“We failed you,” Peter Salovey, a psychologist, told more than 40 students gathered in the ornate room where the Yale Corporation meets, on the top floor of the president’s office.
“I think we have to be a better university. I think we have to do a better job,” he said, according to several students in the room who were taking notes. The four-hour meeting concluded a dramatic day on this Ivy League campus, as students confronted administrators about a series of recent events that have laid bare long-simmering racial tensions at the elite school.
The tensions briefly flared up in September over names and symbols around campus that seemed to reference slavery. 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 within the past week that a university fraternity chapter had turned away black women from a party the week before.
They 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 staged a similar confrontation with Nicholas Christakis, who 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, Christakis said it is his job “to help students to speak for themselves, rather than to speak for them.”
Later Thursday night, in response to students’ calls for the dismissal of Christakis and his wife from their positions at the helm of Silliman, Salovey said that he had not yet spoken to the pair face-to-face and declined to make promises with respect to the leadership of the college, according to a person in the room.
Salovey did, however, pledge to send a campus-wide e-mail describing the day’s events.
“We’ll figure out how to say it,” he told the students. They urged him to tell the university community exactly what he had told them: that Yale had failed them.
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. Students begged Salovey to see how these problems have outsized impact on minorities.
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 that allegedly turned away minorities 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.”
At the Thursday night meeting, Salovey told the students he had not seen this level of emotion and disclosure in the 35 years he has been at Yale, according to students who were present. “I recognize that we’re not talking about this week,” he told them. “This week is just what brought us together. There is something much bigger going on here that we need to get on top of.”
Salovey promised to examine a list of student demands prepared by Yale’s Black Student Alliance. Among the requests are administrative acknowledgement that the charges of racism leveled against the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity are valid, the provision of mental health resources geared toward communities of color and student input in faculty hiring and training procedures.
Salovey said he appreciated the students’ suggestions and, on the question of SAE, said: “I think whatever went on at SAE, there are things we can do.”
He said he would continue to seek the input of students without placing the burden on them to repair the university.
“We’re going to make this place better,” Salovey said. “It’s just that one person can’t make this place better.”