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Person Up, Yale Students

Campus Week: The problem with protests isn’t that they’re radical, but that they’re not radical enough

Mark Oppenheimer
November 10, 2015
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock

A number of years ago, I was talking to a brilliant undergraduate and feminist at Yale College, where I teach English. She was discussing something sexist and demeaning that had happened at one of Yale’s several off-campus fraternities—sexism is such a predictable fact of life at frats that I can’t even remember what the particular demeaning act was. It might have been a grope, a slur, some form of mockery. Anyway, the student was wondering aloud what the school’s response should be. I offered some sort of suggestion, probably having to do with which dean or committee she should take her complaint to. But then I added that what would really send a message to the fraternity would be if women organized a boycott of its parties. Imagine if the message went out that the brothers of Scamma Scamma Gamma weren’t worth women’s time, that the women on campus had decided that any guy who belonged to that fraternity was either a sexist or an enabler of sexism, not worth the time of any self-respecting Yale woman. Imagine if that fraternity’s parties became boring, all-male sausage-fests! Wouldn’t that be something?

The student thought about it, agreed that that would be something terrific, but then said it could never happen. Women would never be able to make common cause that way. They could never achieve that kind of solidarity. The fraternity’s parties were too socially important. Maybe some women could be persuaded to skip the parties, but the hotties, the athletes, and the sorority girls would all keep going. And eventually others would return. A boycott was a nice pipe dream, she said, but impossible to achieve.

I thought of this depressing exchange over the weekend as I read from afar about the unrest at Yale. Last week, students loudly, proudly protested two episodes that they felt demeaned students of color. The first involved an allegation that a brother of Sigma Alpha Epsilon told a group of women of color trying to enter a crowded fraternity party, “No, we’re only looking for white girls.” The other concerned a letter from a faculty member questioning a prior letter cautioning against racially insensitive Halloween costumes and suggesting that students also had a robust right to exercise creativity on Halloween, even at possible risk of offending others. Angered by these incidents, students confronted both Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who is himself African-American, and Nicholas Christakis, the master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s 12 residential communities for undergraduates, whose wife had sent the pre-Halloween email.

I watched these videos while I was away to give a talk at Brigham Young University, the Mormon school in Utah that practically defines paternalism: You can be expelled for drinking coffee there, to say nothing of drinking alcohol or premarital sex. At Yale, by contrast, it’s pretty hard for a student to get expelled. The university hardly enforces drinking rules; campus police do their best to avoid looking too closely for drug use (and pot use has been decriminalized in Connecticut anyway); and students can say pretty much whatever they want to each other and to professors. When students do get hauled before the disciplinary committee, for infractions ranging from cheating to sexual assault, the committee gives a very fair (some would say too fair) hearing to the defendant. Many second chances are given.

And yet the current unrest at Yale is a reminder that students at the two private colleges are in certain ways similar. In each case, students have elected to suspend their adulthood, to put it in escrow for four years, and to willingly bow before the judgment of their elders. As I’ll explain, the Yale students, as much as BYU students, resist the kind of adult self-conception that could bring about lasting change in a campus culture that they rightly decry.


I am troubled by both incidents that have angered Yale students. The fraternity incident, if it happened that way, is loathsome and racist and worthy of censure. The faculty Halloween letter was well-meaning but flawed (a thoughtful dissection of it, by a Yale alumna and woman of color, is here). But in each case, the reaction of the student activists was to not to subvert the hierarchy of privilege but to assume its immutability, indeed to reinforce it—to see themselves as subordinate children and to plead for the grown-ups to do something about it.

Take the fraternity incident. Deans can take action against SAE, and as it happens, they did, last year, banning SAE from campus after a incident of rank sexism. I don’t doubt that the deans can launch a new investigation after this latest charge; so can the national SAE organization. And so forth. Action from the top down isn’t just desirable—it’s necessary. But action has to come from below, too. Administrative action is for naught so long as students keep cramming themselves into SAE parties, which are off campus and can’t be controlled by deans, even while SAE is under suspension. Yale students, who had nearly abolished campus Greek life 50 years ago, have welcomed it back with a vengeance. Students who spend their days learning Hegel and organic chemistry badly want to drink themselves into oblivion with the brothers of SAE on weekend nights. Having graduated from Yale in 1996 and its doctoral program in 2003, I returned to teach at Yale in 2006. I know the school pretty well. And I can say that in all my years here, the acceptance of, and reverence for, Greek life has never been higher.

