Isaac Stanley-Becker, a senior at Yale University who is the former editor of the Yale Daily News, writes about an encounter that happened on campus late Thursday night.
NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Declaring themselves part of an uprising for racial equality that is reaching college campuses nationwide, minority students appealed directly to the president of Yale University on Thursday night, giving Peter Salovey five days to respond to a series of demands that they believe would transform this Ivy League university.
The students delivered the demands to Salovey just before midnight, marching in a group of several hundred to the president’s on-campus residence. Appearing with his wife, Marta Moret, Salovey stood silently as women from “Next Yale” announced the demands, which come with a Nov. 18 deadline.
Students are asking Salovey to “implement immediate and lasting policies that will reduce the intolerable racism that students of color experience on campus every day.” Students want the school to eliminate names and titles viewed as impediments to racial inclusion — such as the title of “master” given to the 12 faculty members who head Yale’s residential communities — and they want additional support for cultural education programs as well as additional mental health and financial aid resources.
Salovey thanked the students who read the demands aloud and pledged to give them an answer.
“I feel incredibly strongly that there is no place for racism at Yale,” Salovey said. “I respect what you’re trying to accomplish. We’ll be in touch.”
The Thursday night encounter at his home came exactly one week after Salovey addressed several dozen minority students in his office, telling them the university had “failed” them by not creating a fully inclusive environment.
That acknowledgement followed hours of personal testimony from students who said they often feel unwelcome, even unsafe, at Yale.
The students also are asking Salovey to remove Nicholas and Erika Christakis from their positions at the helm of Silliman College, one of Yale’s 12 undergraduate residential communities. The pair became the subject of students’ ire when Erika Christakis, the associate master and an early childhood educator, sent an e-mail to students encouraging them to view offensive Halloween costumes as a matter of free speech and free expression.
While acknowledging “genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation,” the e-mail was viewed by some as encouraging cultural appropriation. Along with allegations that Yale’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon turned away black women from a party the night before Halloween, the e-mail touched off a searing campus conversation about race and sensitivity, which has been amplified by the successful ouster of the president of the University of Missouri system over his handling of racial and bias incidents.
Though the Christakises have apologized to Silliman students, Nicholas Christakis was reposting messages from others this week on his personal Twitter page criticizing the “sickening attack” on him and saying that he was being “pilloried.”
“Erika and I care deeply about students, and always have,” Nicholas Christakis said in a statement Friday. “I am surprised that I am being asked to step down because of a carefully argued and kindly expressed e-mail message that my wife herself wrote.”
Students’ demands appear to address issues that go well beyond the two campus incidents; their requests no longer include taking administrative action against SAE, whose brothers deny the allegations against them.
Among the specific demands is a call to rename Calhoun College, a residential community named for John C. Calhoun, a graduate of the college and a prominent proponent of slavery. Instead, students would like the building to bear the name of a person of color, and they are asking that two new residential colleges the university is building also honor people of color.
They also are requesting additional resources for health care, mental health care and financial aid assistance for minority, low-income, international, first-generation and undocumented students.
Students said the demands were the product of hours of discussion among members of the four cultural centers — Afro-American, Asian American, Latino and Native American — over the previous two days.
Eshe Sherley, a senior, said the action marks an attempt to hold Salovey accountable to his pledge to improve the university’s racial climate, and to involve students in that process. She said she has faith in Salovey and thinks the demands are realistic.
At Yale, students have drawn inspiration from movements taking place all over the country, most notably at the University of Missouri, said Lex Barlowe, a junior. One difference, she said, is an attempt to broaden the coalition to include not just black students but also people of many races and ethnicities.
This week, more than 400 members of the faculty signed an open letter of support for students working to undo “institutionalized inequalities that exist at our university.”
“Calls for greater diversity do not by themselves resolve the experience of racism and devaluation, and maintaining silence about racial inequality on campus only exacerbates the problem,” faculty wrote in the letter. “It is not for students alone to shoulder the many burdens of this work.”
The letter was drafted by five members of the newly formed senate of Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The senate will discuss these issues at its meeting next week, said Matthew Jacobson, a professor of history, American studies and African-American studies, but “we felt an imperative to break apparent faculty silence as soon as possible on students’ behalf — to support them and express allegiance on the part of faculty allies they might not have known they had.”
