Return the Yale Political Union to its former glory. That goal never left my mind as I slowly climbed the ladder of Union leadership over the past two years. In its past, the Union was the student group to join at Yale. It boasted frequent debates with political icons like William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 and John Kerry ’66, both of whom held office in the Union as undergraduates. Its membership was said to push 1,000 students, its debates were aired on C-SPAN, and it seemed that with a phone call or two, YPU leaders could get a hold of just about any ambassador, judge, senator, journalist or president — foreign or domestic — they wished.
For years, I assumed that decades of unmotivated leadership contributed to a steady decline of the Union’s standing on campus. In fact, I think a great deal of YPU members are currently of this opinion. Over a term as President, however, I’ve found that the current state of the Union is not a result of poor leadership, but rather a product of an ever-changing Yale.
First, I must emphasize that the Union is by no means on a path to its demise. As a Political Union, internal drama has long been a tenet of the institution, and no bit of gossip is more ubiquitous and long-lasting than the boy who cried Union collapse. This claim is baseless. In fact, from a membership standpoint, the Union is larger than it has been in nearly 30 years.
What’s more, the Union is more diverse than it has ever been. The Union’s two coalitions were perfectly divided this fall at 126 members on the Left and 126 members on the Right, and members’ backgrounds and experiences are increasingly representative of Yale’s student body.
Nearly one out of every 20 Yale undergraduates is a member of the Union. This number certainly seems smaller than membership during the Union’s “glory days,” but this leads me to my second point: returning the Union to its former glory is a misguided aspiration.
When the Union was founded in 1934, it was a pioneer; there was no other undergraduate political debate society in the nation like it. There were no student groups at Yale that frequently hosted prominent guest speakers or that promoted open discourse like the Union did.
Eighty-seven years later, Yale has changed dramatically. The niche the Union once filled exclusively is now shared by dozens of student groups, many of whom have better funding and connections than the Union. Nevertheless, the Union is still the largest and most profound. We never falter with respect to our ultimate mission: provide Yale students with a forum for non-partisan discussion and debate.
Further, claims about the Union’s once-bolstering size are misconceived. Members often remark that when Ronald Reagan came to speak in the late 1970s, our numbers broke 800; our current membership, they say, pales in comparison and thus represents diminishing interest in the Union.
There are numerous faults to this remark. In the past, one was required to be a member in order to attend any kind of Union event. This was no problem for non-members who wanted to see Governor Reagan speak, though, as they could purchase a membership for $5 at the door. Additionally, membership is not restricted to Yale students. Among those 800 or so in attendance were likely faculty, staff and non-Yale affiliated members of the public.
Never in its history has the Union actually been able to boast a thousand —or any number more than a few hundred–regular members. Rather, the Union has had, and continues to have, a steady core constituency of actively engaged students, as do most clubs at Yale.
Despite my critique of our mischaracterized history, I unequivocally believe there are elements of our past that deserve to be cherished and reinstituted. The greatest of these, in my opinion, is the Union’s permanent home: its debate hall. For nearly 40 years, the Union had its own house lent to us by the University. There, we held our weekly debates with guests ranging from President Joe Biden to First Lady Lady Bird Johnson; our memorabilia covered the walls — and most importantly — our institution was legitimized by a physical embodiment.
Although we lost this home decades ago, the Union has not faltered. Even during this time of turmoil and doubt, the Union has succeeded virtually. Something has kept the Union going for 87 years and will keep the Union going for many more, and that is its unique mission. The Yale Political Union brings together students who desire to articulate their beliefs and refine their morality, to attempt to answer questions without clear answers. As long as it continues providing a forum for open discussion, bringing Rightists and Leftists together — and celebrates its highly traditional quirks — the Union will persist, and it will flourish.
JEFF CIESLIKOWSKI is a junior in Franklin College studying Physics and Philosophy. He served as the President of the Yale Political Union from May to December 2020. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.