On Wednesday, the News chose to devote its entire front page to an article about a single student, Zulfiqar Mannan ’20. The article’s first line read as if the University was holding its breath in anticipation of their next move: “Zulfiqar Mannan ’20 — who staged a demonstration against the Director of the World Fellows Program Emma Sky earlier this month — has now chosen Sterling Professor of Law Akhil Amar as the protest’s next potential subject, prompting further doubts and criticisms about the project’s ethics and legitimacy.”
Apart from a few seminars we’ve taken together, I don’t know Zulfi all that well, but after reading this week’s article, I feel compelled to speak out in opposition to the misguided discourse that has developed around their protest.
On Nov. 7, for the first time in my life, I joined a demonstration at a Yale lecture. It was professor Emma Sky’s “Gateway to Global Affairs” course, and I was a last-minute addition to Zulfi’s “Paradise Sought” performance troupe. I knew that the group had disturbed professor Sky’s upper-level seminar on Nov. 5, yet I was optimistic that if I could participate in their latest action, I could guide their methods away from disruption.
Over the course of the “Gateway to Global Affairs” lecture — as other representatives of Paradise Sought protested both inside and outside the room — I encouraged these protestors to leave, which they ultimately did. I remained silent the whole time. Once class had finished, I stood up and told students I would stay behind to explain why people were protesting Professor Sky’s classes. In doing so, I hoped to de-escalate the mounting antagonism against Paradise Sought and reestablish a critical dialogue about their professor.
Emma Sky is a controversial figure, and rightly so. She was the civilian governor of Kirkuk and the highest civilian advisor to General Raymond T. Odierno, the commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq. But she also strongly opposed the war and is aware of her own role in “The Unraveling” of the country. Indeed, this is the title of her memoir. The pamphlets distributed by Paradise Sought implicitly connect Professor Sky’s behavior to war crimes committed by the U.S. military in Iraq, yet without a robust argument to back up this point, I find the claim leveled against her to be at best unconstructive and at worst harmfully reductive.
I do not think Professor Sky should be prevented from teaching, nor should her class be significantly interrupted, but I do think it is essential to critique the type of knowledge that she and other Jackson Institute of Global Affairs faculty offer students. Global Affairs students, many of whom will fulfill their first major requirement in Professor Sky’s lecture, are not obligated to take any courses in the History or ER&M Departments to complete their degree. Of course many still choose to do so, but this glaring omission signals where the department’s priorities lie.
In a brilliant op-ed written last year, Yasamin Sharifi ’19 uses a critique of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman to illuminate the Jackson Institute’s structural flaws: “Every choice to spotlight a particular kind of position means privileging it over other kinds of positions. Yale, the Jackson Institute and other academic institutions like it, all fail to equally laud historians and scholars of the Middle East who, in fact, present more critical, rigorous and nuanced analyses of the region’s challenges.” As she emphasizes in her op-ed, Sharifi does not advocate for censorship, instead promoting the opposite: “more thoughtful, balanced and accountable discourse,” not less.
Any program that teaches students to become foreign policy actors presumes that intervention, while not infallible, is often necessary. Thus, such a department — and its students — must also grapple with the critical perspective that calls such meddling imperialism and says that Yale-educated elites should not have a say in the future direction of the world. What frustrates me about international affairs at Yale is that the former perspective is constantly placed above the latter. And I think that this oversight has human repercussions.
All this being said, I don’t think Professor Sky would disagree with what I have said so far, but I remain disappointed that the conclusions offered by Paradise Sought have been obfuscated in the recent YDN article.
First, I object to the article’s framing that Yale and its faculty are victims of Zulfi’s actions. The wealthy, powerful and illustrious professors implicated by Paradise Sought are no worse off because of the protest.
Second, Zulfi’s protest, in the spirit of Sharifi’s op-ed, implores us to interrogate our education and ask why we prioritize certain kinds of knowledge over others. Yet as framed by the YDN cover story, Yale faculty and administrators have managed to avoid this point by exclusively emphasizing the educational disruption of Paradise Sought.
The Nov. 5 action outside Professor Sky’s seminar was distracting, disturbing and, regrettably, triggering for students. However, that should not allow the University to continue to ignore the underlying issues that stimulate this kind of frustration.
Instead of responding to the critiques raised by Paradise Sought, faculty members quoted in the Wednesday article disavow Zulfi’s actions and project them as threats to free expression, as if there is no need to meaningfully respond to critique because it is too disruptive. We have become fixated only on the methods of the protest.
After Professor Sky’s lecture, some students refused to engage with me. Yet others did come up to me — genuinely curious to learn why I was there — and I told them to be open to other perspectives on their instructor. I even took one first-year student out to dinner to discuss the topic further. As I have learned countless times from Yale students before me, this dialogue is how activism starts and persists. In this particular case, we must work to re-center a critique of our education and force our faculty to respond, rather than allowing the institution to side-step any culpability and criticize boisterous students. We must force ourselves and our school to face the human implications of what we study.
RYAN GITTLER is a senior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .