In April 2017, minutes after University President Peter Salovey announced that Marvin Chun would become the dean of Yale College, the newly named heir vowed to create a Yale “in which everyone feels valued.”
But Chun began his deanship at the helm of a Yale fraught with controversy: National policies on immigration and education posed a direct threat to community members while students also voiced concern over sexual misconduct on campus. Sixteen months into his deanship, has Chun followed through on that promise?
Early into his first year, Chun embraced communication with students, hosting an open forum on the potential impacts of repealing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program — an Obama-era policy that allows certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to receive a renewable two-year deferral from deportation. He also attended student-organized rallies aimed at showing solidarity for immigrants and sexual assault survivors. And last month, Chun imposed an emergency suspension on Saifullah Khan, a Yale senior who was acquitted of sexual assault allegations in criminal court in March but now faces a second allegation of sexual misconduct. Khan is now suing Yale for breach of contract.
But despite his own intentions and calls from students to create an open dialogue, Chun remained silent during several campus controversies, including allegations of sexual misconduct against two-time Yale alumnus and now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90. Chun contended that he is restricted from making political statements or commenting on controversies, unless they directly impact “how Yale does business.”
“I think sometimes there are expectations that I do something on a larger scale … like blocking Kavanaugh’s nomination. To speak out on political issues is just something that I just can’t do,” Chun told the News. “That’s not my role. I’m not an elected representative of Yale, I’m a servant of Yale and I have to be apolitical, and that’s not easy.”
Chun, the first Asian-American dean of Yale College, also assumed the deanship during a time of major transition for the College.
During former Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway’s tenure, the Yale administration announced the creation of two new residential colleges and renamed Calhoun College after Grace Hopper GRD ’30, a prominent computer scientist and United States Navy Rear Admiral. These changes came amid racially charged controversies in fall 2015. Holloway, Yale College’s first black dean, succeeded Mary Miller in 2014 but faced criticism from some individuals for not taking a stronger stance to defend minority students amid campus debates.
“I just happened to be dean of the College when all these different challenges came to a head. It wasn’t just Yale, Yale was a lightning rod place certainly but it was all over the country,” Holloway told the News. “Anyone who was in my kind of role, an undergraduate-facing role, was having a very difficult time … and it’s still a difficult role. These are very tricky times.”
As Chun settled into his new office in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, undergraduates moved into two new residential colleges, and students in Grace Hopper began to formally embrace their college’s new name.
Still, more and more students have elected to live off campus, shifting life away from the residential colleges. At a town hall meeting with students in March, Chun weighed possible reforms — including potential late night dining options and senior mixed-college housing. But months later, Chun is still working to find a solution.
Chun’s first year as Dean also yielded marked policy changes. The new Credit/D/Fail and language credit policies aimed to provide more flexibility for students while the new Domestic Summer Award offered students on financial aid the opportunity to work in an unpaid summer position with compensation from the University. In an interview with the News, Chun fondly recalled the final meeting with University administrators to approve the Domestic Summer Award as an “unforgettable” moment — his first major policy initiative. Chun said he was pleasantly surprised that during the meeting he found that “Big Yale really cares about Yale College.”
According to Ryan Wepler, assistant director of the Yale College Writing Center, Chun attended the first meeting of the Writing Center Advisory Committee and thanked them for their work. Wepler added that it was an “inspiring gesture,” as no Yale College dean had visited the committee in his previous eight years at Yale. It reflected Chun’s commitment to “strengthening teaching and learning in Yale College,” Wepler said.
Holloway told the News he “couldn’t have been happier” when Chun was named his successor last spring.
“I told him I would always be on call if he needed anything but I would keep my nose out of his business, and I’ve stood by that,” Holloway said. “I’ve always been ready to be a resource but never expected to hear from him.”
Students interviewed by the News emphasized Chun’s commitment to improving student life.
Since the beginning of his deanship, Chun has worked closely with Yale College Council to implement policy changes. Both current and former YCC representatives praised Chun for his effective leadership and interest in soliciting student feedback. According to former YCC President Matt Guido ’19 and current President Saloni Rao ’20, Chun has met with YCC more frequently and for longer durations of time than his predecessors.
“Dean Chun left such a legacy behind,” Guido said, referring to Chun’s former role as Berkeley Head of College from 2007 to 2016. “People still talk about him, still mention how amazing he was. It speaks to who is he not just as a professor or a dean but as an individual in the Yale College community.”
Rao noted that Chun “cares deeply” about students’ wellbeing and the quality of life at Yale. This fall, Chun specifically requested that YCC include a question on its annual fall survey asking students whether they are satisfied with their Yale experience — a question that has not been asked in previous years.
According to Paul McKinley, director of strategic communications in the Yale College Dean’s Office, when Chun was head of Berkeley, he used to take every sophomore suite out for dinner to get to know them better.
But even before he was head of Berkeley, Chun was a psychology professor — studying attention, perception and memory. Chun’s study of psychology plays an important part in informing his practices as dean, he said. As a psychologist, he continued, when thinking of ways to improve campus policies, Chun thinks about “what makes people better people.”
According to former YCC Chief of Staff Devyn Rigsby ’19, Chun’s experience as a neuroscientist prompts him to approach problems and new policies with the “pragmatism” and “ingenuity” of someone who conducts scientific research. Rigsby noted that Chun recognizes institutional constraints and comes up with “out of the box” innovations to overcome them.
Chun said he encourages students to prioritize their sleep and health despite their busy lives. He practices this holistic lifestyle himself: According to McKinley, Chun has run a marathon. And, Chun told the News he has a “religious need” to go to bed by 11 p.m. every night.
Despite his busy schedule, Chun has decided to teach “Introduction to Psychology” in the upcoming spring semester. Chun said he missed having access to interactions with students through his classes and was driven to return to teaching because of his love for the field of psychology.
“Teaching is not a natural thing, it’s something I work very, very hard at, so I think it’ll probably suffer [compared to] my peak years of teaching and my ego will just need to be able to handle that,” Chun told the News with a laugh. “But my priority is being a good dean, so I guess this is my excuse if my teaching sucks — I’ll blame the deanship!”
While Chun is known for his big ideas on policy reform and psychology research, students and administrators alike look to him for advice on another pressing topic.
“I want to be a role model for my good taste in food,” Chun told the News.
As head of Berkeley College, Chun created an infamous holiday banquet known as the “Thunder Brunch” — an homage to his love for food. As dean of Yale College, Chun could no longer lead his beloved tradition. But to expand the celebration, he created a version of the event that could be enjoyed by students of all residential colleges — the sophomore brunch — where sophomores are greeted by trays of avocado hummus, eggs Florentine, pasta, fresh orange juice and mock mimosas.
McKinley confirmed that Chun has a reputation for going “all out with food.” And Holloway added that Chun is a “fantastic barbecuer” — getting on his invite list was “very special,” he insisted.
Holloway announced in November 2016 he would be leaving Yale to serve as provost of Northwestern University beginning in July 2017.
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