On hard decisions

President Salovey published an op-ed in the New York Times on Monday, November 27th, 2017. In it he appropriately praised the magnificent work of the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray LAW ’65 in civil rights and particularly cited her letter to then Yale Acting President Kingman Brewster about his decision to ask a student group to withdraw an invitation to the Governor George Wallace of Alabama, a white racist, to speak at Yale.

President Salovey, or his researchers, neglected to present the full circumstances of Brewster’s decision. While these circumstances may, or may not, justify his decision, they do illuminate it so that it can be better understood.

In making his decision Brewster weighed three important facts:

First, Yale at that time did not have the superb police department it has today. Yale was transitioning from the days of “campus cops” (men who performed functions similar to our security personnel today) to a full-fledged, trained, armed force, all sworn police officers. There was no way Yale could, by itself, prevent violence should it occur. And these were the days when violence became so common.

Second, the leaders of New Haven’s black community made it clear they neither wanted Wallace to speak here nor could they, or would they, guarantee only peaceful picketing.

Third, Mayor Richard Lee not only said that Governor Wallace was “officially unwelcome” but also told Brewster that the New Haven Police Department could not and would not guarantee Wallace’s safety.

Thus Brewster was caught between what he knew, in principle, was right on the one hand, and his duty as Acting President on the other to protect the students, faculty, employees and buildings at Yale, as well as any guest visiting Yale.

A fourth factor is interesting for those who like to know all the facts. Brewster was acting President because Yale’s President A. Whitney Griswold had died of cancer and the Yale Corporation was conducting a nation-wide search for a successor. It was well known that the Senior Fellow of the Yale Corporation Wilmarth Lewis was unalterably opposed to having Brewster as the next president.

So Brewster was in a position where he was very uncertain that order could be maintained if Wallace came to Yale, thus risking lives and property while at the same time wanting to preserve freedom of speech on the campus. He was well aware, after he made his decision to ask the students to withdraw the invitation, that it would probably mean he would not be chosen to be Yale’s next president. And he was correct, though we will never know all the considerations, for the Yale Corporation offered the job to Princeton Professor Zeph Stewart. When Stewart declined, Brewster was then elected.

After making his decision Brewster said to those who worked with him that he knew that if he was to be a good leader he had to make hard decisions at times when it would often appear there was no clear right or wrong. He also said: “I made the wrong decision from the point of view of principle, but did the right thing when it came to preventing violence.”

Sam Chauncey Jr. ’57 served as special assistant to former University President Kingman Brewster between 1963 and 1972.