Because of COVID-19 gathering restrictions, the class of 2024 missed out on our first-year dinner. But to make it up to us, Yale hosted a special sophomore version of the dinner this year. I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited to finally experience this beloved Yale tradition.
When I arrived at Friday’s Sophomore Holiday Dinner, I was stunned at how the already-striking Commons had been transformed. The chandeliers that illuminate the dining hall were dimmed to set an elegant scene, and the wooden tables and chairs that usually fill Commons were replaced by massive buffet lines. Meal stations with copious amounts of food lined the walls, and a dessert table featuring an ice sculpture dragon sat in the middle of the space. Students dressed in semi-formal attire strutted around Commons, the sparkling apple cider fizzing inside of their plastic wine glasses.
About an hour into the event — when it had gotten sufficiently crowded such that people began to sweat through their suits and dresses — the formal ceremony began. The event’s emcee gave a generic, but thankfully brief, speech about the history of the holiday dinner, then doled out his requisite thank yous to the unknown administrators and sponsors who helped plan the event. He took a moment to note the sheer abundance of food at the dinner — 1,000 shrimp, pounds and pounds of fish, crab, lobster, lamb, turkey and pork and cakes with too many layers to count — all for Yale. Once his speech ended, the Parade of Comestibles began. Dining hall workers, most of whom were Black, marched around Commons carrying the flags of the 14 residential colleges and carrying elegant food displays as a local drumming band, all Black, played triumphant beats. They circled Commons several times touting, among other things, a 10-foot loaf of bread, an ice-sculpted sleigh stuffed with the aforementioned shrimp and a rack of lamb decorated with mint and berries. Students swayed to the beat of the drums, excitedly watching the performance and recording it on their cell phones.
The food had to go somewhere, so people started taking it by the pound. Students lined up near the meal station back of Commons, waiting to grab entire crabs and lobsters to take home with them. They grabbed turkey legs the size of my forearm and munched away at them too. We all feasted like royalty.
Just two blocks away, on the city’s Green, homeless people froze and starved in the bitter New Haven night.
I left that dinner feeling disturbed and disheartened. On the walk back to my Old Campus dorm, I realized that I felt this way quite often while at this University. There’s something unsettling about Yale, about the way it operates, about its very existence. And now, having sat with these uncomfortable feelings for a while, I have come to realize that Yale is a problem. To fix it, we must get rid of the University. Completely.
In an interview with the Atlantic, Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber answered the question: “Should Princeton exist?” He said, “The idea of a place like Princeton is that you can identify young people who have extraordinary talent and will benefit from an intensive academic experience. Over the space of years and decades, they will blossom in ways we can’t even predict, and they will be able to address problems that matter.” He listed names like Madison, Turing and Sotomayor as examples of the types of world-changers schools like Princeton can produce.
Yale’s stated mission is similar. As it goes, “Yale is committed to improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice. Yale educates aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society….”
Universities like Yale and Princeton operate under the assumption that only a small group of remarkable people can push humanity forward. Thus, Yale’s goal is to become a training camp for the world’s elite, so that they can go out and make life better for the rest of us. As a Yale Daily News editorial puts it: “Yale serves as a site of elite class reproduction, funneling well-heeled youth into positions of power….” But this view of the world is misguided because, more often than not, change has been made by groups instead of individuals. Yale, then, might be better served sharing knowledge and resources with as many people as possible, so we all can accomplish great things together.
Nevertheless, Yale continues to commit this elitist view of change-making, closing the doors of the university to anyone who isn’t deemed capable of becoming a world leader. Yale’s acceptance rate keeps ticking downward as the years progress. In last year’s admissions cycle, only 4.6 percent of applicants were offered a place in the incoming class. Though Yale acknowledges that a vast majority of its applicant pool is qualified to attend the University, and though Yale has the money and power to expand its student body, it continues to manufacture scarcity for spots on campus.
This idea of individual-driven change reeks of false meritocracy and trickle-down theory, and gives the University the cover it needs to hoard wealth and resources. Indeed, University Provost Scott Strobel’s justification for Yale’s grotesquely swollen endowment is that, “Yale is committed to tackling the most significant human problems of the day. The endowment helps Yale’s people … carry out this mission..” As the reasoning goes: the best and brightest must have access to all the resources they desire — how else would they lead the less intelligent, less talented and less wealthy masses to a better society.
Perhaps Yale can change. Maybe it will become a place where resources are shared and learning is accessible for all whom Yale can feasibly educate. But if the rejection of endowment justice, capitulation to the will of powerful donors and the antidemocratic closing of ranks among the Yale corporation tell us anything, it’s that Yale won’t be changing any time soon. Greed and elitism are embedded in Yale’s DNA — they are what keep the university running. Its “tax-exempt status” has been in the state constitution since before America’s founding. Its labor practices began with enslaving people and now includes union-busting. It started off excluding women and people of color from its student body and now parades them around for diversity photos and social justice brownie points. Changes might be made at the University’s margins, but Yale’s fundamental nature will, in all likelihood, remain the same. Since we can’t change Yale, we have to tear it down.
When I got back to my dorm after the Holiday dinner, I tried to imagine what the world would be like without Yale. But the winter night was cold, and my 300-year-old room in Vanderbilt Hall was warm and cozy, so I dozed off instead.
Correction, Dec. 11: A previous version of this article stated that the Sophomore Holiday Dinner took place on Saturday. It took place on Friday, and the story has been updated.