Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway stood on top of the Women’s Table two weeks ago today and tearfully apologized to the hundreds of African-American students gathered around him. “It is clear that what I’ve been trying to do quietly and behind the scenes has not been enough,” Holloway said. “I don’t expect your faith that I’ll do better, but I want you to know that I’m going to try my damnedest.”
In the days following the impromptu Cross Campus gathering, Holloway — the first black dean of Yale College — has become a focal point in the ongoing debate over racially charged controversies that have rocked campus since the end of October. The day’s events were a vivid illustration of the challenges black administrators face in balancing administrative responsibilities with the symbolic imperatives of African-American leadership. Over the last two weeks, Holloway has been criticized by students who believe that his failure to issue a prompt public statement about the campus debate let down a community that needs his support. But several scholars of African-American history have defended Holloway, arguing that the burden of change should not fall so heavily upon his shoulders.
Holloway’s appearance on Cross Campus was the emotional climax of a week that exposed racial fissures dividing the student body, as outrage over a series of racially charged incidents over Halloween weekend generated national headlines. It was also his first public acknowledgement of the unrest, six days after students began protesting the alleged rejection of a group of minority women from a Sigma Alpha Epsilon party because the party was “white girls only,” as well as an email from Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis that defended students’ rights to wear culturally appropriative costumes. Students expressed frustration that Holloway did not respond to the Halloween incidents with the same urgency that he has addressed other major campus controversies. Last October, Holloway circulated a campuswide email just hours after three swastikas drawn in chalk were discovered on Old Campus.
Holloway, who teaches a course on African-American history from emancipation to the present, has also been criticized for failing to advocate for the renaming of Calhoun College or the discontinuation of the title “master.”
In an interview with the News, Holloway said he has tried not to take students’ criticism personally, but he said some of the comments have left him deeply saddened.
“The people who expressed disappointment were people I had explicitly said I would mentor,” Holloway said. “That they felt betrayed is a difficult thing to hear.”
He added that as a professor, he has the freedom to explore his academic field and express his own opinions. As a dean, however, he does not speak for himself or for a specific community within Yale, but rather for the institution as a whole.
Livvy Bedford ’16, a student in Holloway’s African American Studies course, said she appreciates the complexity of his role on campus but found his reluctance to speak publicly about the race-related controversies deeply ironic, as he has spent much of the semester lecturing about black activism.
Frances White, the black former vice provost of faculty development at New York University, said African-American leaders in higher education sometimes hesitate to publicly advocate for students of color for fear of pushback from critics who are uncomfortable with non-Caucasian authority figures.
“The dangers are people will misunderstand your motive, will think that you’re being unfair to other people,” White said. “A black dean almost always has a problem with authority.”
In the weeks following the Cross Campus gathering, Holloway has taken a more active role in the debate, holding meetings with students and sending two campuswide emails about the racial controversies. On Nov. 6, the day after the confrontation, Holloway sent an email that explicitly expressed his support for the idea that students should be sensitive about potentially offensive Halloween costumes.
But his recent actions have not satisfied students who feel he should be doing more to support the African-American community during a traumatic period.
“That email was about a week late,” said Lauren Dawson ’16. “In that way, he had failed us. He failed in that role.”
Donald Rodriguez ’15, an alumnus who marched with current undergraduates at a 1,000-person strong demonstration last week, said Holloway is obliged to serve all students on campus regardless of their race. But he added that as a black man Holloway should work harder to address issues that white administrators might not fully understand.
The student leader of a campus group that represents people of color said Holloway has not done enough to support policy changes, such as the renaming of Calhoun, demanded by the black community.
“It’s important that he listens to our community just as much as the alumni or the donors or the other members of the board that he has to deal with,” said the student, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic.
The student leader added that calls for Holloway to improve faculty diversity — an effort which does not fall under the purview of the Yale College dean — are in fact reasonable demands of an official who should feel obliged to vouch for the black community with other administrators.
But two African American Studies professors said Holloway has no obligation to vocally advocate for black students on campus more than he would for other students.
“The history of race in America and at Yale belongs to all of us and is an issue for all of us,” said Emily Greenwood, who co-authored a faculty open letter declaring support for diversity on campus . “It is not for him to carry the burden of advocacy alone.”
Matthew Jacobson, another co-author of the letter, noted that Holloway has handled the campus unrest with far more delicacy than administrators at the University of Missouri, where recent protests over racist incidents on campus forced the resignation of the college president.
Still, Holloway has acknowledged that he needs to better advocate for a constituency that looks to him for leadership.
“Professor Holloway has a voice, but it’s harder for Dean Holloway to have the same voice,” he told the crowd at the Cross Campus gathering. “[That’s] probably wrong. And I’ll do better.”