Tina Lu can’t wait to dive into residential college life as the new head of Pauli Murray College — and she’s not the only one. Her husband, senior history lecturer Stuart Semmel, and her five kids often check up on the ever-developing construction site along Prospect Street, waiting for the day they can move in.
This fall marks Lu’s ninth year at Yale, including a one-semester stint at Yale-NUS, but her experience with residential life on campus has been limited.
“I have had a full range of minor administrative responsibilities, but the thing I really like the best is the informal interactions with undergrads,” said Lu, who currently chairs the East Asian Languages and Literature Department. “But as a professor, the weird thing is those experiences are pretty limited. You go home in the afternoon, and you know you only have a tiny window into the undergraduate life.”
Lu and Semmel know what they have been missing, and what they are about to enter. The couple lived at a Harvard undergraduate house as residential tutors while they were graduate students, and they were faculty fellows at the University of Pennsylvania before coming to Yale. Those experiences have prepared Lu to “dive in” to her new role, she said.
Lu’s colleagues and students highlighted her enthusiasm, her generosity with her time and her love of collaboration.
“She leavened her lectures with humor and was always very open to questions from students,” said Scott Remer ’16, who took a class with Lu as a sophomore. “She was willing to chat with students outside of class, and we had lunch together a number of times.”
Despite her scholarly distinction, Lu is also “very nurturing,” said Evy Behling ’17, another former student.
Adrien Gau ’17, who took a class with Lu last fall, said Lu sought to understand her students’ lives and demonstrated genuine curiosity about the protests and activism surrounding campus racial climate at the time without passing judgment.
Against the backdrop of those campus controversies, the role of the residential college head has been subject to much discussion, particularly regarding how college heads should balance intellectual discussions and inclusivity in a largely residential hub. Nicholas Christakis, former head of Silliman College, drew criticism last year for injecting his opinions on free expression into what some students said should be a safe space. But in Lu’s mind, the two need not be competing ideals.
Lu explained that she studies and sometimes teaches a highly sexually explicit Chinese literary text and often includes a trigger warning on the syllabus noting the potentially upsetting content.
“Not everything goes in terms of these discussions,” Lu said. “We can talk about something that was meant to be provocative and infuriating, but in a civil scholarly way. These have to be the things that Yale is great at: civility, diversity of opinions and how you maintain those two poles.”
Lu said this philosophy should extend to the residential college setting. People should be able to disagree heatedly but still retain “trust, respect and warmth” for one another.
As for heads of colleges, Lu said, she believes they should also be allowed to share their personal opinions, as long as the people they are talking to understand that these are their “civilian views,” as opposed to their views as an administrator.
Still, Lu said her various roles as a scholar, family member and administrator are ultimately complementary.
Indeed, some of Lu and Semmel’s ideas for college events already demonstrate an interest in combining intellectual topics with community building. Semmel said he would be interested in hosting movie nights, and ice-cream socials afterwards where students can discuss the film.
Ed Kamens, Lu’s EALL colleague and a former head of Saybrook College, said Lu recently told him about an idea to host Shakespeare play nights.
“When I heard her say that, I thought, ‘She is really ready for this job,’” he said. “She understands it’s about having fun. It’s about creating and recreating fun things in people’s lives.”
Lu’s colleagues said she is fond of collaborations and is often creative in her teaching approach.
Mick Hunter, an EALL assistant professor who has co-taught a survey class on Chinese tradition with Lu, said Lu always has a smile on her face and brings overflowing positive energy to any setting. Hunter and Lu are also collaborating on “Ten Thousand Rooms,” a digital project to compile and publicize Chinese sources and images.
Looking ahead, Lu said she plans to use this year to shadow current heads of colleges to see what works well for them and to understand how to create a vibrant, organic community.
“There is also a realization that you are there to foster, to encourage and to sponsor, but it is ultimately the students who are building the community,” Lu said.