Alex Copeland ’15, a freshman at Yale College, said his immediate instinct is to say that he has not experienced racism at the campus in New Haven, Conneticut.
But then he thought for a moment.
“I really haven’t experienced blatant racism at all here,” he said. “But, for example a couple of weeks ago, I forgot my key to my residential college, and when I asked someone to let me in, they said they weren’t supposed to let people in that don’t go to Yale. You just get used to little things like that, being a black male.”
Soon after Copeland’s experience, tensions came to a boil over issues of race and culture.
Before Halloween, Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an e-mail to students advising them to not wear costumes that could be considered offensive.
Lecturer Erika Cristakis responded with her own e-mail Oct. 28 to students and administrators saying that while she praises those goals in theory, she fears that college students have turned to censoring regressive ideas and that campuses were becoming “places of censure and prohibition.”
That day hundreds of students, including Copeland, surrounded Yale’s first black dean Jonathan Holloway, sharing how minority students feel underrepresented and sometimes marginalized.
“Dean Holloway went in the middle of campus and heard criticism from students,” Copeland said. “Students poured their hearts out to [him], criticized him and pleaded that he represent them. That was really powerful to see. But before that, there were just a lot of students talking openly, sharing stories and supporting each other.”
Amid a series of racially charged protests and episodes at college campuses across the nation this fall, most noticeably at the University of Missouri and more recently at Yale, Claremont McKenna and Amherst, some students at Harvard-Westlake are now reconsidering which colleges they are applying to.
Shannyn Schack ’16, a black student, said that she worries about “what’s happening underneath the gilded surfaces of any of these colleges,” as she is in the midst of the application process.
“Although I am glad that racism at these institutions has come to light and is being stopped, it still scares me to think that this is the world that my classmates and I are going to be entering next year,” Schack said. “It’s 2015, for Pete’s sake.”
At the University of Missouri, protesters said administrators did not adequately respond to complaints of racism. Members of the football team, backed by their coach, tweeted they would refuse to play until Mizzou President Tim Wolfe stepped down. Student activists, calling themselves Concerned Student 1950, confronted Wolfe and called for walkouts after the administration’s lack of response. One graduate student vowed to stay on a hunger strike until Wolfe left.
The university president and chancellor resigned Nov. 9. Afterwards some students used the anonymous messaging app Yik Yak to threaten black students.
Phaedra Robinson ’17 said problems at Mizzou were “especially disappointing” for her as a black student, and she is concerned for her brother, a freshman at Brown University.
“I feel as though your home and your school are supposed to be two safe spaces for people our age, and when you’re away at college those two places become one,” Robinson said. “I feel that I have a pretty deep connection to these events, not only because I am a minority myself, but also because I have a brother in college, and he’s close by a lot of these schools. Thinking about him being in any of these situations worries me.”
At Claremont McKenna last week, demonstrators erupted into protest about race, gender and sexuality. Dean of students Mary Spellman said in response she would try to help students who did not “fit the CMC mold,” inadvertently insulting minority students who felt her phrasing excluded them from the community. Protestors called for her resignation, which soon followed. In celebration, about 500 students marched throughout the five campuses yelling “fuck white supremacy” and “break the mold,” said Claremont McKenna freshman Timothy Song ’15, who is Asian-American.
“Whether or not students at CMC agree with the movement, I think we all understand that it is important to talk about topics that might make us uncomfortable,” said Emily Segal ’14, a white student at Claremont McKenna. “If anything, the recent events on campus have shown how important it is to listen to one another and try to understand each other’s point of view. I don’t think that is something that should deter anyone from applying to any school.”
At Amherst College, student activists calling themselves Amherst Uprising are giving administrators until Wednesday to respond to a list of 11 demands, one of which calls for the college president to state he does not tolerate posters around campus that read “in memoriam of the true victim of the Missouri Protests: Free Speech.” The group also pushed for students to distance themselves and the school from its unofficial mascot, Lord Jeff, a Colonial British general who endorsed giving small-pox infected blankets to Native Americans.
Chelsea Pan ’14, an Asian-American student at Amherst, has participated in sit-ins where students of color shared “their heart-wrenching narratives on their feelings of pain and isolation” and has worked to amplify voices of Asian-American students.
“Overall, I’m very proud of how the Amherst community—students, faculty and alumni alike—came together as a result of this movement,” Pan said. “Though I thought the initial list of demands had some unrealistic expectations, I support its long-term goals of creating a safer and more inclusive environment, hiring more diverse faculty and administration and removing the Lord Jeff as the unofficial mascot.”
Following Mizzou’s lead, students at Claremont McKenna as well as at Ithaca College have demanded resignations from top administrators for failing to sufficiently respond to racism.
“The fact that there is so much media attention around this stuff is a positive,” Upper School Dean Celso Cardenas said. “However, I think the idea of trying to oust presidents, to me, I think, ‘what is that really going to get to?’ I love the fact that campuses across the nation— students—are becoming a lot more vocal about this, and you see protests everywhere from small schools like Smith to Michigan, Mizzou, et cetera. There’s something quite powerful about students uniting, but the end goal is something that we still need to figure out.”