When I was an undergraduate, the biggest fraternities (excluding the historically black and Latino ones) were seen as redoubts of athletes and their acolytes, those who never got over their sadness that they hadn’t ended up at a big football school. (Some of them, including one roommate of mine, were nice enough guys; but we were all mystified that they had joined a frat.) Sororities, too, seemed a bit sad; they sometimes had trouble filling their rush classes. All my favorite people—intellectuals, theater geeks, musicians, queers, potheads, and certainly those involved in minority/person-of-color activism—wouldn’t have been caught dead at a party at SAE, DKE, Sigma Nu, or Zeta Psi.

So, it’s not that we wouldn’t have been upset by alleged racism at SAE. But we wouldn’t have been surprised. We might have demanded administrative action, but we also would have doubled down on our avoidance of the place, much as any sane person avoids the country club that doesn’t admit blacks or Jews. And yet in today’s Yale, SAE can be accused of misogynist slut-shaming in the spring (see a remarkable investigation, by an undergraduate woman, here), and the very next fall, mere months later, women, including women of color, are lining up for admission to SAE parties. In short, the community of students themselves, more than 5,000 strong, has no coherent ability to marginalize despicable fraternity behavior. Students lack the solidarity, and strategic creativity, to give SAE the kind of black eye that would really hurt. They are right to ask administrators to use whatever leverage they have against racist and sexist behavior, but they seem incapable of using the leverage that a peer community has, too.

And then there’s the letter from Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis. Go re-read the letter yourself. I think reasonable minds can disagree about how upsetting it was or wasn’t. (Sample excerpt: “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”) But it surely upset so many students in good part because it came from an administrator, and Yale students have a peculiar relationship with their administrators, whom they see less as bureaucrats facilitating their education than as surrogate parents—an association that Yale historically has encouraged, indeed touted.

An associate master is the spouse of a master, who holds a ceremonial post in a residential college, which is a dorm-like community, part of Yale’s beloved system, based on Oxford and Cambridge, with “masters” and “deans” and “faculty fellows.” Colleges like Silliman—mine was Jonathan Edwards, to which I am still absurdly loyal—are principally social groupings. You are assigned to one when you arrive and can transfer to another only with some difficulty. Because assignments are random, the colleges provide a certain amount of required diversity and mixing; at Yale, I never had the option to choose the high-school-debate-geek dorm, and as a result I ended up friends with athletes, stoners, queers, even science majors. Your academic advising takes place in the residential college, where it is overseen by a dean, and the dean selects freshman counselors (“frocos,” in current undergrad slang), seniors who live with freshmen as friendly big brothers and big sisters, generally looking the other way from underage drinking and other infractions.

The most exalted members of the colleges, the masters, are senior professors who are chosen to live in large manor houses attached to the colleges. Despite the lordly title, they are basically cheerleaders and social directors. They lead the spirit squad. Among other activities, they host “study breaks,” where tired students come for hot chocolate and cookies during midterms and finals; “master’s teas,” where students can sit in plush living rooms and schmooze with visiting dignitaries and artists (this week New Yorker editor David Remnick will be on campus for one). And the masters often—as it so happens—host Halloween parties. The masters’ Halloween parties may be among the biggest on campus, except, that is, for the annual party held by the president of Yale, which is one of the rare regular times that students are invited to the president’s house.

In short, the college masters, and their spouses, are part of a system in which students off-shore much of their social lives to adults appointed by the university. Yes, there are numerous parties in students’ rooms and in off-campus apartments. But a tremendous amount of student socializing centers around fraternities, on the one hand, and residential college-sponsored dances and parties, on the other hand. As master and associate master of Silliman College, Nicholas and Erika Christakis are not just figureheads: To 450 students, they are the mom and dad, the ones who superintend conversation, bonhomie, and alcohol-free fun for women and men old enough to drive, to vote, and, in other countries, to be drafted into the armed services.

