“The police are already on their way”
It’s a Thursday night, which means GPSCY is bustling with graduate students. Gryphon’s Pub at the Graduate and Professional Student Center at Yale — a student-run bar for Yale graduate students — has a line that spills over the sidewalk tonight.
After a tiresome day of research and classes, a student decides to head to the bar to unwind with her friend. The week has practically ended, and GPSCY is loud, packed with graduate students who are dancing and talking and relaxing. A few hours later, the night is ending and weariness sets in, so she figures she and her friend should head home.
As she gets her jacket to leave, she realizes that her phone is missing. Before she begins to search for it, she hands her keys to her friend so that he can get his school bag from her car before he goes home.
“He can’t drive!” shouts a white GPSCY staffer. The student responds, “What are you talking about? He is not going to drive — he needs to get his personal possessions out of my car.”
“Does she ask white students if they are driving when they are leaving GPSCY?” she wonders aloud.
A few minutes later, another GPSCY staffer descends from the staircase and tells her, “You need to go.”
The student responds, “My friend is leaving, and I am looking for my phone. Why are you guys talking in that manner to us?”
The GPSCY staffer screams, “The police are already on their way.”
The student approaches a black GPSCY staffer instead, who says she can search for her phone once the club lights turn on. At this point, the student sees a congregation of police officers surrounding her friend. Simultaneously, a white GPSCY staffer gesticulates towards her, looking at police officers who are entering the front door, and says they need to get her out. The student tells the officers she is looking for her phone.
She walks out of GPSCY and sees four police vehicles, flashing red. She turns to the driveway and leaves, not knowing what would happen to her friend. She does not feel safe here.
The above details are based off the account of the female student, and was corroborated by two of her companions that night. When asked for comment on incidents of racial profiling at GPSCY, Gryphon’s Pub at GPSCY Director Laura Smith said that she and other administrators had “discussed recent complaints” and are now exploring options to make GPSCY “a place where all graduate and professional students feel welcome.”
“We wanted action”
On May 8, 2018, police officers questioned black graduate student Lolade Siyonbola GRD ’19 at the Hall of Graduate Studies after white graduate student Sarah Braasch GRD ’20 reported her to the Yale Police for sleeping in a common room.
In the midst of campus uproar surrounding the incident, Siyonbola joined a coalition of black graduate and professional students in releasing an open letter calling for Yale administrators to implement a “university-wide comprehensive plan for dismantling white supremacy, structural racism, racial policing, and racial aggression at Yale.” The letter recommended the creation of a Title VI Racial Discrimination and Harassment Office to adjudicate complaints of discrimination that violate Title VI — a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on race, ethnicity, color and national origin at educational institutions.
In a University-wide email after the incident, University President Peter Salovey said Yale was “reviewing policies, procedures, and institutional structures” in response to students’ recommendation to establish such an office.
But ultimately, University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews told the News earlier this month that there were no current plans to create a separate office for handling Title VI complaints.
On Oct. 30, 2015, Silliman College Associate Head Erika Christakis sent an email to the student body denouncing the censure of costumes that were deemed culturally appropriative by an email from the Intercultural Affairs Council, defending students’ rights to wear potentially offensive costumes as an expression of free speech.
On Oct. 31, 2015, Neema Githere ’18 posted a Facebook status recounting the experience of a group of women of color who were denied entry to Yale’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter because the brothers said they were admitting “white girls only.”
Kinsley McNulty ’18, who was actively involved in student protests during this weekend in 2015, said “Many students were upset with the administration for not acknowledging the events, and Yale not really addressing either of the issues formally. Only when students actually protested during Halloween across campus, they started speaking out.”
Karléh Wilson ’16, who met with President Salovey after the incident occurred, expressed a request for a “better system” for students to report discrimination to the Yale administration.
“President Salovey did not respond to that request throughout the meeting. He just said he was inspired by us, he had no idea that we were dealing with all of this and he was really happy we were saying something about it,” Wilson said. “We were pretty upset with that response: It was bullshit. We wanted action. We didn’t want him to say he was inspired by us.”
For decades, students have been worried about the availability of Yale’s adjudicatory and response systems for complaints of racial discrimination.
“Policing black bodies” at Yale
After the student left GPSCY, her friend — who is also black — was surrounded by Yale Police officers and questioned about his presence at the club. Tarleton Watkins DIV ’18, a white male Divinity School student, noticed that his friend was surrounded by police officers and approached them to ask about the situation. Watkins then asked his friend “whether everything was alright,” and his friend said that he was trying to go home but was “being spoken to by the police.”
“Upon greeting [my friend], the police officer who had been closest to and speaking to him asked me if I ‘knew this person’ and I responded that I did and that I was his friend and a fellow Divinity School student,” Watkins wrote in a memo describing the event to Associate Dean for Graduate Student Development and Diversity Michelle Nearon. “The police officer then said ‘Oh, okay’ and physically backed away from both me and [my friend], moving down a step away from [me] toward his police vehicle.”
