Letters to the Editor

Our readers respond

Alumni thoughts about student protests, renaming Calhoun College, and more.

We welcome readers’ letters, which should be mailed to Letters Editor, Yale Alumni Magazine, PO Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905; e-mailed to yam@yale.edu; or faxed to (203) 432-0651. Due to the volume of correspondence, we are unable to respond to or publish all mail received. Letters accepted for publication are subject to editing.

Congratulations to Richard Conniff for the wonderful memorial to Professor G. Evelyn Hutchinson (“The Founder of Modern Ecology,” November/December). The article captured much of what I recall from the graduate ecology course I was permitted to take at Yale in my senior year, as a zoology major. Professors Hutchinson and S. Dillon Ripley were the instructors. Each of us had to present a class. Mine was on the Nile River estuary at Alexandria, Egypt. Some quotes from the writings of Lawrence Durrell were mixed in.

The prospect of holding forth before these consummate experts was intimidating, to say the least. However, when the class began they created an amazing teamlike atmosphere of support. I had borrowed bird specimens from the Peabody, and Ripley easily identified the birds I forgot. Hutchinson chimed in to amplify the discussion of the estuary with an infectious enthusiasm that I will never forget. I managed an A for the course, but the real reward came when a fellow student in the class related that Hutchinson was animated while riding down in the elevator, and asked: “Who is this Johnson?”

I will never forget riding and sampling from a boat for the ecology class on Linsley Pond in the fall. Since then, the influence of his ideas and his way of thinking have been disseminated far beyond Linsley Pond. I have seen his influence in cultural medicine, hospital epidemiology, and infectious disease detective work. He is truly a joyful memory, and his influence is so alive.

David P. Johnson ’60, ’64MD
Tampa, FL


We very much enjoyed Richard Conniff’s article. The immense work he has put into understanding G. Evelyn Hutchinson’s role and contributions is obvious. However, toward the end of an otherwise closely researched piece—and in reference to Hutchinson’s marginalization by molecular biologists toward the end of his career—Conniff states: “The study of the organisms and ecosystems of the living world would not recover [at Yale] until the university belatedly established a department of ecology and evolutionary biology in 1997, six years after Hutchinson’s death.”

This statement misses a critical part of Yale’s ecological history. During the 1960s, the School of Forestry began building its presence in ecology in a big way. Key hires included Richard Miller and Herb Bormann, each of whom served as president of the Ecological Society of America in the 1970s. Landmark research projects such as the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study maintained the university’s position as a leader in ecology even as it diminished in Yale College. The rise of ecology in the school contributed to a change in name (to School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, in 1972) and a broadening of the school’s mission that remains its hallmark today.

Peter Crane
David Skelly
New Haven, CT


Crane is the Carl W. Knobloch Jr. Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a professor of botany. Skelly is director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.—Eds.


The recent protests

As an African American graduate of the college, I am moved to address the recent protests regarding concerns about Halloween costumes. (See page 40.) The media tendency to frame these events as an overreaction to a trivial matter fails to recognize the greater context: a climate where the dominant political force in America, the Republican Party, is fundamentally and profoundly racist, and has been so since the rise of modern conservatism in the 1960s and ’70s. (Confused? Offended? Then contemplate for a moment the meaning of the words “Southern Strategy.”)

People of color are subject to a constant barrage of racist invective from conservatives. Some of it is blatant (Mexicans are rapists); much of it is conveyed via the dog whistle (the vile fiction of the “Culture of Dependency”). These assaults occur daily and have increased in tempo and intensity over the past two decades with changing demography and the growth of the web. In fact, it’s the Internet that has made it possible to know about instances of racially hostile Halloween costumes in years past.  

The Yale protests represent a broader message to conservatives from diverse communities: “We expect the worst from you.” When a Professor Christakis opens the door, experience tells us that white conservatives will rush in to reclaim their historic privilege to ridicule people of color in the name of “free speech.” As an older alum, I wasn’t comfortable with the decibel level of the protests, but I fully understand why students decided to fight these potentially offensive tokens before they occurred, rather than after the party was over.

Ron Taylor ’73
Los Angeles, CA


I read President Salovey’s Freshman Address (“Launching a Difficult Conversation,” November/December) with pleasure, seeing as how he carefully addressed both sides of the Calhoun College naming debate. He presented each argument in succession with nearly equal attention, but then noted the weakness of the positions as well, reminding myself of an election guide one receives in the mail.

However, I did not find his most recent statement to all alumni and students regarding campus diversity—and, obliquely, the Halloween costume controversy—to be crafted with similar equanimity. It seemed that while acknowledging the importance of free speech and ideas, Salovey then laments the lack of inclusiveness at Yale and pledges his and the university’s full support through countless programs and funding increases. These are all laudable goals for the most part and should be pursued as was proposed. But there was a troubling and perhaps chilling lack of attention paid to a diversity of thought and the importance of civil debate.