So, when an associate master appeared to side with white kids who might assemble offensive Halloween costumes over black or brown kids who would be offended, she was, in effect, siding with one sibling over another. She had no idea that that’s what she was doing. But it probably became clear when a student told her husband, in an increasingly fraught exchange, “It is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman! … It is not about creating an intellectual space. It is not! Do you understand that? It is about creating a home here!” Another student wrote, in a Yale Herald column that has since been taken off the web, that “[t]he Silliman Master’s role is not only to provide intellectual stimulation, but also to make Silliman a safe space that all students can come home to.”

These students have been mocked in conservative media for misunderstanding the point of college and a liberal arts education. But they were articulating, in a very cogent way, precisely what college students, of all races, expect from us adults at Yale. They defer to us, revere us, want us to be mom and dad. They have paid to live in nurturing, homey dorms run by married couples appointed to create safe, loving spaces for them. So, when we fail them, they are understandably hurt.


In the United States, residential, four-year-college life is the exception, not the rule. Most students don’t move into nice dorms and graduate four, or even five, years later. Most students are at community colleges, or commuter schools, or drop out several times before graduating (if they ever do). But those lucky enough to get the traditional college education, the one celebrated in movies from Love Story to Animal House to Old School to Pitch Perfect, occupy a special space, one distinctly American, invented in the 20th century: They are adults who pay to be infantilized. At an age when they could live on their own, get jobs, vote, marry, raise children, or serve in combat (but, stupidly, not buy a beer), they elect to live in dorms with rules that give them fewer rights than they’d have on their own.

But there’s an upside: For the cost of several tens of thousands of dollars a year, they can sleep until 10 or 11, go to class only three or four hours a day, have lots of sex, and party with alcohol and drugs relatively consequence-free. The weekend starts Thursday night, sometimes even Wednesday. If they stumbled around, drunk underage, in my neighborhood, two miles from campus, they’d be arrested; but on campus, they are guided back to their dorm rooms, or, if really sick, taken to the infirmary, no questions asked. In short, we give them protection. We are mom and dad.

When they are attacked sexually—which they sometimes are, a fact that keeps me, as a dad, feminist, and teacher, up at night—we offer in-house disciplinary proceedings, which they may choose to use instead of, or in addition to, going to the police. If they are depressed, we offer mental health services. All their health needs, from eyeglasses to abortion to gender reassignment, can be taken care of within Yale’s health plan, a special HMO for students and employees. (I think this is a good thing, by the way.) Many of them never register to vote in New Haven, the poor, scrappy, wonderful city where they live for four years; most of them, of all races and socioeconomic levels, never get to know our neighborhoods or our politics. They are residents of Yale, and Yale alone.

And yet while they are residents, they are never full citizens. Rather, they are—they choose to be, and covet their position as—junior participants. In high school, my Yale students worked their asses off, to the point of exhaustion, and after graduation many will step into 70-hour-a-week jobs. They used to have parents; soon they will have bosses. But in college, they are responsibility-free, even more than in high school. They have willfully regressed. What’s more, Yale is so grade-inflated now that the cost of too much partying is a GPA of, at the worst, something like a B average, maybe B-. If you’re in the sciences, it could dip lower. But the A or A- is the rule. Students like it that way, and they let us, the teachers, know if we’re being too harsh.

Of course, this generalization sells short the numerous students who work one or two jobs to earn their share of their financial package; some even send money home to parents. Many students are politically aware, too—especially in the communities of color, where students are more likely to be involved in agitating against police brutality, say, or for immigrant rights. Now that we’re entering an election cycle, political interest will tick up across campus. But in general, our students have the sexual and alcoholic prerogatives of grown-ups, but the work responsibilities of children; they have the intellects of grown-ups, but are coddled with the grading expectations afforded children; they have the opinions of grown-ups, but give their elders the deference we typically expect from children.

