Facilities workers at the University of Texas at Austin spent the morning of Tuesday, June 23 scrubbing.
Campus awoke that day to find that three of its prominent statues — of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston and Jefferson Davis — had been vandalized.
“Black Lives Matter,” red spray paint asserted on the base of Johnston’s statue.
“Bump All The Chumps” had been added to Davis’s.
The scene came as a surprise for Maintenance Supervisor Herb Woerndell, who wasn’t used to racially themed graffiti even after a decade and a half working on campus.
“Mostly the graffiti I’ve seen over my 15 years has been sports related — over [Texas A&M and UT] football teams — and a lot of gang-type symbols I don’t understand,” Woerndell told The Daily Texan in June.
The scene might have been more familiar for a maintenance worker at Yale, where in October 2009 pranksters tried a similar, albeit smaller-scale, demonstration. Chalked names and paper fliers began to appear on campus, renaming colleges whose namesakes supported or perpetuated slavery. Calhoun College became Frederick Douglass College. Timothy Dwight turned into Bobby Seale. Berkeley changed into Henry Roe Cloud College, honoring the first Native American to attend Yale College.
The University never publicized whether it found the culprits. Nor did it take the action the pranksters called for. Chalk washed away with the weather, fliers melted in street gutters, and talk of racially charged names, a cyclical topic of campus dispute, eventually faded into the back of students’ minds. John C. Calhoun loomed unimpeded over Caucasian students and students of color alike as they ate cereal and discussed problem sets in the white supremacist’s namesake college dining hall. Berkeley stayed Berkeley and Yale stayed Yale.
A summer of staunch advocacy against the namesake of Calhoun College has led University administrators to call for “an open conversation” — one many students don’t expect to go much further than the doors of the Corporation Room in Woodbridge Hall where, in 2007, a portrait of Elihu Yale with a slave attending him was quietly swapped for one of him standing alone.
Students have argued that Yale is just posturing, that the conversation is no more than an attempt to placate vocal advocates for change. They’ve said that the University prioritizes history above all else, that inertia and ambivalence will keep Calhoun’s name prominent on Elm Street and the legacy of slavery prominent in their minds.
Yale, if it chooses to make any change at all, will not be able to swap this portrait in the dark of night. The world is watching the University, eyes trained on the stained glass windows of Calhoun College. The Huffington Post, USA Today, The New York Times are watching with their notebooks out. When Yale chooses to lead, others will follow. But historically, Yale has often been the one catching up.
“Yale has great investment in tradition, and is proud of its long history,” Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said. “It’s not nimble in that way — it’s slow to change … But there are times when Yale is at the vanguard.”
A HISTORY OF HESITATION
On a quiet day on Cross Campus, passers-by can hear the steady, trickling drips of the Women’s Table. Tour guides stand on it; freshmen dance on it to complete initiation scavenger hunts; some even sit on the L-shaped bench that frames it on one side, careful to avoid the thin streams of water.
The spiraling numbers on the surface do not just catch water; they tell the story of Yale women’s history. Since 1869, women have enrolled at the professional schools, starting with the School of the Fine Arts. But 1969 was the first year women were admitted to Yale College. A banner designed for the first co-ed move-in day read, “Yale University Police Welcomes Guys & Dolls of ’73.”
Longtime Yale administrator Henry “Sam” Chauncey ’57, who served as then-President Kingman Brewster’s chief of staff when the University made this crucial switch, said such practices are particularly hard to change at large universities.
“Institutions have a very hard time changing their ways,” Chauncey said. “And it is only society that really makes them change. They don’t tend to change from within.”
It’s the oldest, most elite American universities that are the most reluctant to change. And even compared to its ivy-decorated peers, Yale has historically been slow to move. Yale’s “Dolls of ’73” would earn B.A.s a full 100 years after their porcelain peers first graduated from Cornell. By 1890, more than 200 women were studying in the “Harvard Annex;” 15 years later, Radcliffe, Harvard’s women college, was granted its charter; in 1963, women’s degrees began to say “Harvard” instead. Brown began admitting women in 1891; the women’s college, Pembroke, which had been a part of Brown already, merged with the rest of the undergraduate school in 1971.
Yale was admittedly behind in accepting women, Chauncey said, and when the decision was made, public opinion was still split to some extent.
And well into the 21st century, Yale still often lags continues to lag behind its peers. After Princeton announced in 2001 that it would replace all loans in undergraduate aid packages with scholarships, it took Yale roughly four years to announce comprehensive reforms of its own.
Former Princeton Director of Financial Aid Don Betterton said the Princeton administration was surprised when it took so long for the other Ivies’ financial aid policies to match Princeton’s.
