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Yale dean placed on leave after calling people ‘white trash’ on Yelp

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This story has been updated.

June Chu, the dean of Yale University’s Pierson College, apologized after Yale Daily News published her reviews, which included comments on the people who frequented the businesses. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

The Yale University residential college dean who drew backlash for posting Yelp reviews calling customers at local restaurants “white trash” and “low class folks” has been placed on leave.

Images of the controversial Yelp reviews written by June Chu, dean of the university’s Pierson College, began circulating among students in recent months, and were eventually published by the Yale Daily News on Saturday.

Stephen Davis, head of Pierson College, initially believed only two such posts existed. But on Thursday, he sent an email to members of the college saying Chu had been placed on leave after he discovered there were numerous “reprehensible posts” that represented a more widespread pattern and damaged his trust in her, according to the Associated Press.

Davis called the posts “deeply harmful to the community fabric.” He said Chu will not participate in any activities related to the university’s May 22 commencement or work with students through the end of this academic year, the Associated Press reported.

“Let me be clear,” he wrote. “No one, especially those in trusted positions of educating young people, should denigrate or stereotype others, and that extends to any form of discrimination based on class, race, religion, age, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation.”

The dean of Pierson College is responsible for advising about 500 students and fostering “a familiar, comfortable living environment” in keeping with the university’s residential college system. Chu’s biography states she has a PhD in social psychology and touts a long career in which she has “sought to help students not only succeed academically but to support their holistic academic experience and multifaceted identities.”

But the administrator’s seemingly supportive and culturally sensitive persona was marred when Yale students came across her Yelp account. The problem with the posts, which were published over the course of the last few years, wasn’t so much what she said about the New Haven eateries and businesses she reviewed but rather her comments on their employees and the people who frequented them.

“If you are white trash, this is the perfect night out for you!” Chu wrote in a review about a Japanese restaurant, which she said lacked authenticity but was perfect for “those low class folks who believe this is a real night out.”

“Side note: employees are Chinese, not Japanese,” added Chu, who identifies in one review as Chinese American. In another restaurant review she said, “I guess if you were a white person who has no clue what mochi is, this would be fine for you.”

In a 2015 review, she called a movie cinema’s employees “barely educated morons trying to manage snack orders for the obese and also try to add $7 plus $7.”

The reviews drew a backlash from Yale students and alumni, who called the posts demeaning and offensive and elitist.

Chu deleted the account and on Saturday issued an email apology to students at Pierson College, Yale’s largest residential college.

“I have learned a lot this semester about the power of words and about the accountability that we owe one another,” Chu wrote. “My remarks were wrong. There are no two ways about it. Not only were they insensitive in matters related to class and race; they demean the values to which I hold myself and which I offer as a member of this community.”

Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway initially told the Yale Daily News he had not asked for Chu’s resignation, and said he believes Chu is “terribly sorry.”

“I think she’s doing exactly the right thing by saying ‘I’ve learned from this, I want to stand by all of you and I hope that you’ll stand by me as well,’ ” Holloway said.

Chu declined to comment specifically on her reviews to the student newspaper, but said she had to work toward repairing trust with her students.

“I am concerned about the shadow that my actions have thrown on my efforts to create an environment in Pierson that respects everyone,” Chu wrote the Yale Daily News. “I am especially concerned that it could prevent anyone from coming to me for the support that I offer to all Pierson students.”

Some students told the Yale Daily News they were shocked to read the derogatory comments from Chu, saying they have had many positive interactions with her and have appreciated her academic and career advice. Others — including students, alumni and people outside the Yale community — expressed disappointment with Chu’s apology, with some on social media calling for the administrator to apologize to the employees and business owners in New Haven that she offended in her reviews.

“She apologizes to Yalies, not to those insulted?” tweeted Mark Oppenheimer, an opinion writer for the Los Angeles Times who has studied and taught at Yale and now lives in New Haven.

Others on Twitter pointed out an article Chu wrote for Inside Higher Ed regarding the importance of cultural sensitivity. One Twitter user said reading the article was “satisfyingly ironic.”

“When we advise students about their academic pathways, we must understand diverse students’ practical concerns as well as their distinct cultural value systems,” Chu wrote.

“Many studies continue to indicate differences between white American college students and those from ethnic minority groups,” Chu wrote. “Thus, when we as advisers only advocate following one’s passion, we should ask of ourselves if we are microaggressors, telling students that is the only right way to engage in education.”

A student in Pierson who spoke to the Yale Daily News but asked to remain anonymous said “he and some friends searched Chu’s Yelp account after receiving a college-wide email on Jan. 30 in which she announced that she had become ‘Yelp Elite’.” This meant she had been recognized by the website for active participation, “well-written reviews, high quality tips, a detailed personal profile, an active voting and complimenting record, and a history of playing well with others,” according to Yelp.

The student said he and his friends “agreed that Chu’s use of ‘demeaning and offensive’ language was inappropriate for someone in her position,” the Yale Daily News wrote.

“These reviews make it clear how Dean Chu thinks about people who are different from her, and how she feels about New Haven, the city all of us call home for a few years,” the student told the Yale Daily News.

Most of the posts circulating among students were published after June 2016, after Chu had been appointed dean.

In one recent post Chu praised a movie theater for its lack of “sketchy crowds” despite being located in New Haven. In another, she used a profanity while criticizing a lawn care company employee. In 2015, Chu called a fitness center employee “the rudest person and just full of attitude,” adding that, “seriously I don’t care if you would ‘lose your job’ (I am sure McDonalds would hire you).” She said a gym class instructor there “looked frail and totally out of shape.”

According to her biography, Chu has taught courses in psychology at the University of California at Davis and has taught in both the Asian American Studies Program and the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, where she served as director of the Pan Asian American Community House for seven years. She also worked as assistant dean of undergraduate students at Dartmouth College.

Pierson College, which was founded and built in 1933, is one of Yale’s 12 residential colleges. Each has its own head and dean, both of who are Yale faculty members, and who live in the college with their families and eat their meals with students in the dining hall, according to the Yale website.

The college dean serves as an academic and personal adviser to students. “Getting to know all residential college students as individuals helps the dean to address their concerns as personally and effectively as possible,” the website states.

As noted by James Freeman, assistant editor of the editorial page at the Wall Street Journal and a Yale graduate who serves on the board of the William F. Buckley Jr. Program there, the news of Chu’s reviews follow a controversy within the last two years surrounding administrators at another residential college on Yale’s campus.

My Halloween email led to a campus firestorm — and a troubling lesson about self-censorship

Erika Christakis and her husband, professor Nicholas Christakis, were the associate head and head, respectively, of Silliman College at Yale. Leading up to Halloween of 2015, Erika Christakis wrote an email questioning Yale guidelines designed to avoid offensive Halloween costumes. “I wonder,” she wrote, “if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.”

The email caused widespread campus outrage, and both of the administrators resigned from their positions.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story inadvertently neglected to put in quotes the words in one paragraph which came from the Yale Daily News. The story has been adjusted.

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