Springtime heralds the end of the academic year, which means it’s time to stage the graduating class photo at the Yale School of the Environment. The tradition adorns the walls of Sage Hall at 205 Prospect and documents the school’s graduates, going back to its founding by noted eugenicist Gifford Pinchot.

Students have held signs in class photos through the last few decades. But in 2018, students began deliberately calling attention to environmental justice — or EJ — issues by organizing to make and hold protest banners for the occasion. Their banner in 2018 read, “SUSTAINABILITY REQUIRES SOCIAL JUSTICE, DISMANTLE WHITE SUPREMACY IN THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT”; in 2019, it read, “CENTER PEOPLE OF COLOR IN THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT, YALE IS COMPLICIT, CLIMATE JUSTICE NOW”; even smaller ones focusing on divestment, like “CANCEL PUERTO RICAN DEBT,” and so on.

It’s mostly been BIPOC-identifying students and our white allies who have taken it upon themselves to protest the contradictions imposed on us by Yale Corporation’s opaqueness and its complicity in harming our communities through undisclosed endowment holdings. It is no surprise that this year’s banner reads: “WAR IS AN ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUE, FREE PALESTINE.” It prompted a knee-jerk response email from Dean Burke that was widely circulated to the YSE community, infuriating students and alumni for several reasons. 

First, there’s the fallacious opposition between protest and professionalism. Burke conflates these two with an ill-informed notion of the political that, in her view, taints the students’ call for Palestinian liberation. As many Jews have publicly decried, advocating for fundamental human rights and free determination for Palestinians does not mean wishing for the annihilation of Jews, just as being anti-Zionist does not equate with being antisemitic. Yet Burke immediately stifled protest, centering the hurt feelings of students who, like every other year, reach the end of their time at Yale completely oblivious of current events.

The dean insists on a naive, homogenized togetherness that is unreal and untenable to the very same diversity our school brags about attracting from the country and the world. For example, any given class may have students hailing from extractive industries whose interests are opposed to those of students from or working with Indigenous communities. Good intentions cannot bridge such differences, and that’s okay because there are many others, as you’d expect from such a broad sample group.

This same togetherness bias informs the current approach of taking one photo with banners and one without, the net result being that protestors like myself have walked out of their non-banner class photos. Shouldn’t it be those offended by protests opting out for personal reasons instead? Of course, not participating should be as much a right of protesters as it is of those offended by a protest — the tug-of-war is for who gets to say what for the record and whose sensibilities are accommodated in either saying it or remaining silent.

Further complicating the matter is the expectation that protest banners must represent all members of a heterogeneous group who are often at odds with each other. But it’s now coupled with regularized protests, which defeats their purpose to disrupt, discomfort and inconvenience people. Topping off this nonsense sandwich was Dean Burke’s unilateral decision to censor this year’s photo with the banner and to prohibit protest signs hereafter, a disservice to decades of non-violent protest.

I would not expect such contradictions to be blatant to most environmental scientists. But they have been to the nearly 300 alumni across the gamut of environmentalism who have signed a letter opposing Dean Burke’s statements. More concerning, though, is that her handling of the matter is a pattern alumni have seen before.

The all-too-predictable cycle begins with surprise over a protest’s form or content, followed by a gaslighting tantrum. After this is met by organized student dissent, we see openness to community dialogues, which devolve into demands or petition lists with follow-up working groups that end in nothing because time runs out and folks graduate. 

That is not to say nothing has changed since Burke’s tenure began. Important EJ professors were brought to the faculty, and the DEI office was created, along with the school’s Center for EJ and its yearly Global EJ Conference. Yet we keep seeing this pattern of harm, community talks and forgotten demands. One can excuse aloofness in researchers navel-gazing at their publications, but we should expect more from a dean leading an increasingly diverse student body in an irreversibly polarized world.

Does representational politics matter in class photos when there’s a mounting body count of tens of thousands in occupied Palestinian lands, enabled by U.S. taxpayers in complicity with our government and its political and financial investors? Perhaps we’re missing the students’ point entirely, and there is no use in soul-searching within an institution that has proven soulless at best and complicit at worst. 

JAVIER ROMÁN-NIEVES is a Puerto Rican artist and writer who graduated from the Yale School of the Environment with a Master of Environmental Management in 2019. Contact him at javier.roman@aya.yale.edu