Before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday, one of our alumni used the Yale name to combatively deflect questions about his character in the face of multiple sexual assault allegations. “When I got into Yale College, got into Yale Law School. Worked my tail off.” He repeated this institution’s name as if each utterance strengthened the idea that admission into exclusive spaces is a marker of morality. “I got into Yale Law School … I got there busting my tail in college.” He mentioned this university as if elite membership grants a merit that trumps all other standards of human decency.
While the entitlement glazing that argument is unsavory, it is also unsurprising. These hearings provide a potent reflection of Yale precisely because most of us know someone like Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90. We know students who fervently believe in self-made success — and how success makes them moral — despite their legacy status or generational wealth; we know men who objectify women — not in public, because they know it’s not socially acceptable — but while joking with “the boys” as lighthearted claims to masculine credibility; we know white kids who make mistakes they “look back on … and regret” — harmless solely due to the color of their skin— whereas children of color would be jailed for lesser acts.
We are also familiar with the social forces that shape these people and smooth their pathways upward because this is a place dedicated to launching students toward success. We boast about our presidents and Supreme Court justices and CEOs. Much of Yale has changed, but we have inherited longstanding dynamics of ambition, social capital and power; how each of those concepts interacts with gender is closely linked to the sexual assault and sexism we grapple with amongst our prestigious alumni and on campus today.
To amass social capital, be it in schools, fraternities or workplaces, is to collect a form of power. In an environment where we idolize hierarchy and recognition, rather than character and unsung deeds, social capital is an important currency. Several liberal students clung to Senator Al Franken for his Democratic popularity before his resignation. Despite being found guilty of sexual misconduct, Michael Simons was awarded an endowed chair by Yale this past summer, a position that was revoked only after widespread backlash. Three professors accused of sexual assault hold important positions while graduate students remain vulnerable to misconduct and demeaning treatment. These conditions require an inquiry into our core values. Is this the best we can do? How do we deal with the faults in our brightest stars? When there is a conflict between goodness and greatness, which do we pick?
Who do we pick and respect at Yale right now? I have heard too often that despite a student’s “terrible personality,” they deserve a leadership position, space in exclusive programs or some recognition due to their precocious intellect or unmatched talent. Badly behaved men are not simply immature boys; instead, especially here, their actions feed a pattern of social climbing. They are socially ambitious students collecting capital by performing an age-old script we have legitimized as a routine part of male success. Amidst the debate over Greek life and sexual misconduct, students who eagerly declare their respect for women continue to attend parties hosted by fraternities with sexist reputations; too many men watch but do not call out friends and colleagues who disrespect, sexualize and demean women in private. Ironically, these students are afraid of losing their own social credibility, feeding into a tragedy of the commons where decent behavior is viewed as policing since it means putting another person’s comfort above your own self-interest.
Again, this is predictable, because Yale selects for students with lofty dreams. And none of that ambition is inherently bad. Plenty of people here, myself included, wrangle with difficult questions of whether high positions are necessary to do a meaningful amount of good. The problem occurs when strivers learn to stack up accomplishments, to find ways into increasingly exclusive spaces, without reckoning with why power matters. The problem comes when, over time, we become addicted to climbing and view positions as logically deserved by great people rather than a privilege entrusted to good people. The problem comes when we are more obsessed with first being great rather than being good.
So here we are at Yale. The Yale mission statement proclaims our commitment to improving the world and to educating people who serve society. To be sure, there are countless Yale graduates and alumni doing outstanding work. There are many students here who have been instrumental in changing the culture of this school, bringing questions of discrimination, sexual assault and privilege to the forefront of the conversation.
But this place is our home, and by virtue of our being here, it is our responsibility. It is our job — as students, faculty, administrators and members of this community — to ensure that we graduate a different kind of person to power and that we give credibility first to people who consistently and constantly treat others well, who improve the world in the little ways that matter tremendously. It is our job to ensure our community picks goodness over greatness, each and every time, for everything ranging from student leadership to endowed professorships to future Supreme Court justices.
Only then will the Yale name not be an elitist excuse for indecency but a true badge of good character. Only then will we serve the greater good, rather than ourselves.
Liana Wang is a junior in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .