In November, University administrators moved quickly to keep up with student protestors. Next Yale, a student activist group, demanded a more inclusive and diverse campus, even marching on University President Peter Salovey’s house, and Salovey responded in less than two weeks with a set of initiatives as part of progressing “Toward a Better Yale.” Since the start of the semester, student activists have remained quiet as Woodbridge Hall moves quickly to implement these policies. But even as the administration moves to do so, administrators have mainly looked inward, and emphasized that students were not primarily responsible for the inception of the initiatives.
Salovey, Senior Advisor to the President Martha Highsmith, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and other administrators all told the News that they have not recently been in communication with Next Yale. Implementation groups for the initiatives, coordinated by Highsmith, do not include any students, and the recently established Presidential Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion has only one undergraduate: Abdul-Razak Zachariah ’17, who told the News he believes more students should have been included on the committee.
“There is no doubt that students were very visible on these issues and have contributed many good and significant ideas toward it,” Salovey explained, in reference to the composition of his task force. “But at the end of the day, we are working on initiatives and imagining future ones that will have benefits across many aspects of the Yale community. I am not in any way unappreciative of students, but I recognize that what the task force will work on will transcend the interests of any one part of the Yale community.”
Looking back on last semester, Highsmith and Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor are also pushing back against the notion that students should be disproportionately credited with catalyzing “Toward a Better Yale.” Highsmith downplayed the role of students in the creation of the initiatives, stating that students, alumni and faculty all contributed ideas. Concerning implementation, she repeatedly said it is the responsibility of the administration to carry out the operations of the University. This semester, the University has established several of its programs, including a center for race and ethnicity, an updated reporting mechanism for harassment and discrimination and the presidential task force.
Students interviewed seem to accept, for the time being, their lack of involvement in implementing the policies. But they disagreed with administrators on the impact of their activism in November, expressing pride for the way they catalyzed change.
Sebastian Medina-Tayac ’16, a staff reporter for the News who worked with Next Yale in the fall as a student organizer, said student exclusion from implementation groups and the presidential task force is not of great concern to him because he has found student participation in formal committees ineffectual in the past. Rather, what matters is the substantive change students produced on their own, Medina-Tayac said.
“We have seen what happened when we got on committees and played by the rules: they stalemated us into bureaucratic pigeonholes,” he said. “But when we went outside the system and did something huge, they had to respond and responded immediately, efficiently and constructively … Committees are where change goes to die.”
As their involvement and access decline, involved students appear unwilling to push back on the administration. Medina-Tayac explained that given how exhausting the events of last fall were for student activists, it would be unfair for the administration to expect students to “do their jobs for them.”
But the decrease in student engagement seems to go beyond implementation. In November, members of Next Yale told the News that they wanted to communicate directly with the Yale Corporation. Karleh Wilson ’16, a member of Next Yale who met with Salovey on two occasions during the protests, told the News in November that she wanted “to look Corporation members in the eyes” and help them understand students’ perspectives. But during listening sessions hosted in February by two members of the Corporation to discuss naming issues, just a handful of undergraduates came, leaving the Law School auditorium mostly empty.
Both sides downplayed the low turnout: Administrators said attendance met expectations, while students said the events were poorly publicized. Mary-Claire Whelan ’19, a member of Fossil Free Yale who helped organize a Feb. 19 protest against the Corporation, said students may not have attended because it was unclear how the listening sessions would influence the body’s decision-making.
Still, compared to the hundreds of students who attended protests last semester, far fewer seem willing to engage now that their concerns have been heard.
O’Connor said students can communicate any thoughts they may have through the cultural centers and that staff closely associated with students, such as masters, are involved in implementation. But she said the reality is that many of these initiatives have been long in the making and it is now up to the administration to “operationalize” them.
“I don’t think there is a grand design to exclude students,” O’Connor said. “But many of these initiatives were under discussion before November. Part of the problem was students didn’t already know about them, so I think it’s not necessarily right to characterize the plans as catalyzed by students. I’m not saying that meanly, it’s a fact.”