Let me linger for a moment on that last point, the deference they afford us adults. It’s not just that we are, in some cases, mom and dad—we are also, to judge from the bizarre reverence we get, seen as geniuses. Outside of class, they may rally and march and shout, but in class, they rarely argue with us. They take notes dutifully, never shooting up their hands to say, “I totally disagree.” They call us “Professor” even when, in my case, I say, “Please call me Mark.” I badly want my classroom to be a democratic place; I know that my students have insights into literature that I don’t, that they will often see things in an essay that I missed. I want nothing more than for them to claim their adulthood, challenge me, challenge each other. Yet they show obsequious fealty. I’m not sure which would be worse: ff they actually think we teachers know everything, or if they are just pretending to think that because they think it will help their grade.

It’s probably the former, which would not be surprising: Children want to think, deep down, that grown-ups have the answers. But we don’t. Some of us are aren’t very bright. Some of us are drunks. Some of us are in failing marriages. Some of us don’t speak to our parents, and some of us have children who don’t speak to us. We are weak, fallible people whose qualification is that we’ve spent some more time with our particular subject matter than the students have and presumably can convey the subject fairly well. I know that’s not what students want to hear: They want to hear that we have the answer to fraternity racism, or that we can supervise their parties, even their Halloween costumes, with maximally sound judgment. They want us to create homes that are both intellectually challenging and totally safe. But we can’t, not alone. We don’t matter to students enough. Their peers do.


Some will read this essay as an exercise in self-exculpation, shirking the duties that Yale teachers and administrators have to run our school well. (To be clear, I am an untenured adjunct, who could be fired at any time; but I know that, to the students, I may as well be The Man.) I don’t mean to pass the buck; I don’t have much authority, and I serve on no committees, but to the extent that I have any power, in my classroom, to create a safe, respectful space, one that honors all students, I aim to do that.

But what I really want for my students is for them to grow into empowered, confident, majestic adults. That doesn’t mean they should never appeal to authority, but I hope that they will recognize the authority they have in themselves. Here I return to the case of the fraternity racism: I actually believe that the power of the student body as a whole to shame, cajole, and even intimidate the fraternity is more powerful than anything Yale administrators can do. It’s not just about boycotting their parties—although, again, a women’s boycott would be the ultimate threat. But what if, during next year’s rush, students had conversations with undergraduate men, and leafleted freshman dorms, and put up posters, informing them which fraternities had racist or sexist pasts? Wouldn’t that hit them where it hurts, in a way that a dean’s investigation can’t?

As a professor I want nothing more than for students to claim their adulthood by challenging each other—and challenging me.

The email that got Erika Christakis in such trouble was written in response to a campus-wide email, sent by Dean Burgwell Howard on behalf of the campus Intercultural Affairs Council, which had urged students to be mindful about their costume choices. It was actually a cautious, benign, well-turned letter, not some bit of alarmist lefty claptrap. “The culturally unaware or insensitive [costume] choices made by some members of our community in the past have not just been directed toward a cultural group, but have impacted religious beliefs, Native American/Indigenous people, Socio-economic strata, Asians, Hispanic/Latino, Women, Muslims, etc.,” the letter said. “In many cases the student wearing the costume has not intended to offend, but their actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact.” Howard seemed to be bending over backward not to squelch student creativity, which makes it odd that Christakis was moved to respond. And her response was, to appropriate a metaphor, off the reservation. “As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably ‘appropriative’ about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day.” Howard had said nothing about preschool children and Pocahontas characters.

Of course, there’s the uncomfortable fact that not so long ago Halloween was seen as a children’s holiday. Indeed, when I was an undergraduate, only a tiny minority of students dressed up for Halloween (and they didn’t put much effort in). The efflorescence of Halloween costumes on grown-ups has come in tandem with pimps-’n’-hos parties, white trash parties, and other instances of organized regression at our institutions of higher learning. So, Howard and Christakis were both writing to a community of adults who are using the comfort of campus culture to perform a children’s ritual and then sometimes get confused about where the boundaries of such performance are.

