Graham Ambrose, a junior majoring in history at Yale, was on campus during tumultuous protests last fall. Here, he writes about what has changed — and what hasn’t — in the culture of one of the country’s elite universities. — Susan Svrluga
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — One year after protests about race erupted at Yale University, much has changed: A $50 million initiative to draw and retain diverse faculty has begun, a new academic center for the study of race and ethnicity has opened, and funding for Yale’s four cultural centers — which serve students of African, Asian, Latino, and Native heritage — has doubled.
For many students, those investments represent hard-fought victories after a year of activism to make the Ivy League university more inclusive. But others say the school is more divided than ever, with the protests widening the gulf between groups.
“There’s a greater sense of community, a frenzy of new events, and a feeling that students can help shape Yale for the better,” said Alex Zhang, a junior from Arkansas who helped organize protests last fall. “I’m glad substantial resources have been allocated to places that were in shortage of them,” he said. “That already has led to a new kind of vibrancy in campus life.”
The measures fulfill promises from Yale President Peter Salovey late last year to change the culture on campus after heated protests followed an allegedly racist incident at a fraternity and an email from a residential college faculty leader questioning a university warning about avoiding offending other cultures with Halloween costumes. Students and an allied bloc of faculty and alumni demanded stronger efforts to support campus minorities.
“I think a lot of the way the university responded was thoughtful,” said Yonas Takele, a senior from Georgia. “But I don’t know if the larger mind-set has shifted very much.”
Takele points to unresolved equity issues, such as what is known as the “student effort,” or work that financial-aid recipients must do to help pay for their education. Olivia Paschal, a junior from Arkansas, said that requirement has meant she has had to give up academic opportunities outside the classroom that her friends had, such as going to professors’ office hours and having mentors.
Salovey announced a reduction to those requirements after the protests. But upperclassmen still must earn nearly $6,000 for the current school year.
Student activists say that poses a dilemma: Further change requires buy-in from the Yale Corporation. The alumni board that wields ultimate decision-making authority on university policy and governance has closed meetings, students have criticized the board for opaqueness and detachment.
“Corporation members have absolutely no idea of what students are talking about — they just haven’t been listening at all,” Takele said.
Eileen O’Connor, a spokeswoman for the university, said it’s unfair to say the board is disengaged. “
“They come to campus. They usually meet with students on their own. Some meet with sports teams, some meet with a variety of different groups,” O’Connor said. “And that is going to continue.”
At the same time, to work around reluctant administrators, students have pivoted to advancing change in their own groups.
Kelsi Caywood, the president of the the Yale International Relations Association, the largest student-run organization on campus, said undergraduates bear responsibility for upholding community values. Like many of the hundreds of extracurricular groups, the association has responded to problems highlighted by the protests with initiatives such as financial aid to make programs more accessible, recruitment efforts targeting minorities and the creation of a free “closet” of formal clothes that all members can use.
Anthony D’Ambrosio, a junior from the Boston area and the coordinator of Dwight Hall, a student-run service organization, encourages peers to use the 130-year-old organization for activism.
“We are always willing to fund efforts to organize peaceful protests and demonstrations,” he said. “We stand in a unique position — we’re our own independent nonprofit and not part of Yale’s administrative Web, so it is our responsibility to support the student voice in ways that Yale cannot.”
Hershel Holiday, a junior from Washington, D.C. who is black, said after the fall semester of 2015, campus groups had to take a close look at the issue: “Every white Yalie had, or should have had, some sense that their student organizations needed to make strides towards inclusiveness.”
Many campus conservatives reject the claim that the university united after the protests, saying there is hostility from activists to those who disagree with them. “I don’t think the campus has gotten any more tolerant, at least not towards opposing views,” said Aryssa Damron, a junior from Kentucky.
Some students say the protests further divided the campus into increasingly distant silos. Even as a sense of solidarity seems to be growing among minority communities at Yale, other groups are thriving, too: This semester, the William F. Buckley Program, a conservative group that aims to promote intellectual diversity on campus and “to expose students to often-unvoiced views,” received a record number of membership applications.
And the Greek system appears to have strengthened in the aftermath of the protests; despite the anger from some over claims of a racist incident at a fraternity last fall — a claim the fraternity denied — in the spring, rush increased at Yale’s fraternities and sororities amid rising interest, the Yale Daily News reported.
O’Connor said students have been speaking up about things they hadn’t before.
“Far from being any kind of shutting down of speech, I think it was a means by which people really engaged in speech,” she said, noting that those conversations helped others understand different viewpoints and consider potential solutions.
Katie McCleary, a junior from Montana and the President of the Association of Native Americans at Yale, takes hope from the greater collaboration she sees among different groups, including new partnerships with the Black Student Alliance, a fossil-fuels divestment group and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, seeing it as evidence that the Native community is stronger after the protests.
“I think the big legacy is an ongoing conversation that continues to this day,” McCleary said. “And it is constructive.”
Activists remain hopeful those kinds of alliances can inspire lasting change moving forward.
“I do love this institution. It’s given me a lot,” said Takele, who continues to push to rename his campus home, Calhoun College, which honors, John C. Calhoun, the 19th century U.S. vice president and defender of slavery. “I think that last year was extremely difficult because I found the places where this institution failed me. But I stand by the students here, and the work we did, and I stand by the fact that we want to hold this institution accountable. Because we know the good that it can do.”