Call me a cynic, but when the News asked me to write an opinion piece about “any pressing matter that relates to the Yale alumni community,” I assumed it was an invitation to stir the pot from the vantage point of 55 years out of Yale. Looking back now with many more life experiences, I concede that attending an all-male and mostly white Yale College was a limiting factor in developing my perspectives — but we still had more than enough controversies.
As Secretary of the Class of 1964, I regularly receive emails with polarized and heated opinions from classmates at all points on the political and cultural spectrum. I am not writing this as a spokesperson for my classmates. Rather, I am offering my personal observations that sharp differences of opinion and controversies have always been a feature of Yale.
Historically, it seems that many campus controversies have pit newer Yalies (especially current students) against older alumni. So, I revisited my 1964 Class Book to recall what issues agitated us in 1960-64. There were plenty: civil rights, diversity, the environment, co-education and Vietnam, to name a few. To be sure, we did some stupid things, too, like launching snowballs down on New Haven’s “finest,” knocking down the construction barrier at the Beinecke to protest extravagance and regularly violating parietals. (Note: I never participated in these things; this is not self-incrimination!)
Our more conservative elders in the Class of 1909 — who were just celebrating their 55th reunion when we graduated — mostly thought we were naïve and foolhardy. For me, the lesson here is that all generations of college students challenge and protest the status quo. And what better place to assemble talented and aspiring young people at any time than a place like Yale? Yale was designed for controversy.
In recent years, the 1964 Class Council has met in person with diverse groups of Yale undergraduates to gain a better understanding of 21st Century student life. We have met with students from the African American Affinity Group, the Muslim Student Association, and some LGBTQ Affinity Group members among the first undergraduates at Benjamin Franklin College, where we dedicated the “Class of 1964 Gate.” These groups did not exist when we were undergraduates. The consensus reaction that I heard from my classmates was, “These kids are way smarter than we were — and they love Yale just as much as we did!” For their part, many of the students candidly admitted, “We’re stunned that you [old] Yalies wanted to hear about our experiences!” We’ve also met with New Haven inner-city kids (and their Yale student-coaches) who are enrolled in Squash Haven as well as Yale interns in the Urban Resources Initiative who work with New Haven inner-city residents to build community greening projects.
As members of the Class of 1964 gather for their 55th reunion this month (over 200 classmates out of about 780 who survive will attend), we will be encouraging the widest possible range of viewpoints, in what we’re calling “Conversations.” Topics will include: “Free Speech on College Campuses,” “How Can Red & Blue America Learn to Talk with Each Other,” “Stopping Climate Change is Hopeless. Let’s do It!” “Wealth Inequities” and “The Erosion of Ethics in the 21st Century.” Certainly, tempers sometimes flare (especially at the bar), but we try to avoid ad hominem attacks.
Our reunion theme song posted on our class website is Clint Eastwood’s Don’t Let the Old Man In. This appetite for debating issues is not just a reunion phenomenon. The Class of 1964 has produced more than 70 published authors who have written over 200 books in aggregate (and numerous articles in leading publications) on topics such as politics, the environment, conflict and war and health care. And there are 20 regular bloggers among us, who also address many controversial issues.
It’s common these days to cite the evils of social media for feeding people only what they want to hear (confirmation bias). Certainly, that is a systemic weakness, but for people with open and inquiring minds, social media can be a wonderful platform for sharing experiences and points of view. I’m impressed by the way Yale has adopted social media for connecting alumni more frequently than the bi-monthly issue of Yale Alumni Magazine could ever do. Beyond one’s own Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn pages, there are many private Yale special interest groups with pages that resonate with interesting and — yes — controversial posts. To me, it feels like being back in a late-night Branford Common Room debate all over again.
So, call me an optimist. I believe Yale is an ideal place to wrestle with our differences and also remember that, in the words of our alma mater, “Time and change shall naught avail / To break the friendships formed at Yale.”
Anthony M. (“Tony”) Lavely ’64 works as a consultant to the restaurant industry and private equity firms and is a former member of the varsity football team. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.