For six days the Yale administration remained silent as two controversial incidents catalyzed conversations about race and discrimination on campus. Then, on Thursday and Friday, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and University President Peter Salovey broke their silence. Now they and other University leaders are working to form policies that will create a more inclusive and welcoming campus. Regarding the actions of the administration and the student body, as well as interactions between the two, Salovey, senior administrators and minority student leaders spoke on the administration’s prolonged silence, response and a productive way forward.
FRIDAY, OCT. 30 TO 6 P.M. ON THURSDAY, NOV. 4
The two incidents that set off the conversations of the past week both occurred over Halloween weekend. Just after midnight on Saturday, Silliman Associate Master Erika Christakis sent an email to all Silliman students pushing back against the Intercultural Affairs Council email asking students to be thoughtful about the cultural implications of their Halloween costumes. Later on Saturday, a Yale College student posted on Facebook about women of color being turned away from a party at Sigma Alpha Epsilon the previous night on the basis that the party was “white girls only.”
While Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews said she learned of the SAE incident late Halloween weekend and subsequently touched base with the Yale College Dean’s Office to determine how Woodbridge Hall could offer support, Salovey said he did not hear about it until “later the next week.”
Salovey said he knew of the controversy around Christakis’ email by the end of the weekend. Taken separately, Salovey said he at first viewed the two issues to be solely Yale College concerns.
“What I had heard about later in the week was an investigation was happening to try to find out what happened,” Salovey said, referring to the party at SAE. “And normally the communication about those kinds of incidents — let’s assume in isolation, a controversy around a memo written about Halloween to Yale College students and an investigation of incidents of bias or discrimination at a fraternity — normally those would be handled entirely in Yale College with the dean being the communicator.”
But Salovey acknowledged that his office should have better anticipated how students would feel and react to these two issues together. That became clear on Thursday, he said, as students surrounded Holloway on Cross Campus voicing their concerns and questioning the silence of the administration.
Akinyi Ochieng ’15, a former peer liaison for the Afro-American Cultural Center, said the two incidents exposed tensions long in existence.
“I think that the two events were catalysts for revealing frustrations and unheard voices,” she said. “It’s not that students of color are trying to attack white students. It’s that they are trying to voice their pains and have other students say ‘I understand and I will try to do better’ and hold other people accountable in trying to do better. That to me is what this is about.”
Though Salovey was in meetings on campus during the Cross Campus gathering Thursday when hundreds of students addressed Holloway with their concerns, he said it led him to realize how upset students were and that he should hear from them directly. So while students were talking with Holloway, his office began setting up an evening meeting with affected students from across the Yale College community.
6 P.M. – 10 P.M. ON THURSDAY, NOV. 4
About 50 students gathered in the Corporation Room of Woodbridge Hall at 6 p.m., spending roughly four hours talking with Salovey, Holloway, Goff-Crews and Salovey’s Chief of Staff Joy McGrath.
Salovey said he began by apologizing to the students not only for their painful experiences, but also for asking them to share those experiences yet again. Ultimately, he said, he heard a “painful relating” of what it can be like to be a member of an underrepresented minority group at Yale College.
“The telling of those experiences was very emotional and rather quickly led me to feel that the Halloween memo and the SAE allegations were just the precipitating events of this week, but in fact we had larger issues to discuss,” he said.
Spending almost all of the meeting listening to students, Salovey said he also tried to communicate to those in attendance that they truly belong at Yale.
Mitchell Rose Bear Don’t Walk ’16, a Native American student who attended the Thursday meeting, said President Salovey spent most of the meeting listening — a welcome change.
“President Salovey was mostly listening, which is important because the administration has not been,” Bear Don’t Walk said. “He did not make any promises but he said he would take the recommendations into consideration. He offered us condolences. He talked to us a little bit about how the administration works. I left with a little better idea of how things work, but I still left feeling that the struggles of people of color need to be addressed with the same urgency as other topics. We became more educated about each other, acknowledging that the stakes are different for each of us.”
Salovey said while improving Yale’s culture is not necessarily the burden of students, he requested their help in doing so.
One student in attendance, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the meeting, said the meeting left a permanent mark on everyone present.
“I’ll remember it until the day I die,” the student said. “I don’t think the word ‘powerful’ does an adequate job of encapsulating the emotion and the sentiment in that room, the dynamic that we all experienced. I think that President Salovey and the other administrators present experienced it as well. It was incredible.”
