Amid ongoing student conversations about race on campus, the Yale Political Union held a debate Tuesday night to discuss whether Yale should make courses in ethnic studies mandatory for all undergraduates.
On Nov. 12, a coalition of students called Next Yale marched on University President Peter Salovey’s house to submit a list of measures the administration should take to improve the racial climate on campus, including an ethnic studies distributional requirement for all Yale undergraduates. In a Nov. 17 email, Salovey announced several steps the University would take to address student concerns, including a new center for ethnic studies. But his email did not address Next Yale’s demand for mandatory ethnic studies courses.
At the event, which attracted roughly 150 people, students from across the political spectrum presented a variety of arguments in support of and against the resolution. After roughly two hours of debate, attendees voted 37 to 32 in favor of requiring ethnic studies.
Aia Sarycheva ’16, former president of the YPU, delivered the first speech in the affirmative, arguing that the academic study of racial issues is essential for promoting racial understanding.
“Inserting diverse viewpoints by itself is not enough,” Sarycheva said.
In order to implement the requirement, she said, Yale could either add an additional requirement or convert one of the existing humanities or social sciences requirements to an ethnic studies requirement.
However, students on the political right disagreed with Sarycheva. Some argued that, were Yale to make ethnic studies mandatory, it should implement requirements for religious studies or Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies as well.
Students also disagreed on the question of whether such a requirement would be effective at promoting real racial understanding on campus. For example, some posited that students would be inclined to take easy courses and would not engage sufficiently with the material out of disinterest. Still others thought that while ethnic studies courses are valuable, they should not be required.
“No one denies that ethnic studies are important,” said Thomas Gould ’19, who attended the debate. “The importance of ethnic studies doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be mandated as part of the curriculum.”
Anthony Deaconn ’19, another attendee, also said that while a Yale education serves to promote students’ understanding of other cultures, the University should not make that understanding mandatory.
Students on the political left, by contrast, argued for the virtues of an ethnic studies requirement.
Layla Treuhaft-Ali ’17, chair of the Party of the Left, said in a speech that because Yale has a duty to prepare its students to solve problems in the world, it should require ethnic studies so that graduates can more adequately address issues of race in society.
Students also said that making ethnic studies mandatory would send the message that the administration considers issues of race especially salient. Former Floor Leader of the Left Clifford Carr ’17, who also delivered a speech Tuesday, said an ethnic studies requirement would demonstrate administrative support for the discipline’s merits.
“A distribution requirement is particularly important because it sends a powerful message that in order to have had a Yale education, this is something you have to have studied,” Carr said. “It’s acknowledging that [ethnic studies] is something that is a valid and important method of analyzing the world.”
After the event, YPU President Simon Brewer ’16 told the News that the debate was intended to be the start, rather than the end, of a conversation. He said he hoped students would continue to talk about the issue in various other contexts on campus.
“People raised good points about how, in some respects, questions of race and ethnicity are inescapable even if sometimes they are submerged,” he said. “You need a language to talk about them so that they are no longer submerged.”
The YPU was founded in 1934.
Correction, Dec. 2: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the leadership roles of two students in the YPU. Aia Sarycheva ‘16 is former president of the YPU, and Clifford Carr ’17 is former floor leader of the Left.