Two of Salovey’s Yale and Slavery commitments remain unrealized after half a year￼
In October, University President Peter Salovey pledged to establish ties with HBCUs and TCUs and to create a physical memorial to recognize Yale’s ties to slavery. Yet the University has gone silent since, leaving students and New Haven residents to wonder whether those words will be turned into action.
Courtesy of Robbie Short
Nearly six months after University President Peter Salovey’s official acknowledgment of the University’s ties to slavery, no public-facing progress has been made on two of the three commitments he laid out to grapple with this history.
In October, during an annual conference held by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, Salovey announced three commitments: to create a permanent memorialization for the enslaved and indigenous people of Yale’s past, to strengthen connections with historically Black and tribal colleges and universities and to “meaningfully” increase Yale’s voluntary contribution to New Haven. Out of these three actions, the third is the only one that has been realized. Despite some behind-the-scenes progress, the University has been silent on its path toward achieving the other two goals.
“In light of [Yale’s] endowment, in light of what they’re capable of, I think we’re well past the conversation,” Jadie Meprivert, a New Haven resident and founder of the #ReclaimTheChild project, who attended the Yale and Slavery conference, told the News. “The conference felt just like that, it was another conversation. … We are missing action.”
The University’s three commitments came after the Yale and Slavery Working Group — commissioned by Salovey in October 2020 — concluded their initial research into Yale’s ties to slavery. Yale was the last Ivy League institution to set up such a committee and the last to formally acknowledge its history when it came to the slave trade. The three-day October 2021 conference was the first time these findings were presented to the public.
On Nov. 17, shortly after the conference, Yale administrators in conjunction with New Haven officials announced that over a six-year period, Yale would increase its voluntary contribution to the city by $52 million — an action students, New Haven residents and other advocates had long been fighting for. Two residents who spoke to the News acknowledged the importance of this step and mentioned Yale’s financial contribution as a crucial way for the University to support the city that it sits in.
When asked about progress on Salovey’s other two commitments, Vice President for Communications Nate Nickerson deferred to the Committee of Art and Public Spaces for a progress update on the memorial and mentioned some behind-the-scenes meetings to “explore potential partnerships” with HBCUs.
But these steps have not been made evident to students and other residents involved in the October conference. When one student who presented in the conference, Bhasha Chakrabarti ART ’22, was asked if she had heard any updates about the other two commitments Salovey had announced, she said she had not. She added that she hopes student voices will be considered in the process of realizing these goals.
According to Alan Plattus, chair of the Committee of Art and Public Spaces — which Salovey called on in October “to engage our community in a process leading to a permanent memorialization of enslaved people who have thus far been silenced by our University’s history”— their process so far has consisted of discussing, researching and speaking to other institutions which have invested in similar projects.
“The Committee on Art in Public Spaces has been focused on discussions of a broadly inclusive process for thinking about how the history of Yale’s relationship to slavery and its continuing aftermath could be engaged and represented as an active part of the campus landscape,” Plattus wrote to the News.
Plattus added that they have invited colleagues and guests from other universities to join virtual meetings or to be interviewed by committee members and have examined public art and other sites on a “wide range of campuses.”
By the beginning of the summer, according to Plattus, CAPS plans to report back to Salovey with recommendations for widening the discussion to include the broader Yale community as well as New Haven residents.
When asked for more specific information on how these conversations have gone thus far, Plattus declined to add more details, noting that the committee’s work is “very much in progress.”
Salovey’s third action item — connecting Yale with HBCUs and TCUs — came as a response to an incident whose date is scorched into the memory of one teenage New Havener, youth advocate Manuel Camacho.
“I know exactly the instance. September 10, 1831,” he said. “When there was a vote to establish a Black college for students. … That was a big big thing for New Haven, for our Black and brown residents.”
On this date, prominent Yale members, joined with other New Haven officials, prevented the establishment of what would have been the first and only university for Black students in New Haven. To make amends for this past, Salovey said in his October announcement that the University would enhance connections with already established HBCUs and TCUs, “so we can work together to reduce the cost of a college education, to create pathways for students to move among our institutions to enhance their studies.”
The specifics of this endeavor, however, were not shared, and although Salovey said that he would release the “details of such programs as these collaborations are further developed,” no details have been announced to the Yale community.
Nickerson told the News that Salovey plans to provide an update on progress with these partnerships in the fall.
Beyond concerns about delays in the realization of Salovey’s commitments, some, like Meprivert, believe that the actions Salovey presented were never enough in the first place. She described the conference, though educational, as a “let down” in its inability, in her opinion, to follow-up with action.
Camacho added that in addition to making financial contributions, it is important for Yale to meaningfully engage with the New Haven community, and to invite them into these conversations where they do not always feel like they belong.
“Many New Haven residents don’t feel welcome into these conversations,” Camacho said. “Our residents feel as though they are in the shadow of Yale.”
The Yale and Slavery Working Group’s finding can be found on their website.