“We made a series of big, significant changes,” Betterton said. “And we were rather surprised that no one did anything for quite a period of time, until Harvard was next to act, and then Yale and Stanford acted later.”
In 2004, Harvard responded first to the changes in Princeton’s policy, announcing that it would eliminate the parental contribution for families making under $40,000. The Yale College Council called for reform, students held a sit-in inside the Office of Undergraduate Admission and Yale was soon forced to respond with its own changes.
Former University President Richard Levin announced reforms to Yale’s financial aid policy a week after the sit-in, one-upping Harvard by eliminating the parental contribution for families with annual incomes below $45,000, and reducing the expected contributions for families making between $45,000 and $60,000.
Additionally, in 2008, Harvard announced a further set of reforms to its financial aid policy, reducing the cost of tuition for families making under $200,000 per year. Roughly one month later, Yale announced changes very similar to those made at Harvard, reducing the overall cost of tuition and eliminating the parental contribution altogether for families making less than $60,000.
Nonetheless, Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi said he would not describe Yale as “reactionary.” Instead, he believes that examples like this are evidence of the University paying attention to what’s happening around it.
Storlazzi admitted that Ivy League schools compete with one another, constantly assessing the actions of their peer institutions in order to stay competitive. There’s a pressure to react when one school does something particularly innovative, he said.
“Let’s just say that Harvard made an announcement to reduce their student [income contribution] to zero,” Storlazzi said. “Maybe we’d feel like we have to reduce it for every student, or for a certain student cohort. We would probably have to look at the competitive pressure and put a Yale spin on it.”
Still, Storlazzi noted that many changes to financial aid stem from discussions on campus. He cited the ongoing campus debate over the student income contribution as one such discussion. The conversation about the “student effort” portion of financial aid packages is an inside review of Yale’s own policies, he said, and it’s an important conversation going on at the highest levels — among the provost, the University president, the dean of admissions and the Yale Corporation.
In recent years, changes to Yale’s financial aid policy have come on the heels of similar changes at peer schools. But in the past, the University did take the lead on at least one major reform.
When Yale transitioned to need-based aid and need-blind admission — the first university to do so, according to Storlazzi — the other Ivies followed suit.
“Yale was the first college to institute need-based financial aid back in the ’60s,” Storlazzi said. “We were absolutely a leader in that sense.”
Still, Yale likes to let others test the waters.
“Yale is not uncomfortable letting others be first adapters to certain things,” Holloway said.
And deliberateness can be a good thing — “because first adapters stumble a lot, too,” he said.
Yale’s effort to be deliberate in its decision making is, in part, a nod to tradition. That tradition, said History professor Jay Gitlin ’71 — who teaches the seminar “Yale and America” — is part of what attracts tens of thousands of applicants to the University every year.
But traditions come from somewhere. Someone, at some time, has to invent them.
For instance, when the first seven residential colleges opened up in 1933, they were just dormitories — created out of necessity when Yale had run out of places for students to sleep. Now each college is a community, with its own set of traditions and loyal alumni.
“We’re incredibly fertile when it comes to inventing traditions,” he said. “Does that mean we’re innovative or conservative, or does that mean we’re both? I think that means we’re both.”
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
The tradition of those residential colleges will undergo a significant change two years from now, when two new residential colleges open along Prospect Street.
Yale’s recent history demonstrates its willingness to make changes, albeit on a relatively modest scale.
Though it was not the first school to form a partnership with the organization, Yale was one of the first in the Ivy League to embrace the QuestBridge National College Match program, which seeks to connect high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds to selective universities. The first colleges to participate in QuestBridge College Match were Amherst, Rice, Grinnell, Wheaton and Trinity, with Yale and several more schools joining shortly afterwards.
Since partnering with the organization, the number of QuestBridge Finalists matriculating into Yale has increased from roughly 50 each year to a total of 80 in the class of 2018, and eventually 88 in the class of 2019. Harvard and Cornell are the only Ivy League schools that have not yet partnered with QuestBridge.
In addition, Yale partnered with a new program called VetLink — part of a larger initiative called Service to School — over the summer, in an attempt to bring more high-achieving military veterans to Yale College. So far, Yale and Cornell are the only two Ivies to have linked with the program.
“I think what Yale is doing is really groundbreaking,” said Tim Hsia, co-founder of service to school.
Yale has also led in creating “The Coalition Application,” a new college application platform meant to provide an alternative to the Common Application, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said. Quinlan is also on the board of directors for the application.
Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth also plan to utilize the new platform once it’s launched.
And Yale is “at the vanguard” when it comes to need blind admissions for international students, Holloway said.
