fire to a bench” (1998–99). “Sophomore charged with Theft for taking potassium hydroxide from a chemistry lab, then found to be lying when the explanation was it was needed to clean a friend’s (nonexistent) aquarium, was given probation for 1 term” (2008–2009). These summaries also exist in printed form: in a thick “precedent book” binder—organized by both sanction and by violation—often used by the Executive Committee for reference in determining a student’s most appropriate punishment.
Under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, universities have a legal obligation to keep their students’ education records—disciplinary records included—confidential. But, at Yale, confidentiality restrictions seem to stretch beyond the parameters of the law. Members of the Executive Committee claim that they are prohibited from speaking in any capacity about the committee, as do residential college masters and deans, citing the possibility of unintentionally disclosing or alluding to the confidential details of students’ cases. As I attempted to interview members of the Executive Committee, several of them expressed confusion with my interest in the topic:
“You are the second student and 3rd request I have received for an interview regarding workings of the Executive Committee this term,” Ruth Blake, the Geology and Geophysics professor who serves as ExComm’s Chair, wrote in an email. “Not sure why there is an impression of mysteriousness or lack of access to information on the process, but it is all public knowledge available on Yale websites and in the Undergraduate Regulations, also available on line… beyond the descriptions of procedures followed — which appear in online documents and are indeed followed as written — I am not sure what else I could add.”
Pamela George, assistant dean of academic affairs and secretary to the executive committee, wrote: “I don’t understand what your question or purpose is regarding ‘demystifying’ the process, especially when someone in this class interviews me every year. What is your thesis based on? Have you read the disciplinary procedures in the Undergraduate Regulations?” When we ultimately met for an interview, Dean George was upset to hear that I intended ultimately to publish this piece, and refused to let me record our interview, despite my repeated requests. “You’re welcome to take notes,” she said. “And if you want to quote me, I’ll check them.”
Despite their claims to the contrary, the administration is far from oblivious to what former ExComm Chair Carol Jacobs’ identified in the 2012-2013 Executive Committee Chair’s Report as “student apprehension of the Executive Committee.” In fact, in the report, Jacobs hit the crux of my “thesis” on the head, writing: “Perhaps misconception is inevitable given that all participants in the meetings of the Executive Committee are required to maintain strict confidentiality.”
Beyond ExComm members maintaining that they cannot discuss the work of ExComm even generally, they also claim, citing a “rule” of ExComm, that students are required to keep their own cases completely secret. Harvard has a similar rule for their disciplinary committee, the Harvard Administrative Board, which is written clearly on the board’s website: “All participants are to keep confidential any information contained in a case document or otherwise obtained from their participation in the complaint process… Disclosing these materials to anyone other than those with a need to know is prohibited and may subject a student to disciplinary or legal action.” But a search through Yale’s Undergraduate Regulations yields little to this effect beyond a passing reference to members of the committee “maintaining the confidentiality of the Executive Committee hearings” and a note that all documents pertaining to ExComm are “strictly confidential.” The Yale administration seems to rely almost entirely on FERPA, the federal law governing the privacy of student records, to back up their confidentiality rule.
It is one thing for the administrators of disciplinary action to invoke confidentiality under federal law. But in cases that pertain exclusively to the student being charged, claims that the law binds students themselves to silence are like asserting that federal privacy laws related to medical records (i.e. HIPAA) prohibit medical patients from complaining about poor treatment. In other words, they’re patently false.
When I point this out to Pamela George, the Secretary of ExComm, she backpedals on her initial justification invoking FERPA and explains that the confidentiality rule is, in a bigger sense, about fairness. “It’s difficult to have information about a hearing out there without all of the information being available,” says George. “If a student is the only one talking, only one side of the story is being heard. And that’s not transparency.”
Were Yale a public institution, due process requirements might ultimately outweigh an internal confidentiality rule should a student believe that his or her right to due process had been violated. Since the 1961 federal court ruling on Dixon vs. Alabama, in which six students brought Alabama State College to court after having been expelled without a hearing (presumably for their involvement in civil rights demonstrations), federal law has dictated that public universities can no longer act in loco parentis — “in place of a parent” — to discipline their students without first providing due process.