Nevertheless, in her clumsy way, Christakis was surely onto something when she wrote—and was mocked for writing—that “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other.” I understand that when we’re talking about racism, the goal is to move toward a world in which there’s less of it, not in which people of color are expected to welcome opportunities for conversations with racists. It’s not their job. I do get that. But I think that in Christakis’ letter are the seeds of a profound point about citizenship: If ending racism (or racist Halloween costumes) is your goal, it will actually work better to shame students who wear such costumes than to ask committees to send annual emails.

Imagine a white male student wearing black face on Halloween (the kind of incident that has been reported). Then imagine that the next day 10 students, of all races and genders, show up at his dorm room, knock on the door, and, when he answers, ask to come in and explain to him, in tones calm but brutally honest, what was offensive about what he did. What would he do? Would he apologize? Recognize the error of his ways? One hopes so. But even if he didn’t, one has to imagine that he would remember this consequence more clearly, and consider future actions more carefully, than if he were targeted by a dean’s investigation. Ugly, smug racists like this hypothetical fellow think that they know better than administrators, anyway; peer confrontation might achieve what formal cautions from above cannot.

Let me put more bluntly how we ought to think: Last week, hundreds of Yale students (more than 300, according to the Washington Post) spoke out to their dean about fraternity racism. But why didn’t they march over to the fraternity and hold a silent vigil there?

But again, Yale students think of themselves as somehow needing more control from above. Consider the demands of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, posted at the website of Down, a fine campus publication that, I ought to disclose, I have given informal advice to. The requests nearly all demand an expanded, more active administration: “An email from Dean Holloway and/or President Salovey…,” “[a] specific administrative team to collect data…,” “the establishment of a formal space and procedure…,” “mandatory diversity sensitivity trainings,” encouragement for SAE students, among others, “to read a series of Black feminist texts and report on what they have learned,” and so forth. What’s more, “[a]ll students must be required to take a certain number of classes” in ethnic and gender studies. In nearly every case, the students are asking to be controlled more, administered more, monitored more. They’re even asking us to give them more required classes, more reading.

I am all for making demands of Yale administrators. In the past 25 years, I have publicly demanded that Yale keep ROTC off campus until gay men and lesbians could serve openly in the military; recognize the graduate student union; and not ally to build a campus with the authoritarian government in Singapore. But with regard to these latest student demands, it’s worth asking if adding administrators and administrative requirements promotes student democracy and justice. I would beg these students—my students—to look at us, their teachers and administrators, and ask themselves: Do you really want more of us? More control, more intrusion, more say-so?

I have a different vision for my students, one that I am constantly trying to promote in class: Please, think of yourselves as fellow adults, my peers. When I am wrong, say so. Don’t assume I know any better than you—in many cases, you may know more. When upset by fellow students, ask if there is a forceful, creative way to solve the problem without involving the strong fist of administrative authority—which, as you know, is often likely to get things wrong and make matters less, not more, just. Recognize that solidarity with one another will nearly always work better than asking us to be disciplinarians. Consider an analogous situation in the post-college world: Do you want more police presence, or less?

And, above all, take some time to wonder what college life would be like if you comported yourselves as draft-age, marriage-age, voting citizens. Which is what you are. Would you drink more responsibly, party a bit less, be less reckless in relationships? Would do more of your reading? When offended, would you organize more effectively? Would you be more capable of truly radical political action? Think about how an adult, not a partying student, treats people of other genders. If you are white, take stock of what solidarity you owe people who lack white privilege.

I know that many were offended by the students, seen in videos, who used profanity toward Master Christakis; others were made uncomfortable by the confrontational tone some took toward Dean Holloway. But I saw in those exchanges the beginning of hope. I want Yale students—whom I love, whom I feel proud to teach, many of whom become lifelong friends—to feel some derision toward us. I want them to feel unafraid. I want them to be capable of swearing. I want them to see us as flawed peers, fellow grown-ups—not as mom and dad. Because if they see us as fellow adults, with strengths but also grave weaknesses, then they may realize that the solution to undermining Greek life on campus, or offensive, racist costuming at Halloween, is going to come from the entire Yale community—them included.


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Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.