Yale has also been a leader on issues of sexual climate. In 1978, Yale formed one of the nation’s first adjudicative bodies solely focused on cases of sexual misconduct. In an August 2013 statement, the University said, “to [its] knowledge,” that Yale was the only institution to release a comprehensive log of the complaints that came to its attention.
This spring, Cornell began to import a version of Yale’s Communication and Consent Educators program to its own campus. Cornell’s “Social Consultants” will follow the CCE model, holding workshops and discussions to make campus culture healthier.
Despite these instances where it has taken the lead, Yale can be hesitant to be a “first adapter,” and often with good reason.
In 2011, Yale established Yale-NUS, a first-of-its-kind collaboration with the National University of Singapore. In addition to creating Singapore’s first liberal arts college, Yale also became the first Ivy to expand its campus to Asia. It was a landmark move for the University, and as then-Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer put it at the time, a “chance to influence the world.”
But Political Science professor James Sleeper warned that being a force for change isn’t always a good thing.
“A joint-venture with Singapore may not make Yale a ‘leader’ in anything but a dubious convergence of two strains of neoliberal, state-capitalist ‘leadership’ training,” Sleeper said. “Is that what liberal education should facilitate? Other universities have joint ventures with Singapore, so what are we leading toward, and if we are reinventing liberal education, why are we trying it there and not right here?”
Sleeper isn’t alone in his skepticism of Yale-NUS. In April 2012, faculty members voted to approve a resolution drafted by Political Science professor Seyla Benhabib ’77 that critiqued Singapore’s history of human rights abuses, and questioned the administration’s decision-making process throughout the Yale-NUS project.
The controversy surrounding Yale-NUS perhaps shows why the administration has historically hesitated to undertake major changes. Yale is a large institution with plenty of interested parties to disagree with each other; as Chauncey, the former aid to Kingman Brewster, said, large institutions like universities are often slow to change. Yet this isn’t the whole story: Yale’s history is marked by a mix of leadership and hesitation, forward thinking and trepidation. So it’s hard to say whether Yale will lead or follow on any given issue.
“How does Yale change?” Gitlin asked. “It changes in ways that aren’t always predictable. We change in response to money, to necessity and pragmatic consideration. Sometimes we change because we think it’s the right thing — because we’re an institution of higher education and of learning and we’re trying to solve problems.”
Until this year, Yale had not seriously considered changing the name of one of its residential colleges, a name fixed in tradition for thousands of alumni and hundreds of current students. But at Southern universities such as UT Austin, debates over racially charged names and symbols have already manifested into tangible change.
Jefferson Davis is not the only hero of the Confederacy recently fallen on a university campus. In the South, there is, as Holloway put it, “a different tenor — a different kind of lived experience” when pro-slavery figures adorn prominent campus structures and are honored with namesake buildings.
It’s that lived experience that got the Jefferson Davis statue removed from UT’s campus this year. It’s the same sentiment that motivated Duke University to change the name of a freshman dorm that once honored former North Carolina governor Charles B. Aycock, a vehement segregationist. The building is now the decidedly neutral East Residence Hall.
But in the Northeast, talk about changing offensive names and titles has, for the most part, remained cheap. Twelve years ago, Brown University’s then-President Ruth Simmons charged the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice with helping “the campus and the nation come to a better understanding of the complicated, controversial questions surrounding the issue of reparations for slavery.” More than three years later, the committee delivered a 107-page report on the University’s history with slavery, detailing the Brown family’s deep entanglements in the slave trade.
Twelve years after Simmons’s charge, the University has established a center for the study of slavery and justice. A Slavery Memorial statue sits on the campus’s Front Green, just minutes’ walk from University Hall, a campus building constructed partially by slaves.
But reports do not always imprint themselves on a community’s conscience. A 2012 article in the Brown Daily Herald called the report “out of sight, invisible, essentially forgotten.”
For Chauncey, it is the outside world that spurs along hesitant universities. But it’s not clear yet whether the world will push Yale towards progress — towards being a leader among the red-bricked, tradition-heavy Northeastern colleges.
In some cases, Yale lags; elsewhere, it leads. It’s “issue-dependent,” Holloway explained. It’s hard to know, then, where Yale will fall on the issue of naming.
“I’m honestly perplexed as to whether society will or not,” Chauncey said, asked whether the world is ready to push Yale to change on this issue. “I don’t know that society has really decided how it feels … There are traditions as big as whether or not you admit women and as small as who sings at Mory’s on Monday nights.”
It is hard for Yale to move forward with the weight of a 314-year history on its back. As Chauncey puts it, if you want to turn an ocean liner, you need two miles.