Because Yale is a private institution, it isn’t held to that due process standard. And because Yale isn’t a governmental institution, students don’t have First Amendment rights when it comes to Yale prohibiting them from speaking, either. Put simply: If Yale wants to impose a quiet rule on ExComm, it can. This was demonstrated in 2004, when a Yale student who had been accused of cheating on a chemistry exam six years prior and suspended for the subsequent two semesters sued Yale in the Connecticut State Court (Okafur vs. Yale University). Her claim was based primarily on the fact that her residential college dean had advised her during the process, and not a licensed attorney.
“No civil claim can be based on an alleged violation of constitutional rights,” the judge ruled, later adding, “Note that the rules at Yale specifically say that the adviser is not an advocate…but rather ‘a source of personal and moral support.’”
What’s at play in this ruling is a general application of contract law — that is to say, Yale need not provide due process to its students (much in the same way that it needn’t pay heed to the First Amendment), and is free to ExComm again and again any student who fails to maintain confidentiality — likely under a “Defiance of Authority” clause.
According to Pamela George, no student has ever been charged for such an offense, because, to her knowledge, no student has ever gone public. When I ask her if there are any potential ramifications for students who speak to me for this article, she hesitates. There was a student fairly recently, she tells me, who was charged with “Misconduct at a formal hearing” after erroneously representing the outcome of his ExComm case to a professor. Should the ExComm accounts in my article contain errors or falsehoods, she explains, the students who provided them could meet a similar charge. Later, I look up “Misconduct at a formal hearing” in the Undergraduate Regulations, and find that it has nothing at all to do with “publicly sharing erroneous info intentionally,” as George puts it. It’s a rule about misrepresentation or lying during a formal hearing.
As a private university, Yale is understood by most courts as being bound to the contract established by its Undergraduate Regulations. But with ExComm as opaque as it is, there’s little incentive for Yale to adhere even to its own rules, and even less hope that the University will be held responsible where it does not. At a point, the only actual safeguard available to students in disciplinary proceedings is a general but difficult-to-apply promise that disciplinary treatment will not be “arbitrary and capricious.”
Sitting in Yale College DeanJonathan Holloway’s wood-paneled first floor office of SSS, three floors below the Executive Committee’s regular meeting place, I find myself thinking that “arbitrary and capricious” treatment by ExComm is hardly a concern. Holloway is eloquent, thoughtful, and seems willing to engage — his response to my initial email request for an interview acknowledged the need for confidentiality, but concluded, “I remain happy to sit down with you.”
“When ExComm is really working well,” he tells me, “it’s trying to figure out a balance between disciplinary action and education. It should never be functioning as a place just to discipline, but always to teach students that there are certain norms in a community. Without somebody — some organization, some unit, somebody maintaining those norms — you get chaos in a system and the place does not function.”
“Truth be told,” he adds, “I think student members of ExComm are way harder than the administrators or the professors on the panel. They think, ‘I was put in a similar situation and I decided to go this direction — this person choose that direction and now they’re crying about it! The fact is, the adults on the panel are often looking for mitigating circumstances, complicated contextualizing circumstances. There is a better appreciation for the fact that you find yourself in situations you never anticipated for a whole variety of reasons. The thought is ‘Let’s try to ferret out what those reasons are.’”
A review of recent ExComm reports and statistics suggests that the notion of ExComm as a committee with a mission to educate as well as mete out punishment is plausible. The vast majority of students brought in front of ExComm receive reprimands, and those who receive greater sentences (disciplinary probation, suspension, withheld degrees) tend to have been charged with academic or violent offenses (their actual guilt, of course, is up for debate).
But students who have gone through the ExComm process tend to disagree that the high rate of inconsequential sentences — namely, reprimands — mean that ExComm is an educational body. They argue that sentencing statistics speak to the fact that ExComm is meant mostly to intimidate, and often fails to provide due process along the way.
After all, it’s not as though Yale students speak of potential disciplinary consequences in terms of probations, reprimands, or suspensions. The fear is a general one: “I don’t want to get ExCommed.” So is the threat: the term “Executive Committee” appears no less than 129 times in the 130-page Yale Undergraduate Regulations (128 in 127 pages, if you exclude the title page and table of contents). “Probation” appears six times. Essentially, all this means is that the Executive Committee is the adjudicating body at Yale College for all offenses not related to sexual misconduct. But as one student who had gone through both the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct and ExComm pointed out to me, “UWC actually adjudicates — ExComm deals mainly with dispositions, which indicate an un-nuanced admission of guilt.”
