As conversations centered around racism and discrimination continue on campus, Yale alumni are also making their voices heard — including through an open letter supporting recent student solidarity efforts that has garnered more than 2,100 signatures.
Over the past two weeks, alumni have expressed their views on campus events through a variety of means, from formal exchanges with administrators to articles published in national media outlets. To keep alumni apprised of recent events, University President Peter Salovey sent an email to the alumni community on Nov. 11 thanking those who had already shared their perspectives with him and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, and sharing the emails they had sent to the Yale community over the preceding week.
“A number of alumni have contacted me, primarily through email, expressing support for our minority students, as well as an interest in making sure that Yale is a campus where there can be a free exchange of ideas — and I think it’s important to note that many of these email messages express both sentiments,” Salovey told the News. “Anyone with an experience of Yale has a role in this conversation, because they have insights, they have helpful inclinations and I listen to reactions from and advice from essentially everywhere in the Yale community.”
Beyond their engagement with the Yale administration, alumni have also voiced their opinions on more public forums. On Nov. 12, a group of alumni published an open letter in The Huffington Post expressing support for the student protests at Yale. As of the morning of Nov. 15, the letter had received over 2,100 signatures from alumni who were in favor of the movement.
Rebecca Steinitz ’86, the letter’s lead author, said that mainstream media portrayals of the student movement as childish are unfair, noting that for the most part, students are protesting a very problematic situation quite civilly.
“The current student protests may have been provoked by a controversy over Halloween costumes, but they have much deeper roots in Yale’s history and culture,” the letter states. “They have made it clear to us that institutional racism continues to be a powerful force at Yale, as it was when we were students.”
Steinitz, a former resident of Silliman, said she does not think Nicholas and Erika Christakis should be removed from their respective positions as master and associate master, but that they should step down since they will not be able to unify the college community effectively.
Other Yale alumni have used media outlets to weigh in on the events of the past two weeks. Nora Caplan-Bricker ’12, a former editor for the News who wrote an article for Slate Magazine in support of the student movement, said those who view it as an attempt to curtail free speech are mistaken. In her Nov. 10 article, titled “The Yale Student Protests Are the Campus PC Wars at Their Best,” she argued that the campus protests are not about censorship, but rather about the right of students of color not to face discrimination in their own homes.
“What student protestors seem to be doing is both raising questions about identity and how they fit in on campus … but they’re also challenging our kind of one-sided freedom-of-speech debate,” Caplan-Bricker said in an interview. “To try to dismiss them by playing to a free-speech argument, to me, is logically inconsistent.”
However, other alumni argue that students’ demands do in fact threaten freedom of expression on campus. Last week, a website was set up for Yale alumni to donate copies of the book “The Closing of the American Mind,” which warns against limiting freedom of thought on university campuses, to current students. The page’s description states that the fund was established for alumni concerned about the erosion of tolerance for free thought on Yale’s campus. As of Nov. 15, the fund had raised over $1,000 from 15 donors but had not reached its goal of $1,381, enough to pay for 100 copies.
Max Eden ’11 said he donated $14 to the fund because Yale students should be encouraged to explore ideas that run contrary to their beliefs. He added that he believes Yale has become a “national laughingstock” as a result of the protests and subsequent media coverage.
Rek LeCounte ’11 also voiced harsh criticisms of the student demonstrations. LeCounte said that as a black and gay student at Yale, he primarily experienced discrimination from others in the black and LGBTQ communities.
“The protesters need to get a grip, their applauders need to get a clue and the University needs to stand up for free expression and a strong academic culture of vigorous dissent,” LeCounte said.
He added that academic free speech is not necessarily in tension with inclusiveness.
Sam Chauncey ’57 — who served as University secretary in the 1960s and ’70s — said he has been in contact with about 30 alumni about recent events, and that their opinions are widely varied and tend to differ by generation.
“If you’re talking to someone my age, they think this is just terrible — the students should be so lucky to be there and go work,” he said. “But if you’re talking to people who graduated in the ’60s and ’70s, they are part cheering and part worrying. They’re cheering because this is what they would have thought and wanted, and they’re worrying because they might have children at Yale who they don’t want to get in trouble.”
Chauncey added that while it is important for Yale to honor and listen to its graduates, he cannot recall a single major decision in the University’s history in which the alumni actually influenced the outcome.
Senior Advisor to the President Martha Highsmith said administrators seriously consider the perspectives alumni provide, but added that administrators are ultimately responsible for implementing policy changes.
“We’re always interested in the views of the wider Yale community, as alumni are our ambassadors in the world,” she said. “They’re the ones who speak to their neighbors and friends about what Yale is like, so you always want to consider carefully the views of Yale alumni. But in terms of setting University policy, that takes place on campus.”