Goff-Crews said she and the other administrators present spent most of the meeting listening and absorbing the candid, personal and sometimes painful experiences students chose to share. She said her focus is now to address the issues those present raised.
At the meeting, a member of the Black Student Alliance at Yale read a list of possible steps the administration could take to address current dialogues on campus. The actions fall under three general categories: administrative response to the incidents of the past week and related events, initiatives for the interests of Black women, Black people and other people of color and student input on administration and faculty hiring and training practices.
Looking back on the meeting, Salovey said the experiences of students present had constituted a failure for him.
“I would say that to have about 50 minority students in a room with me saying to me that their experience was not what they hoped it would be, I take personal responsibility for that and I consider it a failure,” he said.
FRIDAY, NOV. 5 — GOING FORWARD
Holloway and Salovey met one of the BSAY requests by emailing the Yale College community on Friday about the events of the past week and future steps.
In a Friday morning email, Holloway said he had absorbed the words and emotions shared with him on Cross Campus. He wrote that he not only takes seriously the allegations against SAE and is in the process of investigating the incident, but also that he supports the content of the IAC’s original email.
“Let me be unambiguous, I am fully in support of the email message that went out from the IAC to the Yale community,” he wrote. “I understand that some, maybe many of you, found the tone off-putting or even pedantic, but the intention of the message was exactly right: we need always to be dedicated to fashioning a community that is mindful of the many traditions that make us who we are.”
Though he did not mention SAE or Christakis in his email to the Yale College community Friday afternoon, Salovey told the News that if SAE is found at fault, the University could punish the fraternity in a variety of ways. Possible actions range from a formal reprimand to prohibiting SAE from recruiting student members on campus, he said.
Salovey said that like Holloway, he supports the message sent by the IAC.
“I support everything that was in Dean Holloway’s message to the community,” he said. “I see the pain that certain kinds of costumes cause some students on our campus, and I think we want to create a campus environment where everyone feels welcomed and valued, and that kind of pain should be not a typical experience.”
In his email, Salovey also said the Thursday night meeting left him deeply troubled, and he said he would announce at least some policy response by Thanksgiving.
Salovey told the News he will sit down with leaders of Yale College and the University at large to think about what steps they can take to build off the “concrete and actionable” suggestions he received Thursday evening.
“Good examples of actions that can be taken immediately: complete the investigation of the SAE incident and communicate it,” Salovey said. “[The students] asked Dean Holloway and me to send emails acknowledging the pain that this community was experiencing right now, and we’ve done that. Ask mental health professionals to better serve the minority communities by working with the cultural centers, and they have been on site since [Friday] afternoon. There were issues about [University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct] procedures and the alcohol protocol at Yale Health that they want us to look into, and we will. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to figure out a way for students to provide input with respect to our newly announced faculty diversity initiative. Another good example is create a more obvious mechanism whereby students can report situations where they feel they’ve experienced bias or discrimination.”
Ochieng said the Halloween email and SAE incidents mark two poles of larger racial issues on campus, the first being a lack of diversity in the Yale administration and the second being a lack of empathy and understanding among students. She said having a more diverse faculty would help to address the former, commending the $50 million faculty diversity initiative announced last week.
Based on her experiences at Yale, Ochieng said offering specialized mental health services to students of color would be highly productive. Similar to one of the BSAY recommendations, Ochieng also said Yale should require students to take culturally oriented courses, acting as a leader in the Ivy League.
“I think mental health services that specifically recognize the needs of students of color are essential,” she said. “Another thing I would love to see, admittedly progressive, would be a cultural studies requirement that has students take a course in Af-Am or WGSS or any other ethnic studies department to graduate.”
Goff-Crews also said in considering policy changes, her office’s priority is for Yale to be a community where all students feel safe, welcome and able to thrive. She added that administrators are working to make effective changes as quickly as possible. Goff-Crews said she and Salovey have remained in “close contact” with the Yale Corporation — the governing board and policymaking body for Yale.
Salovey said he sent Corporation members an email summarizing the events of the past week. While the members will not be making policy decisions, Salovey said he always weighs their advice heavily.
Margaret Marshall LAW ’76, senior fellow of the Yale Corporation and former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, said Salovey and Goff-Crews have kept the Corporation informed regarding recent events and remain open to the board’s input.
“The president briefs the Corporation on important campus issues at every meeting of the Corporation,” she said. “He and the secretary also brief the Corporation between meetings, typically via email or telephone calls, as they have in the case of campus events of the past week. They are always open to any advice that Corporation members provide to them.”