“If their intent is to scare students, they 100 percent did in my case,” one student, Jessica, told me of her ExComm disposition, which resulted in a verbal reprimand. Jessica was charged on behalf of her music group with eight different violations pertaining to use of a University space for a concert. “I agreed to a disposition because technically I agreed with some of the accusations, and as the president of the group hosting, understood that I had to be held responsible for the event more generally. I’d also been told that I would have to appear in front of the entire ExComm board if I asked for a formal hearing,” she explained. “But really, none of what went on was intentional — there were a lot of factors thrown into the mix that were beyond my control.”
Ultimately, Jessica left her disposition frustrated, feeling that there had been no regard for nuance exhibited by the panel members who Holloway claims are so ardently searching for “complicated contextualizing circumstances.”
“Their questions were very accusatory — it was pretty clear that what I said didn’t really matter, and that they hadn’t read my statement,” Jessica said. “They didn’t really help, or help us think of what we could have done differently. Now our concern is not so much about breaking the rules again — it’s about getting caught.”
In fact, for many of the students I’ve spoken to whose “contextualizing circumstances” have come into play in their ExComm hearings, these circumstances have actually worked against them. They include being Greek-affiliated, a freshman counselor, or having a negative history of some sort with ExComm, a college dean, or a college master.
Rebecca, a freshman counselor and president of her performing arts group, was in the midst of a UWC case she had filed alleging sexual assault when she was first summoned to ExComm. Her group had been reported by a resident fellow awoken at 4 a.m. by their making rounds to wake up newly inducted group members in their dorm room, and was now being charged for violating paragraph V.B of Social Functions on “quiet hours,” which prohibits social functions from going past 11 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday or 2 a.m. on a Friday or Saturday night. The charging letter was unclear, Rebecca recalls, and lumped Rebecca’s group in with a few others on similar but separate charges related to initiation celebrations. Facing these charges alone on behalf of her organization, Rebecca also remembers her confusion regarding ExComm’s requests that the charges and eventual disposition be kept entirely confidential. How was she supposed to tell the other members of her group the outcome?
Rebecca ended up never having to attend such a disposition, however: ExComm eventually decided to withdraw all charges. At the time, she was told this meant there would be no record of her almost-date in ExComm.
When she was later charged under Hazing regulations for blindfolding a consenting junior on secret society tap night, however, this turned out not to be the case. Her master informed her that her former ExComm charge for breaking quiet hours and her position as a freshman counselor would both work against her in ExComm, in that they spoke to her “poor judgment.”
Pamela George says this sort of thing isn’t impossible, especially if two incidents are similar. “At the very least we like to ask, ‘You were aware of this sort of situation last time charges were brought against you. You knew rules were broken. Therefore, we’re just curious: why you didn’t take lessons you learned there into account here?’” I point out that this goes against the absolution that comes with charges being dropped, to which she replies: “You might see it as counterintuitive, but we don’t see it like that.”
In an ExComm disposition that included three other seniors answering the same blindfolding charge, Rebecca was unable to answer the sort of question George describes. She was afraid of breaking UWC’s confidentiality rule by even mentioning her then-ongoing case to these other students — one of whom Rebecca had never even met before. In what Rebecca reflects on as a “shockingly inappropriate” oversight within a rushed process, ExComm wrongly assumed this fourth student to be a member of Rebecca’s senior society. “They asked such pointed questions in the disposition that they never bothered to ask the very simple question of whether we all knew each other,” Rebecca recalls. And the fact was, she hadn’t really been that aware of the situation for which her charges were dropped: She had been otherwise engaged in the emotionally draining process of a UWC complaint at the time. ExComm decided to put Rebecca on disciplinary probation for her “hazing violation” — a sentence that will appear permanently on her disciplinary record. The other students just received verbal reprimands.
“Having gone through both UWC and ExComm,” Rebecca tells me, “I was really blindsided by how unheard I went in the [ExComm] process. I felt totally helpless.” She feels that the ExComm process ruined formerly strong relationships with her master and dean, too. “I went four years as a model student here, and suddenly none of it mattered,” Rebecca said. Her biggest concern in our interview was anonymity, which she attributes to what she views as “the intimidation that ExComm really seems to want to project.” She shows me an email from Pamela George that she received the summer after her probation sentence was administered; a response to her request for a final sentencing letter, which she had never received and wished to reference as she updated the tap procedures for her organization. (This update was an additional requirement of her ExComm sentence.) “I’m not quite sure I understand your intent with the letter,” George writes. “In what way are you going to be referencing a decision that is confidential?”
