In the wake of student demonstrations and demands for an improved racial climate on campuses across the country, University President Peter Salovey has expressed his hope that Yale will lead its peer institutions in providing support for a diverse student body. While Yale differs from many other schools in housing four distinct cultural centers, students and administrators at Yale and beyond agree that more must be done to promote a campuswide culture of inclusivity.
In a University-wide email on Nov. 17, Salovey announced a host of changes designed to foster such a culture, including the doubling of the budgets for the four cultural centers: the Asian American Cultural Center, the Afro-American Cultural Center, La Casa Cultural and the Native American Cultural Center. With professional counselors from Yale Health’s Mental Health and Counseling expected to schedule hours at each cultural house, the centers will also be able to provide mental health resources specific to students of color, a provision called for by many student activists.
When Yale is compared to some of its peer institutions, just the existence of these centers is noteworthy. According to Dean of Student Engagement Burgwell Howard, Yale is among a small group of colleges nationwide that have designated an immense amount of space to support cultural organizations on campus. But he acknowledged that the cultural centers still have much room to grow.
“So, I think that it is fair to say that in some instances, Yale is ahead of some of our national peers, and in others we have some room to grow,” Howard told the News. “The key will be to find the right balance of resources — space, staffing, budget and philosophical approach — that will work best for Yale in 2016 and moving forward as we become an even more diverse community.”
At Princeton, students can look to the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding for multicultural support, but the university does not have individual cultural centers like the ones at Yale. Carl Fields Center Director Tennille Haynes is currently the only full-time staff member, though she told the News that Princeton has just completed the search for two program coordinators to work in the center, and they are expected to arrive on campus in time for the spring semester. By contrast, each of Yale’s cultural centers has a full-time director and a staff of paid student liaisons and assistants.
“It is evident from recent events on campus that not all students are satisfied with the current resources at Princeton,” Haynes said, referring to weeks of student activism regarding the school’s racial climate. “But we are making great strides at the Fields Center.”
Haynes pointed to a report written in May by the Special Task Force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion that Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber commissioned last year, which highlighted the necessity of strengthening and re-conceptualizing the center so that it could better serve Princeton’s students of color. In a message sent to the Princeton community on Nov. 22, Eisgruber said he has accepted every recommendation made by the task force, including increasing the center’s budget, reassessing its physical space and designating areas within the center for cultural groups.
Still, Haynes said the Princeton administration has not addressed the possibility of creating individual cultural centers on campus yet.
Haynes said the fact that Yale has multiple centers dedicated to different cultural groups is great, especially since many of its peer institutions lack these accommodations. Across the country, Haynes added, cultural centers are underfunded and understaffed, and so Yale has taken a step in the right direction in examining the needs of students on campus and pushing forward with student demands, she said. However, she added there is no “one size fits all” formula for diversity and inclusion at every school in the nation, and Yale in no way has the perfect solution.
Emery Real Bird, a junior at Princeton and president of the Natives at Princeton organization, said he thinks cultural centers give students a meeting point to better facilitate collective conversation. He added that he thinks Princeton would benefit from cultural centers, but only if there is an engaged group of students willing to learn from them as well as student representatives who can help connect the cultural centers with the broader student body.
Sridutt Nimmagadda, a sophomore and co-president of the Princeton South Asian Students Association, said he feels cultural centers exist on campus without being specifically labeled as such. For example, he said, much of the support he has experienced comes from the academic departments. According to Nimmagadda, SASA works with Princeton’s South Asian Studies program to plan events and provide funding, as well as the Hindu department of the Office of Religious Life.
There are also no individual cultural centers at Harvard, where students interviewed said the university would benefit from more cultural resources. Current support systems for Harvard students include the Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, which has one full-time director, a group of paid undergraduate interns and a student advisory committee composed of representatives from racial and ethnic affinity groups on campus. Tasked with promoting diversity among individuals and student groups, the foundation mainly hosts campuswide events, such as panel discussions and prominent speakers. In addition, the foundation has a $25,000 budget for student-initiated programs and organizations. Yale and Princeton administrators in charge of the schools’ cultural resources have declined to release their respective budgets.
Harvard students interviewed said a significant weakness of the foundation — which is located in the basement of a freshman dorm — is its lack of a physical space where groups can host activities. Each of Yale’s cultural centers has its own house, although students have complained that some of the houses are not well maintained and are located far from central campus.
“While I think that it might not be immediately feasible for Harvard to establish four different cultural centers like Yale, at least having one substantial physical space for multicultural activities is a reasonable start,” said Harvard junior Lola Agabalogun, vice president of the Association of Black Harvard Women.
Eni Popoola, a junior and president of the ABHW, said that despite the foundation’s shortcomings as a physical space, it still creates important opportunities for students to engage in thought-provoking conversations. But she also said Harvard would benefit from the addition of specific cultural centers.
Alex Pong, a senior and co-president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association, said more resources need to be allocated to the foundation. He described the situation as an unfortunate feedback loop, in which the foundation’s resources are underutilized because student groups recognize that the foundation does not have much to offer. The groups therefore seek funding from other sources instead, such as the student government, Pong said.
“[The foundation] is basically a funding space and physical space, but it isn’t doing a very good job of being either,” he said.
According to AACC Director Saveena Dhall, recent improvements on Yale’s campus are long awaited and necessary for the University to become an institution capable of supporting all of its students. Nationwide, Dhall added, the basic model for cultural centers usually includes three full-time professional staff, and some schools even have staff members who work as librarians, art curators, advisors, counselors, artists in residence and so on. Dhall cited Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania as institutions with well-developed cultural centers.
Stanford’s Asian American Activities Center, which includes a director, an associate director, a graduate student in residence for undergraduate research support as well as a number of undergraduate student workers, is equipped with academic and health and wellness resources in addition to basic programming and advising. For example, the center supports students majoring in the Asian American Studies Program and partners with Stanford’s mental health counseling services to provide “culturally competent psychologists” at the center.
Howard said Yale is fortunate to have four free-standing cultural houses, but he said that, as the student body has become more diverse over the years, it is fair to question if the existing space is enough to meet the growing needs. In addition to the issue of physical space, Howard acknowledged that several other institutions have more full-time staff than Yale to support their intercultural efforts. Howard also emphasized that efforts to promote diversity and inclusivity on campus are not solely the responsibility of the four cultural centers, as improvements in the University’s residential college system and academic curriculum are also crucial.
Still, three Yale students interviewed all emphasized the importance of having cultural centers on campus and said they appreciate the progress that the administration is currently undertaking.
“I think the NACC was one of the reasons I chose to come to Yale,” NACC Peer Liaison Mitchell Rose Bear Don’t Walk ’16, said. “I was looking at a bunch of different schools — a couple of them were Ivies — and Yale seemed to have the best resources available for Native students.”
Derwin Aikens ’16 said having distinct cultural centers is important, as it allows students from specific backgrounds to find peers who can empathize with their struggles.
As a senior, Bear Don’t Walk said she has witnessed impressive advancements at the NACC during her time at Yale, adding that she views Salovey’s email in a positive light. Still, Bear Don’t Walk said there is always more progress to be made — and now that students and the cultural centers have administrative support and aid, much more can be done.
“We have this incredible opportunity to look at national models of successful and impactful cultural centers and figure out what is going to be best for Yale,” Dhall told the News, adding that the focus should not be on competition among the Ivies, since Yale has always stood out with the four distinct cultural centers on campus. “This moment is about embracing that distinction and doing the good work of making our University better.”