Almost three weeks ago on Thursday, Sept. 24, I attended an event for Yale Forward, the pro-divestment campaign to elect climate activist and policy advisor Maggie Thomas ENV ’15 to the Yale Corporation. It was my first Yale Forward event and one of only a few I have attended concerning divestment. The Zoom event was oriented toward alumni and thick with campy nostalgia for bright college years come and gone. But in hearing firsthand from the campaign itself, it became clear to me that the debate about divestment is not only about climate but also about power, equally about what gets done and whose voice is heard.
A few days prior, a friend had sent me an article concerning Harvard’s changes to their Board of Overseers election process. The alterations include limiting the number of candidates who can be nominated by petition and were made after three candidates from Harvard Forward — Harvard’s own divestment campaign — were elected to the board. The decision has serious implications concerning decision-making processes in higher education at large.
Sometimes as a student I feel that it can be challenging to be both at and a part of Yale. There’s a constant need to balance my conception of Yale as an institution entering its fourth century and that desire to feel that Yale can be “ours.” Yale’s leadership has, of course, recognized the importance of addressing climate change, while disagreeing that divestment is an effective response. The crux of the debate resides not simply in whether our institutions acknowledge the potential devastation of climate change. On a deeper level, our discussions concerning divestment are informed by how we — including students, administrators, alumni — see Yale and our role in living in, learning from, and perpetuating it.
I ultimately have faith in Yale and all of its component parts to advocate for what they think is right for the University — in the students, yes, but also in the faculty, staff, administration and Corporation. But the people who make up those parts are at very different stages in their lives and in their relations to Yale. This was one of the strongest arguments Yale Forward alluded to at that Thursday night event. With age, alumni gain experience of the world, but the younger we are the closer we are to Yale. And we, as current students, are closer to this place than almost anyone.
In their article, “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organizations,” political science scholars Martha Finnemore and Michael Barnett write about how international organizations with extensive bureaucratic structures often institute rules that are self-defeating. They write, “Bureaucracies are infamous for creating and implementing policies that defy rational logic, for acting in ways that are at odds with their stated mission, and for refusing requests of and turning their backs on those to whom they are officially responsible.” Although I cite this tangentially at best, it is easy to recognize that universities — famous for their bureaucracies — are also prone to these risks.
In the interest of full disclosure, I think that we are generally well cared for by Yale — in support for our clubs and initiatives, in the network of residential colleges, in the company of our teachers and peers and in general expectations for our potential. But when it comes to the long term, I wonder if the University’s leadership doubts whether we as undergraduates — who usually only spend four years here — have the foresight to look out for future generations of students. In doubting their students — 83% of students at Yale supported divestment as far back as 2013 — universities fulfill each of the above three failings of bureaucracies.
The primary argument of this opinion is not necessarily that Yale divest — although I do believe the sooner the better. The main point of this piece is that the leadership of our institutions of higher learning could do more to listen harder, deeper and longer — especially to younger voices, who often do not have access to institutional channels. The competitions for leadership ongoing at Yale and elsewhere are for seats at the table, but, maybe more importantly, they are about having a diversity of voices in the room itself.
In a chance convergence of events, I have been repeatedly reminded of a quote popularly associated with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “A court should never be influenced by the weather of the day, but inevitably they will be influenced by the climate of the era.” I think this can be applied to almost any institution that lasts long enough to see successive eras. In this context, I would amend it to make the subject Yale. To determine that climate, to make decisions responsive to the consensus of our community and of our times, conversation must continue in all forums. Otherwise, we risk sacrificing goals to rules, values to procedure, and ultimately much needed change to a comforting status quo.
JACK TRIPP is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.