Another student, Jordan, asks if we can walk and talk for our interview — from her college courtyard to a printer in her college library, where she continues to speak at audible volume (much to the interest of two students sitting nearby). It’s clear that she’s not particularly concerned with keeping the details of her case private — at least not beyond her basic fear of ExComm seeking reprisal.
Like Rebecca’s story, Jordan’s begins several months before it actually begins: with her first ExComm disposition. Jordan was brought in front of ExComm for plagiarism following what she admits was a “definite mess-up.” She explains: “There was a class that I was taking Credit/D/Fail but was going to drop soon, and I had a reading response that I had signed up for that was supposed to prompt all the other reading responses. I went on Spark Notes, and translated [an analysis] from English to French with my own French knowledge.” That Wednesday, Jordan was suspended immediately for the remainder of the term. She was given until Sunday to vacate her dorm entirely.
Jordan moved to an off-campus residence and went about making the most of her now-vacant semester. She emailed one of her teachers to tell him that she had been suspended, asking if he would be willing to continue to accept her assignments and meet once or twice with her over the remainder of the semester. He said that he would need to check with her residential college dean, and after he did so, agreed. Not long after, Jordan applied for a summer job on Yale’s campus, a job that would begin after the terms of her suspension had been lifted, and was hired. On May 8, two days after the spring term — and thus, the terms of her suspension — had officially ended, Jordan called her residential college dean’s office to ask if she could be given back her Yale ID in order to obtain swipe access for her job.
Exactly one week later, on May 13th, Jordan received an email from her dean that read, “I contact you on behalf of the Executive Committee, who are concerned about your recent effort to seek student employment as [redacted]. I do not have a charging letter to send you yet (which I’ll receive later this afternoon), but the Executive Committee is eager to know from you as soon as possible whether you are available to discuss this case on Thursday morning, May 15th, at about 12 noon.” Jordan responded that she would be available.
When she received her charging letter, Jordan learned that she was being charged with “Defiance of Authority.” Attached was an email that her Dean had written to Pamela George at 11:38 a.m. that day — less than two hours before his 1:07 p.m. email to Jordan — reporting her attempt to seek employment and her contact with professors as “efforts to participate in official on-campus activities while withdrawn from Yale College.” In it, the Dean wrote that one professor, who had contacted him to ask why Jordan wasn’t allowed to meet with her on campus, was “shocked to learn that [Jordan] had withdrawn.” In fact, this wasn’t the case at all. In an April 8 email exchange, Jordan and that professor had discussed Jordan’s suspension.
It came to Jordan’s attention soon after receiving her charging letter that by agreeing to appear in front of ExComm, she had unknowingly agreed to a disposition —which would be taken as an admission of her guilt. She promptly informed her dean and Pamela George in an email that she would not be coming to the disposition, and that she felt as though she had been “tricked.” Neither Pamela George nor her Dean responded to Jordan’s email, but she’s worried they’ll follow up any day now.
Jordan and Rebecca’s stories speak to a larger trend in the way that ExComm operates — often without adjudication, with a sentencing process that relies heavily on gut notions of the culpability of the students appearing in front of them. Sometimes, ExComm works to its desired effect, jolting students into submission. More often, it comes across as a system that’s not a system at all: “arbitrary and capricious,” even.
One spring evening, Yale University Police caught Hunter and a few of his suitemates smoking pot outside on Old Campus. The members of the suite immediately emailed their master and dean, who Hunter recalls, were “kind of baffled by our stupidity.” Still, Hunter said, the ExComm disposition went well. He’d been terrified, but ended up being let off with a reprimand. His residential college dean had come to the support of the suite during her statement, mentioning an email she’d sent out right before the incident chastising students in the college for recent cases of smoking indoors. After the disposition, she hugged them all. “ExComm didn’t seem to care that we had smoked weed — they seemed to care that we’d been dumb enough to do it in front of security cameras and get in trouble for it,” Hunter says.
Hunter’s college master was less sympathetic. Months later, this master would send an email to Hunter’s suite, which by then said master had begun to identify as a problem. Citing recent entryway upsets that included the setting off of a fire extinguisher and general messes in communal bathrooms, the email threatened Hunter’s suite with punishment — but not by way of ExComm. Instead, it evoked possibilities of both a fine (“I want the fines set high,” the email read) and rustication, a policy whereby students are forced to move off campus and barred from entering their residential colleges.
