A sophomore standing near the center of the circle of more than 300 students asked the dean, Jonathan Holloway, if he would call on his personal experiences in addressing student demands for additional black faculty, racial sensitivity training for freshmen and the dismissal of administrators viewed as racially inattentive.
“As a black man, you know where we come from,” said Ron Tricoche, of New York. “You need to act, whether it’s with Yale or without Yale. We need you.”
Staring back at the student, Holloway said softly: “I will.”
Students gathered Thursday outside Yale’s main library to draw in chalk their response to recent events they say have confirmed that Yale is inhospitable to black students, and to black women in particular. They pointed to an e-mail from an administrator last week who challenged those who take offense at culturally insensitive Halloween costumes and allegations days later that a fraternity discriminated against female party-goers on the basis of their race.
When Holloway appeared, students surrounded him, chanting: “Where’s our e-mail?”
They aimed to force Holloway to explain why he had not written to the college community acknowledging allegations that the Yale chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon had turned away black women from a fraternity party on Friday night, with one brother saying, according to an eyewitness, that only “white girls” were welcome. The fraternity’s president has denied the claims.
They also condemned an e-mail from the associate master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s 12 undergraduate residential communities, to Silliman residents that argued that people should not be offended by insensitive Halloween costumes and should instead tolerate them and talk about them. That message came in response to a plea from Yale officials that the university community “take the time to consider their costumes and the impact it may have,” citing possible outfits including “feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface.”
The associate master, Erika Christakis, wrote to the campus community criticizing efforts to proscribe certain types of dress, particularly for young people, while also noting: “I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation.”
“I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours,” wrote Christakis, a lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center and the wife of Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and physician and the master of Silliman College. “Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
Students at Thursday’s protest said the e-mail ignored the way people of color experience such insensitive characterizations, and they recounted how students have faced threats of physical violence when they have questioned their classmates’ costume choices.
“There was so much coded language in that e-mail that is just disrespectful,” said Ewurama Okai, a junior.
Several students in Silliman said they cannot bear to live in the college anymore. “They can’t stay in the master’s house,” one student said.
Thursday evening, students were drafting a formal letter calling for the removal of Christakis and his wife from their roles in Silliman.
Nicholas Christakis wrote in an e-mail that “we believe strongly that our job is to help students to speak for themselves, rather than to speak for them. We want students of all stripes and ideologies to talk to each other, and we will try to foster an environment in which students can debate any issue with their peers.”
Some students said they believe the problem is broader, in that many Yale faculty members are unequipped to talk to black students.
Isaiah Genece, a junior, said he has never had a black professor at Yale. Nearly a dozen black students described the experience of being the sole black person in a class, and the unequal responsibilities foisted on them to speak on behalf of their race.
The university’s commitment to faculty diversity has come under heightened scrutiny since Elizabeth Alexander, a prominent black poet and essayist, announced her plans to leave Yale for Columbia. This week the university announced a $50 million, five-year initiative to enhance the diversity of the faculty.
Another student, Dianne Lake, tied anger over the Halloween e-mail to recent debate about the title “master” used for the heads of the school’s residential colleges, asking: “Why do Yale students call these administrators master? The world is watching.”
Rianna Johnson-Levy, a junior, said Christakis’ e-mail “put students in harm’s way” by making it the responsibility of minority students to make their discomfort known to students wearing offensive costumes. “Who are we trying to protect?” she asked.
Holloway’s own position as a professor of African-American history, and his rise to the deanship, quickly became a focal point. The students said they understood that Holloway’s hands are tied in many ways, but they believe he has not used his position in the university administration to advocate for them, particularly given what they described as widespread celebration within the black community when Holloway was chosen as dean in spring 2014.
“For that person to be the most silent is the saddest thing in the world,” one student said.
Holloway spent hours with the students, but he stood virtually silently for much of the time, occasionally jotting down notes. At points he appeared to be choking back tears. Ultimately, he climbed on top of the Women’s Table, a Maya Lin sculpture commemorating the arrival of women at Yale, and addressed the crowd.
“It’s not easy to hear your stories,” he said. “Not because I disagree with them or because I don’t understand them. I do. It’s difficult to know that someone who’s vested with the responsibility to take care of everybody, that you felt the need to tell me that. It’s painful for me, but I’m glad you did.”
Holloway said he had been trying to work behind the scenes to advance many of the causes the students had discussed, but that it had become clear to him that what he had “been trying to do quietly was not enough.”
As a professor, he said, he has a certain voice, one that he did not think he could enjoy as a dean.
“I’ll do better,” he pledged. “I don’t expect your faith that I’ll do better … but I want you to know that I’m going to try my damnedest.”