The officers then asked Watkins whether the black student in question would be going home with him, and Watkins said yes. Watkins noted that the police “appeared to be satisfied with this answer” and did not pursue his group as they left.
Watkins told the News on Oct. 19 in a phone conversation that there were three things that seemed unusual to him about the situation. First, Watkins noted that it seemed odd that there were police officers outside of a campus bar that always has numerous bartenders and bouncers present. He also thought it was unusual that his friend, who is black, and at the time “did not appear extremely intoxicated” was being questioned by police on Yale’s campus. Lastly, he felt it was unusual that the police stopped engaging with his friend because Watkins had greeted him. “White privilege is prevalent and enforced frequently at Yale,” wrote the black female student who experienced this incident at GPSCY, in a memo to Nearon. She said that the white GPSCY staff “felt entitled to call the police, creating a scene and a terrifying experience for two black graduate students.” She requested to the News that she remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the incident.
In September, the female student voiced her concerns about GPSCY’s prejudiced staff in an email to Smith in September. Smith responded with a confirmation that her concerns would be discussed at a meeting of GPSCY’s Supervisory Committee in collaboration with the Yale administration on Oct. 5.
University Spokesman Tom Conroy told the News in September that Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews will meet with GPSCY leadership to “discuss practices, guidelines, and training to make sure that staff know how to appropriately address and resolve any concerns regarding GPSCY’s patrons.” Conroy added that Goff-Crews and Deputy Provost Lloyd Suttle meet annually with GPSCY’s leadership to review the year’s events.
The female student told the News in September that, based on the experiences of black students and students of color at Yale, “it is unclear if Yale is utilizing proper mechanisms to properly investigate and adjudicate racist incidents.”
She said that the incident on April 5, 2018, “where two black students experienced racialized policing at GPSCY,” had yet to be acknowledged or addressed by Yale, GPSCY administration, management and staff. She noted, at the time, that there were “many other instances” where students experienced discriminatory practices at GPSCY, but Yale had not properly ensured that GPSCY be a place that prohibits racial discrimination and harassment.
The student added that the University should hold GPSCY accountable for racial discrimination and require GPSCY management to provide some form of documented agreement that the space be safe for all students — especially black students and students of color.
“When intoxicated white students walk out of GPSCY, they are not questioned by GPSCY staff, let alone humiliated or interrogated by the police,” the student wrote in her memo to Nearon. “However, unfortunately, policing black bodies is a common experience for black students at Yale.”
Not an isolated incident
Two years ago, a different graduate student — who chose to remain anonymous — sent an email to the Yale administration about her experience at GPSCY. In the email, she wrote that when she and her partner — both Puerto Rican — reached the GPSCY staffer at the door, the staffer informed them that they would not be allowed to enter the premises, since the manager had told the staffer not to let the couple in.
After the manager arrived at the entrance, he told the couple that they were not going to be allowed to enter because he was not sure if they were “okay.” They assumed the manager was discussing their sobriety and encouraged the manager to perform a sobriety test. The manager looked at them and asked them to leave.
According to Javier Portillo GRD ’22, who was authorized by the student to speak on her behalf about the incident and who was inside GPSCY when the incident occurred, GPSCY staff continually asked the student whether her partner had been drinking and would not address him directly, even when she said, “Why don’t you ask him — he’s right there, and he speaks English.”
“I was very upset and, honestly, could not believe what was happening,” the student wrote in her email. “We waited at the sidewalk for our friends, and during this time, they called several police officers to their side, making us feel like criminals based on a completely speculative idea.”
The student added in her email that she and her partner — the only minorities standing in line at the time — were the only people not allowed to enter GPSCY.
Portillo said that administrators did not notify the student of any repercussions for the responsible GPSCY staff members or actions taken by the University to prevent such incidents in the future, and the complaint “just dissolved.”
Portillo added that the student vowed never to go to GPSCY again, and that she has not returned since the incident.
Both students who faced discriminatory experiences at GPSCY noted in their written complaints to the Yale administration that white students have often displayed reckless behaviors and vomited in and outside of GPSCY — but the police are hardly ever called on them.
In an email to the News, Smith confirmed that GPSCY’s supervisory council met on Oct. 15. The council comprises of GPSCY’s management, Goff-Crews, Suttle and members of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate. Garth Ross, executive director of the Schwarzman Center, also attended the meeting. From 2020 onwards, the Schwarzman Center will provide a campus location other than GPSCY for graduate, professional and of-age undergraduate students to purchase wine and beer.
According to Smith, the group’s issues of focus related to discrimination at the pub and explored how best to provide a “respectful, welcoming, and safe” environment for patrons at GPSCY. The steps that the supervisory council agreed upon were enhancing training for staff at the bar and at the door; exploring additional ways to work with the Yale Police Department and ensuring transparency of relevant laws and procedures, including those related to access, exit, safety and the serving of alcohol.