Such an email speaks unequivocally to ambiguous space within Yale’s disciplinary framework — space left by ExComm’s shortcomings. “If a master feels that sending certain misbehaving students to ExComm is not going to return anything but at most a reprimand…what is the master left to do?” Jonathan Holloway, Dean of Yale College, asks me when I present him with this scenario. (He comments only in the hypothetical; Holloway is careful to avoid engagement with the details of specific cases throughout our interview, out of apparent respect for confidentiality and professionalism.) Here was a suite that had been through ExComm once and come out undaunted; whose deserved sentence was somewhere beyond a reprimand but short of probation. What was their master to do next?
The threat of a heavy fines and rustication seem to suggest an almost parallel disciplinary framework to that of ExComm, one that penalizes financially needy students and not wealthier ones. After all, the policy of rustication disadvantages of students whose on-campus housing is covered by financial aid. Yale has shunned disciplinary policies with financial implications of this sort for over forty years. In a 1969 letter exchange between then-President of Yale University Kingman Brewster and then-Graduate School Dean John Perry Miller, Brewster wrote of recent calls by Robert Finch, Nixon’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, to withdraw federal aid from students who violated criminal law during student disruptions. Brewster declared that he found “the effort to use loans and scholarships to regulate local conduct…repugnant to the spirit of the United States Constitution.”
Today, things seem to run on a far more discretionary basis. “In trying to deal with social nuisances — I mean, just being bad citizens — …it’s about community standards in the college…It’s a judgment call by masters and deans about how stern you are going to be with students who just don’t seem to be getting it,” Dean Holloway says.
“Rustication is actually last resort in the sense that if someone is being a jerk you just don’t say, ‘Yeah, you are outta here,’” he explains, telling me that in his former position as master of Calhoun he inherited one rustication case and has since threatened two or three more students. “I am actually curious as to what the effect of rustication is to people on financial aid, but it wouldn’t affect my decision to rusticate somebody.”
“If you have one bad apple, it spoils the bunch,” Holloway says. “If you simply can’t understand the implications of your behavior then you’re doing a disservice to the rest of the community that is abiding by these rules. If someone is on financial aid and [rustication] means they can’t stay at Yale, then that’s their consequence.”
Hunter’s suite was never rusticated, nor have they since had to appear in front of ExComm. Should either threat reemerge, two things seem likely: their “bad apple” status may figure into this new verdict, and there’s little that is entirely off limits.
“Students simply want to know what is going on…”
In 1969 — the same year that President Brewster wrote to Dean Miller; the same year, not at all coincidentally that students were shutting down Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania; that the Yale School of Architecture went up in flames; that New Haven saw the arrests of the New Haven Nine — Brewster appointed a committee of faculty and students “to advise on how Yale ought to approach the study and reform of its governance.” The results, released two years later, were far from groundbreaking, and can perhaps best be summarized by a single sentence from their report: “Students simply want to know what is going on, what is being decided, by whom, and why.”
Herein lies the essential problem of Yale’s Executive Committee, one that Holloway readily acknowledges. The Committee claims that it provides due process to students, but with so many students contradicting this narrative while the quiet rule holding strong, it’s hard to know for sure. “I think in the abstract there is a missed opportunity for providing more education about the ExComm process,” Holloway concedes. “Especially in those really messy ExComm cases, you want to be able to say, ‘These are the reasons why this was decided this way.’”
Still, Holloway says, “We have to weigh these things with the need for confidentiality, and I actually think that the weighing is done properly.”
I ask him if he thinks students could or should be punished for breaking ExComm’s confidentiality rule. He thinks for a moment, but his response is ultimately steadfast. “I don’t see why not,” he says. “If they know what the rule is, they should follow it.”
The elephant in the room as we talk, is, of course, obvious. I’m reporting a piece that relies entirely on students’ willingness to break ExComm’s confidentiality rule; that undermines the very foundation on which ExComm’s system of endless disciplinary dispositions stands. It feels like confrontation, with a man I respect and whose general vision of ExComm I respect. Does the confidentiality rule apply to me? Can journalists get ExCommed? I wonder, and for a moment, I’m back in that periwinkle dress, back in the elevator of SSS, and I’d like nothing more than to never see the inside of the ExComm meeting room.
But then I think back to the report, to that one simple sentence: “Students simply want to know what is going on, what is being decided, by whom, and why.” And I think: I guess we’ll find out.