Welcoming the class of 2020 against the backdrop of unceasing campus debate on inclusivity, discrimination and free speech, University President Peter Salovey encouraged freshmen to engage with ideas that differ from their own.
At his annual freshman address in Woolsey Hall Saturday morning, Salovey told hundreds of students and their families that “false narratives” — like the notion that a university has to set aside free speech in order to foster a welcoming community — can be incredibly damaging.
“I have a thick shelf of contemporary books assuring me that students at elite universities are merely excellent sheep … that students these days are fragile hothouse flowers, that it is not possible to achieve an inclusive campus culture without giving up on free speech and that our colleges and universities are cut off from reality,” Salovey said, citing a long list of false narratives about higher education. “You are now embarking on an ambitious and hopeful effort to understand the world, your place in it and what you can contribute to forward progress. How can you address the seductive power of false narratives, especially in a time when grave mistrust on many sides seems to be fueling ever more of them?”
Salovey said Yale is a place for students to engage with differing viewpoints.
“It is also a place to learn why it takes extraordinary discipline, courage and persistence — often over a lifetime — to construct new foundations for tackling the most intractable and challenging questions of our time,” he said.
The president and Yale College dean have traditionally used the annual freshman address as an opportunity to launch campus conversations on some of the biggest topics in higher education. In past years, Salovey has spoken on the importance of freedom of expression and socioeconomic mobility.
Last year, the president used the occasion to tackle the contentious campus debate on the naming of Calhoun College, challenging the class of 2019 to join in the discussion.
Neither Salovey nor Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway made reference to continuing controversy surrounding the namesake of Calhoun College, fervent slavery advocate and Yale alum John C. Calhoun, who graduated in 1804. Nor did they directly address the fierce campus protests and dialogue about institutional racism that dominated campus life last academic year.
Instead, Salovey used the opportunity to challenge freshmen to keep a fair perspective on polarizing issues.
“My sense is that we are bombarded daily by false narratives of various kinds, and that they are doing a great deal of damage,” Salovey said. “I am only hoping to persuade you that advocates on any side of a question can be tempted to exaggerate or distort or neglect crucial facts in ways that serve primarily to fuel your anger, fear or disgust.”
Holloway, in his address, which preceded Salovey’s, espoused the ideals of a “Yale citizen.” He similarly called on the freshman class to celebrate its diversity and to understand and tackle the complexity of Yale.
“Given that we are in the final months of a tendentious presidential campaign and given the local, national and global events that are testing us to our core, I feel it important to talk about your responsibilities as citizens of this community at the moment of your becoming,” Holloway said.
Because neither Holloway nor Salovey directly named ongoing campus debates in their speeches, freshmen interviewed said they felt the addresses could be understood both generally and as relating to events at Yale. In a survey of the class of 2020 distributed by the News, 95 percent of the 942 respondents said they knew about racial controversies last year at Yale and 55 percent said they had actively followed media coverage.
“The false narratives was an interesting theme. In the context the speech was given, I felt like [Salovey] was addressing more the mechanics about how society works, but obviously it can be applied to Yale,” Nick Zhang ’20 said.
Michael Doppelt ’20 said Salovey’s speech was compelling and fitting for a first address to freshmen. He said that discerning fact from fiction and questioning inherited wisdom are of “paramount importance” in college.
Alfredo Calvo ’20 said he thought that the address was directly responding to campus events and said Salovey did a good job of bringing a sense of community and unity back in his speech.
“For me, the campus discussions made me want to come here,” Calvo said. “I wanted to be part of the conversation and contribute in some way to this community.”
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This article was originally published on Aug. 27, 2016.