Starting on Sept. 15, the Yale Alumni Association Board of Governors began hosting an alumni section of a Yale course “African American History from Reconstruction to the Present” taught by former Dean of Yale College and professor Jonathan Holloway GRD ’95.
Approximately 300 alumni — from students who attended Yale in the 1950s to recent graduates — are currently taking the online course. The course will take place over 25 weeks, after which Holloway, who is now the President of Rutgers University, will speak to the participants in a Zoom discussion. While the Yale Alumni Association has worked in the past to create similar classes and learning opportunities, this course is coming out of a moment of racial reckoning, according to administrators and alumni.
“I thought it would be great to get alumni together to take the course that wasn’t offered when many of us were at Yale,” Billy Kolber ’86, who sits on the Board of Governors and created the program, told the News. “And in the current climate, there are many of us who are interested in filling out the missing parts of our whitewashed education, and in doing anti-racism work.”
Similar to a Yale lecture course, in which students would listen to a lecture and then separate into smaller groups to discuss, the 300 alumni are split into sections, except without a TA, Kolber said. The sections are instead led by the alumni themselves.
The discussions touch on several different topics that often begin with the suggested course material but end with a focus on participants’ own experiences surrounding race during their time at Yale. Because so many generations of alumni are involved, Kolber noted, participants’ perspectives vary widely.
“I think, you know, one of the most exciting things, for me as an alumni, is to be able to engage with other alumni, other Yalies, in the kinds of discussions we used to have at school around a dining hall table,” Kolber said.
Edward Crawford, the Senior Director of YAA Communications and Marketing, told the News that the program is not directly affiliated with YAA. Rather, it was planned and organized by a group of alumni volunteers who sit on the YAA board.
Nevertheless, Crawford said that the initiative aligns with YAA’s efforts to “support diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
“The course is certainly relevant to the current moment and national conversation,” Crawford wrote in an email to the News. “Lifelong learning is one of the foremost interests of our alumni, so we’re constantly working to come up with classes, events, programs, and offerings that they’ll find of interest — and that are timely and relevant.”
However, according to professor Jacqueline Goldsby, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Yale, the department was never consulted about the course, and she first heard of the offering from a Yale Today email. While she called the course and its response to the political crisis a “noble effort,” she told the News that she considered the lack of consultation to be improper. Goldsby added that it was “embarrassing” to receive emails from alumni asking how to register for the course without knowing what was happening.
While Kolber told the News that he was in consultation with Holloway about the usage of the course in this format, Goldsby worried about how it might open the door to intellectual property issues in the future with online courses, especially due to the lack of coordination with the larger department.
Goldsby added that “promoting a course this way — without any consultation with the department that sponsored it — unilaterally compromises a department’s autonomy to manage its curriculum.”
In response, Kolber told the News that at one point they had considered reaching out to the department because initially, program leaders hoped to include TAs in the program. But Kolber said they ultimately ended up working directly with Holloway instead. He added that he would like for the course to engage more generally with the department in the future, and that there was no conscious decision to cut the department out.
Holloway did not respond to a request for comment.
Generally, Kolber said that participants in the course section that he attends seem to be enjoying the class. He said participants have told him they find the course “enlightening and challenging and useful.”
“And, you know, there are friendships and relationships forming out of study groups that might never have happened before,” Kolber said. “So personally, I’m really thrilled with the response.”
The YAA Board of Governors has 32 current elected members.
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