Inderpal Grewal, a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, said students who are taking a risk by speaking out should know there is support for them among the faculty. She said she is worried in particular about public backlash faced by student organizers, whether in the form of threats or “wrongheaded ideas” in the news media.
Thursday evening, the Yale Police chief, Ronnell Higgins, notified members of the community that a racist phone call had been received at the African-American studies department earlier in the day. He said police would be patrolling the vicinity while an investigation is underway.
Here is the letter Next Yale sent to Yale leaders:
Dear President Peter Salovey, Dean Jonathan Holloway, and senior members of the Yale administration:
Next Yale, an alliance of Yale students of color and our allies, have come together to demand that Peter Salovey and the Yale administration implement immediate and lasting policies that will reduce the intolerable racism that students of color experience on campus every day.
In light of recent events, including the exclusion of black women from a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity party, a letter from a Yale administrator condoning cultural appropriation, and the debate surrounding the renaming of Calhoun College, it should now be obvious that the state of the racial climate on Yale’s campus is unconscionable. These specific incidents reflect an escalation of a long history of racism at Yale, which has disproportionately harmed women of color.
This harm is quantifiable. Students of color at Yale are acutely aware of the painfully short lives of the Yalies of color that came before us. There is a preponderance of evidence that racist environments, like Yale, harm the physical and mental health of people of color, like us.
Over the past week, people of color, especially women, outpoured painful experiences of blatant racism at Yale and organized their peers to demonstrate solidarity and resilience. They spent hours meeting with President Salovey and Dean Holloway–as well as other administrators, faculty, and fellow students–in an attempt to ask for help in ensuring their safety and well-being on campus. President Salovey’s first response was to announce that Yale is now a tobacco-free campus. He spent the vast majority of his second email affirming Yale students’ right to free speech.
Because the administration has been unwilling to promptly address institutional and interpersonal racism at Yale, Next Yale has spent hours organizing, at great expense to our health and grades, to fight for a university at which we feel safe–a university that we would feel happy sending our younger siblings and eventual children to attend.
In the spirit of the nationwide student mobilization demanding racial equality on campus–particularly at University of Missouri, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Ithaca College–Next Yale intends to hold Yale accountable to its students of color in the public eye. The following demands are small but concrete steps toward this goal;
These demands supercede those published by the Black Student Alliance at Yale, as they have been collectively crafted by a diverse coalition of students. We expect students of color to be integral partners in the implementation of these demands.
We expect Peter Salovey to publicly announce his intention to implement these demands by November 18, 2015.
1) An ethnic studies distributional requirement for all Yale undergraduates and the immediate promotion of the Ethnicity, Race & Migration program to departmental status
a. The promotion of Native American Studies, Chicanx & Latinx Studies, Asian American Studies, and African Studies to program status under the ER&M department.
b. Curricula for classes that satisfy the ethnic studies distributional requirement must be designed by Yale faculty in the aforementioned areas of study
2) Mental health professionals that are permanently established in each of the four cultural centers with discretionary funds
a. More mental health professionals of color in Yale Mental Health.
3) An increase of two million dollars to the current annual operational budget for each cultural center.
a. Five full-time staff members in each of the cultural centers
b. Additional emergency and miscellaneous funds from the provost’s office to support the needs of first-generation, low-income, undocumented, and international students
4) Rename Calhoun College. Name it and the two new residential colleges after people of color.
a. Abolish the title “master”
b. Build a monument designed by a Native artist on Cross Campus acknowledging that Yale University was founded on stolen indigenous land.
5) Immediate removal of Nicholas and Erika Christakis from the positions of Master and Associate Master of Silliman College
a. The development of racial competence and respect training and accountability systems for all Yale affiliates
b. The inclusion of a question about the racial climate of the classrooms of both teaching fellows and professors in semester evaluations.
c. Bias reporting system on racial discrimination and an annual report that will be released to the Yale community.
6) The allocation of resources to support the physical well-being of international, first-generation, low-income, and undocumented students, in these ways, at these times:
a. Stipends for food and access to residential college kitchens during breaks
b. Dental and optometry services implemented as part of the Basic Yale Health plan
c. Eight financial aid consultants who are trained to deal specifically with financial aid application processes of international and undocumented students