Goff-Crews confirmed that she attended the meeting and that she is “working with many students and student organizations to make Yale’s campus a place where everyone feels they belong.”
The complaints of other students interviewed by the News suggest, however, that discrimination at Yale is not isolated to its graduate and professional students.
“He got away with it”
Ashtan Towles ’19, was in a section for her “Introduction to Political Philosophy” class in her sophomore year when one of her classmates argued that “we should not view history in terms of race because it ignores the good that came out of past political theories.” The student went on to argue that the Jim Crow era was a “great era for America.”
“I was angered by this and pushed against his argument in the section,” said Towles. “My TA perceived my anger as being unjust, and forced me to speak with this student over the span of 30 minutes after section had ended.”
Despite her insistence that she needed to leave, Towles’ teaching assistant made her stay with the student who had made her uncomfortable, she said. Towles added that she later received harsh grades on her papers that attempted to relate political theory toward addressing hate speech from President Donald Trump.
Towles added she never reported any incident of discrimination to any Yale administration or staff.
“It’s hard because my TA never explicitly used a racial slur or engaged in speech that would allow me to report them,” Towles said. “I feel as though when instances of racial discrimination are seemingly race-neutral and nonexplicit, it is much harder to make a case for discrimination.”
“A few bad apples”
Students have long been calling on Yale administration to address instances of discrimination faced in the college.
Nicolas King ’98, a black graduate of Yale College, told the News that, while he was a student at Yale, a Yale Police Department officer followed him into Berkeley College, through an entryway, downstairs through a dorm and into the basement laundry room. King added that the officer only left when he was “satisfied that I was not trespassing.” King stressed that this was not an isolated incident and that he had friends who faced similar experiences.
In commenting on Lolade Siyonbola’s experience of having the police called on her as she slept in the Hall of Graduate Studies — nearly twenty years later — King said that he suspected two factors were in play: “An irrational fear of black people and a tacit prerogative that common space is white space. In white space, all whites are deputized with authority to question the presence of any black person.”
“No doubt, some would object and prefer to focus on progress, or think of this as an innocent misunderstanding, or think that there are a few bad apples,” King said. “They are wrong. It’s been more than twenty years since this sort of thing happened to my class and we are on course for it to be happening in twenty more.”
“You people always act like this”
One day, Damon Davis ’97, another black graduate of Yale College, was watching a basketball game at Payne Whitney Gym. He exited for a moment to pick up a friend at the gym entrance, but when he tried to walk back in, the student seated at the desk refused to let him return. The student then called his supervisor, an older, white man who worked for the athletic department.
“He made comments that were inappropriate and offensive,” said Davis. “He said stuff like ‘you people always act like this’ and he told the student that ‘people like us’ were just trying to scare him.”
Davis reported the incident to the dean of his college in a letter, and then met the college dean to discuss it.
“The dean brought us in to talk about it, but just said it was unfortunate that it happened — the basic gist was that these things happen, and you have to get used to it and get over it,” Davis said.
Davis expressed his regret that he did not have social media at the time to spread his “distaste” for the way his dean handled the situation. He added that that was the one incident which rose to the level that drove him to report it — and that the response was “definitely disappointing.”
“It depends on the administration”
The current University entities that address Title VI complaints include the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, the Dean’s and Provost’s Offices as well as the President’s Committee on Racial and Ethnic Harassment.
Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs Valarie Stanley also addresses Title VI complaints informally and helps individuals navigate University grievance procedures.
Goff-Crews told the News that the newly-formed Student Advisory Group on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion met for its first meeting on Oct. 15. The group will provide confidential feedback to Goff-Crews and other University leaders on student concerns as well as offer advice about initiatives to create a more welcoming and inclusive campus.
At the meeting, students shared areas they wanted to discuss and review, and Goff-Crews shared an overview of the University’s ongoing work on “belonging.” In particular, she communicated information about the upcoming review of the student discrimination and harassment infrastructure. The review of student resources will be conducted in October and November with the oversight of an external assessor — Benjamin Reese Jr., vice president for the Office for Institutional Equity at Duke University and its Health System. The review team will meet with the Student Advisory Group on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as with student activists.
“I think there is a pressing need for the system, and we have that bias reporting system,” Yale College Dean Marvin Chun told the News. “But I’m sorry if the system is not clear enough.”
Chun noted that that if there is anything about the current mode of reporting that does not work well for students, he is “happy to take input from students and improve the reporting procedures.”
When asked whether Yale should take any further steps today to improve its system to adjudicate complaints of racial discrimination, Davis asked the question that many students seem to be asking today: “It depends on the administration. They have to ask themselves: What does Yale want to be known for?”
Jever Mariwala | firstname.lastname@example.org .