In a Chronicle poll, nine percent of 389 students who responded to a Nov. 22 survey, said that the protests have caused them to reconsider applying to certain schools. While the school does not have any recent alumni at Mizzou, the deans said there are seniors applying there, as well as to Yale, Claremont McKenna, Amherst and Occidental College, where students last week were demanding greater funding for minorities.
“Some students have gone as far as to say ‘it’s making me question whether or not I want to go to some of these schools where this is happening’ to students just sort of asking our perspective,” Upper School Dean Beth Slattery said. “The big thing that I would say to students is that these protests have become more visible at certain campuses, but the truth is, the underlying issues are happening everywhere, and they happen at Yale and Mizzou and Occidental and Claremont McKenna. If diversity and inclusion are important to [students], they need to wrestle with those at whatever campuses they’re applying to and think about how they can find their place.”
Several seniors said they do not feel the controversies are an issue for them as they apply to college.
“Honestly, it doesn’t have any effect on my college process decisions,” said Michael Swerdlow ’16, who is white. “I just don’t see protests as having a bearing on where I want to go to school.”
With regular decision applications due in January, deans are urging students to gather more information before making any rash decisions about their applications, but some students feel that it is difficult to look past the issues that have come to light.
“After things like this happen at these colleges, it taints your image of the school, and the people admitted into it,” Robinson said. “As a minority, I feel like I really have to take things like this into account when applying so that I never put myself in a spot where there’s even a possibility of my college experience being affected by racism.”
The problems have been building for years at some college campuses. Mizzou minority students said that they feared for their safety in the predominantly white neighborhood of Columbia, Mo. well before the threats started on Yik Yak. And complaints at Yale about a residential college named after John C. Calhoun, who once defended slavery as a “positive good,” have circulated for decades. It was only this fall that the university put a committee together to start the renaming process.
Chris Aranosian, a white 1981 Yale graduate and former Calhoun College resident, said that undergraduates at the time never thought they would have the force to change the name so they “could only laugh at the hypocrisy and illogic of having one of [Yale’s] 12 residential colleges named after such a noted defender of slavery.”
He remembers other instances of racial conflict, including how after the university and the union that represented the cafeteria workers could not reach an agreement, the workers went on strike for months.
“Most of the cafeteria workers were, and probably still are, black or Hispanic, so the fight for fair wages and benefits was being fought by these minority workers against the largely-white university,” Aranosian said. “I remember some protest marches being held by students who supported the striking union workers, and that was probably the biggest race-related conflict we saw during those years.”
But it was this fall that most current Yale students, not just minorities, began to see the full weight of the tension.
“It started with the [Sigma Alpha Epsilon] party where they [allegedly] were not letting in women of color, and then there was the Halloween e-mail controversy, and people, at least my friends and I, were talking about it, but it didn’t seem that urgent,” said Marc Shkurovich ’15, a white student at Yale. “Then the first big protest where students surrounded the dean happened, and then every day it seemed that the situation picked up more and more gravity. Racism on campus, allyship and free speech became the main points of conversations for a whole week.”
Copeland said he is glad more conversations about race issues have been taking place around campus.
“Initially, I was sad,” Copeland said. “It was just hard for me to see people feel marginalized and feel like they had no support. But to then see the types of discussions, debates and unity that the protests sparked, it gave me a lot of hope for Yale and its future.”
He hopes students are not put off from applying to Yale because of either the protests or racism.
“Although there have been some disturbing events here for people of color, I still have faith in Yale,” Copeland said. “I’ve only been here a few months, but I’m confident that Yale is a great place filled with people that are genuinely striving to do better and be better. Honestly, it’s been a privilege to be a part of these discussions because, as you can see from all the media attention, we really can have an impact on the world.”
In response to the racial fervor at universities, Harvard-Westlake President Rick Commons planned to meet with members of the Black Leadership and Culture Club Monday to discuss “what they are feeling about their experience in our community.”
“Our new mission statement begins with the idea of being a diverse and inclusive community, and the various episodes at Yale and the University of Missouri and Claremont McKenna and Amherst College all seem to me to be the results of people feeling like the communities in those places are not inclusive enough,” Commons said.
He also added that he hopes to sit down with more student groups that might be feeling “a sense that there could be a greater inclusivity in the way we treat one another.”
Going into the meeting, BLACC leader Nina Milligan ‘16 said the group plans to “address the things that we feel the school can do to help people of color feel a little more comfortable.”
Some believe the protests have infringed on free speech.
They pointed to activists at Smith College who barred access to journalists reporting on demonstrations Nov. 18 unless they stated their support for the movements in their articles.
At Wesleyan University, students cut funding in October for their student newspaper after it ran a column criticizing the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Professionals in the media are concerned.
“Yes, universities should work harder to be inclusive,” Nicholas Kristoff said in a New York Times article. “And yes, campuses must assure free expression, which means protecting dissonant and unwelcome voices that sometimes leave other people feeling aggrieved or wounded. On both counts we fall far short.”
Some students say free speech should only go so far.
“I’m all for free speech, but when that speech jeopardizes other students’ feelings of safety, action needs to be taken,” Schack said.