Politics and introspection at Yale
By Rick Holmes
September 22, 2017
New Haven, Conn. – As I stepped on to Yale’s Old Campus, the memory returned: Tear gas rolling over the darkened quad, everyone running from the sounds of riot, with one exception. Poet Allen Ginsburg sat alone, cross-legged, on a stage, chanting.
The tear gas was coming from New Haven Common, two blocks over, which had been the scene of a huge rally in support of Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party leader on trial in New Haven. The stars of the New Left – branded as such by the Nixon administration’s prosecution of the “Chicago 8” – were all in town. Yale students were on strike over the Seale trial and other issues, and all classes had been canceled.
I wasn’t a Yalie, but in the spring of 1970 I had a job on campus and a front-row seat when student activism peaked. The U.S. invasion of Cambodia sparked anti-war rallies across the country. At Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen fired on a group of unarmed protestors. The smell of tear gas still lingered over Yale when I turned a corner and spotted a leaflet posted on a door. “Four of us were killed today,” it said.
The student strike spread to campuses across the country. For many, classes didn’t resume until the fall. That’s when campuses were inflamed with radicalism. Today? Not so much.
Conservative commentator George F. Will recently described Yale as the leader in the campus “silliness sweepstakes.” He cited the case of a decorative sculpture over a door at Sterling Library showing a Pilgrim pointing a musket at an Indian. A public arts committee branded it offensive, so a rock was added to hide the musket. That looked stupid, so officials decided to move the sculpture until they figure out a better place for it. With half the cathedral-like Sterling covered for exterior renovations, I couldn’t find the exact site of the outrage.
I was able to find the residential college formerly named for John C. Calhoun. Some years ago, students began complaining about the disconnect between Yale’s values and those of Calhoun, a Yale grad from South Carolina who served in Congress, the vice-presidency and the Cabinet. Calhoun was not just a slave owner and white supremacist – he called African-American slavery “a positive good” on the floor of the Senate. He was one of the most influential national leaders of his time, personally responsible for perpetuating an evil institution.
As we’ve seen in this year of second-guessing statuary, threats to symbolic honors provoke strong emotions, and there can be a fine line between expressing values and erasing history. There were protests, petitions, and national headlines about the Calhoun controversy, but no tear gas. After years of agitation and a few missteps, Yale’s president named a committee, including students and respected historians, to come up with a policy. They researched it from every angle, heard from everyone who had an opinion, and recommended a policy to guide all future naming and renaming decisions.
The policy was drafted and accepted. The decision was then made to rename Calhoun College in honor of Grace Hopper, a pioneering computer scientist and one of the first female admirals in the U.S. Navy, who had earned two post-graduate degrees from Yale. Life goes on.
Not everyone was pleased with the decision, notably a few Calhoun alumni and conservatives who consider such controversies silly. It’s the kind of thoughtful, nuanced, inclusive style of decision-making that is the opposite of the knee-jerk reactions so prevalent in politicized media.
Other issues are even less silly. Campus discussions about “rape culture” and the meaning of consent are important – especially to the young people whose lives could be forever changed by what happens next Saturday night. The “dreamers” whose fate is on the line in Washington’s immigration debate are their classmates, making the fight over the DACA program personal as well as political.
Recent confrontations over free speech that have made national headlines are mostly political theater by activists looking for attention. We learned back in the ‘70s not to take seriously anything that happened in Berkeley. At Yale and most other schools, conservatives speak often on campus without incident, and you are still more likely to find a lively face-to-face argument about politics and philosophy in a college dorm than nearly anywhere else. Still, it’s hard being a conservative on a lot of college campuses. I’d like to see universities celebrate ideological diversity like every other kind of diversity.
Today’s campuses are neither as dangerous as conservatives fear, nor are they leading the way for progressives, as they did in the ‘70s. As long as their energies are mostly turned inward, their impact on national events will remain small.