NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Tensions flared at Yale University this week as students confronted top administrators with concerns about the racial climate on campus, the latest to be jolted by tensions that have been simmering at many colleges across the country.
It’s one snapshot of an ongoing national debate about race spurred by a series of fatal encounters between law enforcement and black Americans during the past year.
What students want, said Rianna Johnson-Levy, a junior from Ann Arbor, Mich. whose neighbor was shot to death by police a year ago, is the same thing people are asking for across the country: “An acknowledgment that black lives matter.”
During the past week, Yale has been pushed into the center of that debate, with two high-profile incidents prompting heated protests from minority students who allege the university has been blind to institutional and cultural racism. Last week, several students claimed a fraternity shut black women out of a party, and many were shocked by an e-mail message from a Yale official urging students not to be offended by Halloween costumes that play on cultural stereotypes.
On Thursday, hundreds of students publicly confronted the university’s top leaders, demanding better treatment and asking that people be held accountable for racism. Students surrounded Yale College’s first black dean in front of the school’s main library and accused him of not standing up for them. After hours of discussion, the dean vowed to act.
On Thursday night, the university’s president met with a large group of minority students telling them: “We failed you.”
“I think we have to be a better university,” president Peter Salovey told the students, according to several students in the room who were taking notes. “I think we have to do a better job.”
The tensions at Yale echo recent uprisings at colleges and schools around the country. A black graduate student is currently on a hunger strike at the University of Missouri, saying he’s willing to die unless the school’s president steps down after a flurry of racist incidents on the campus in recent months. Students at Berkeley High School in California walked out of classes this week to protest a racist message that another student apparently left on a public computer.
At Yale, concerns about the school’s tolerance of racism briefly flared up in September — focused on names and symbols with connotations some believed are steeped in racism. But they exploded at the center of campus on Thursday afternoon, when hundreds of students encircled Jonathan Holloway, the first black dean of Yale College, outside of the main library and demanded to know why he had not communicated with the college community about allegations that a Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother said “white girls only” at the door of a party the day before Halloween. The president of the fraternity has denied those allegations.
Grant Mueller, the president of Yale’s SAE chapter, said he heard an entirely different version of events from several witnesses, he said. Mueller added: “Just because I deny this incident happened does not mean I’m trying to dismiss the experiences of marginalized women at campuses across America.”
Students denounced, too, the university’s handling of a controversy involving an e-mail from the associate master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s 12 undergraduate residential communities, that urged students not to take offense at insensitive Halloween costumes. That message came in response to a college-wide notice asking students to think about the way their costumes might be perceived by others and to avoid offensive cultural depictions, such as “blackface” and “feathered headdresses.”
“Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that,” wrote Erika Christakis, an early-childhood educator and the wife of Nicholas Christakis, the Silliman College master. Both later took to social media to defend the e-mail, incensing students by tying it to debates about free speech and trigger warnings. At a Wednesday night forum hosted by the Afro-American Cultural Center, Erika Christakis sought to leave the meeting during a discussion of her e-mail, further provoking student anger.
Following the encounter with Holloway, students moved to Silliman, where they encountered Nicholas Christakis, who engaged them in conversation but grew frustrated at times with the students’ arguments, at one point responding to a request for an apology by asking why students were not apologizing to him for keeping him from “other obligations.”
Students grew distressed, with one shouting at Christakis to be quiet and questioning why he took the position at the university. “You are a poor steward of this community,” the student said. “You should not sleep at night.”
In an e-mail to members of Silliman College on Friday, Erika and Nicholas Christakis apologized, saying that they had many conversations with minority students during the past week and realized that the original e-mail “did not acknowledge how extraordinarily hard it is to be a person of color at Yale. … We understand that it was hurtful to you, and we are truly sorry.”
Students said these incidents are not isolated but merely that latest evidence Yale is unwelcoming to black people, and to black women in particular. During the protests on Thursday, many 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. Isaiah Genece, a junior, said he has never had a black professor at Yale.
In the meeting with Salovey, students wept as they recounted instances of mistreatment at the university, describing inadequate mental-health resources and a patchwork process of responding to claims of sexual assault.
Holloway sent an e-mail to Yale College students early Friday, stopping short of admitting failure but acknowledging that some damage has been done.
“I write too late for too many of you,” Holloway wrote. He said his office continues to investigate the claims against the Yale fraternity accused of turning away black women from a party and defended the initial Halloween e-mail from the university’s Intercultural Affairs Council asking students to be thoughtful in assembling their costumes.
“Remember that Yale belongs to all of you, and you all deserve the right to enjoy the good of this place, without worry, without threats, and without intimidation,” Holloway wrote. “I don’t expect Yale to be a place free from disagreements or even intense argument; I expect you to disagree on a wide range of issues. In so many ways, this is the purpose of our institution: to teach us how to ask difficult questions about even our most sacrosanct ideas. While we do this, however, we must support each other.”
In an e-mail to the Yale community on Friday, Salovey wrote that during his meeting with students he “heard deeply personal accounts from a number of students who are in great distress” and that “their concerns and cries for help made clear that some students find life on our campus profoundly difficult.”
He said that the conversation left him deeply troubled and that the university needs to take action, and he vowed to work on next steps.
“Now is a time to work toward healing and mutual understanding,” Salovey said in the e-mail. “We can be better — and we will take actions that will make us better — in all these respects. I hope you will join me in this effort. We must all hold ourselves accountable — I most of all — for making Yale a better place.”
Isaac Stanley-Becker is a senior at Yale University and a former editor of the Yale Daily News.