Reading the initial e-mail from Erika Christakis, watching the (in)famous YouTubeclips in the Silliman courtyard, reading the response e-mail from Master Christakis, and looking over their Twitter feeds, I quickly saw that these were not right-wing zealots, but rather seemingly center-left scholars with a small libertarian streak who both bend over backwards not to offend. For instance, they tweet about Hillary Clinton, gun violence, and, heaven forbid, free speech. Erika points to a well-known Atlantic article, “The Coddling of the American Mind” and notes that protecting students from offensive and antithetical ideas actually does more mental harm than good. This is a rational, well-researched, and defensible position that she then reiterated in her own e-mail. The resulting backlash against the Christakises was abhorrent in the overall lack of understanding and unwillingness to acknowledge any possible difference of opinion.

What I wanted and expected from President Salovey was a stern reminder to students that Yale should indeed be a “safe space,” but one in which students should be provoked and presented with new information and ways of thinking and allowed to come to their own conclusions. If diversity in religion, race, and gender are paramount, diversity in thought and approaches to issues must be given due consideration as well. Yale must reflect a variety of viewpoints or it risks divorcing itself further from the society it purports to reflect.

Nicholas Cipolla ’99
Los Angeles, CA


I bring to the current campus controversy the perspective of a proud alum of the college of which Nicholas Christakis is now the master; the father of a current student; and a career public defender who has spent 20 years defending the most basic civil rights of mostly people of color.

The Christakises made two mistakes, one of substance and the other of timing and symbolism. Power is what threatens free speech. The Christakises recognized in the IAC’s e-mail the power imbalance between the administration and the students; as professors and scholars, they related easily to students who might feel stifled by pressure from administrators. What they didn’t think about was the power and privilege imbalances among the students themselves, something they have no personal experience of, and the fact that offensive speech can be an instrument of power rather than of resistance to power.

The ideal of the university is not to simply be a forum for free speech per se. It is to create an environment where the free “marketplace of ideas” can flourish. Free speech is a critical part of that marketplace, but equally critical is that all participants feel secure and valued enough to listen without fear. Turning a blind eye to bigoted or similarly ignorant speech or symbolic conduct conveys a message of its own: that certain people’s fears and distress don’t matter, that Yale is not theirs but belongs at its core to the same people who explicitly ran it for their own benefit for most of three centuries.

The Christakises are not racist, and neither are the vast majority of their supporters. They are simply people who lack the experience of being made to feel they don’t belong, or that they specifically don’t belong at Yale, because of their visible heritage. It simply never occurred to the pair how that kind of disempowerment skews the ability to participate in the marketplace of ideas: the powerless can’t hear, and the powerful have no incentive to listen.

The second mistake was context. The administration was originally trying, admirably in my view, to avoid outright punishment of offensive speech while still modeling good behavior and respect in a diverse community. While Christakis’s e-mail made some excellent points in a vacuum, styling it as a counterpoint to the IAC e-mail changed the message completely. If you state, for example, that all of our lives are precious and worthy of protection from harm, that is totally uncontroversial. But if you answer “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter,” the exact same sentiment now denigrates and dismisses the struggles and concerns of people of color. The Christakises and their supporters failed to recognize that difference.

It is clear that the Christakises acted not out of bigotry but from a failure of experience and imagination. That is why the result of their e-mail has indeed been a powerful teaching moment—just not the kind they thought, and not for whom they intended.

Peter Adolf ’89
Charlotte, NC


Soon after Nicholas and Erika Christakis were attacked on campus, I attended a performance of Anouilh’s Antigone. In the play, Antigone does the right thing even though she knows she will be killed. She is opposed by Creon, the king, a man of politics who is condemned always to say yes to whatever the mob demands.

Anouilh intended the play to rally the Resistance in occupied France during World War II. The Nazis, however, allowed it to open in Paris, where it ran for more than a year. The Nazis thought that Creon won the argument and agreed that Antigone’s death was meaningless. Through the distance of time, it’s been almost impossible to understand how their warped values so twisted their view of things. Until now.

The parallels are far from perfect. But President Salovey is clearly the victim of Creon’s tragedy. He is condemned to say yes to whatever the mob demands. What we don’t know is whether any other members of the faculty had the courage to stand up with the Christakis family and Antigone.

William Kahrl ’68
Newcastle, CA


In November, 86 faculty members signed an open letter in support of the Christakises.—Eds.


Yale exists to perpetuate “whiteness.” A quick glance at the curriculum makes this clear. Yale will never be diverse until there is a realization that “whiteness” is obsolete. But, for Yale to act on such a realization would constitute institutional suicide. “Whiteness” is the source of Yale’s richness.

As soon as my daughter was accepted into the Class of 2011, she began receiving communications from various offices at Yale that sent her three unintended messages: as an African American, (1) you don’t really belong at Yale; (2) you will never be comfortable at Yale; and (3) to survive the Yale experience, you will have to separate yourself culturally and psychologically. Of course, being my daughter, she ignored this stuff and spent four years having more fun than I usually allow.

If you tell people, before they arrive, that they are moving into a racist experience, you shouldn’t be surprised if they begin looking for racism the moment they land on campus and find it, even where it may not exist. The kinds of black students who come to Yale have already developed strategies to survive “white” situations. 

A heavy-handed, paternalistic effort to make them “comfortable” at Yale may create more problems than it solves. When these students move on beyond Yale, they won’t find a “black house” where they can hide.

Now that there is “minority” bureaucracy in place, it will fight for its continued existence even after it has achieved obsolescence. Someone needs to ask if what was necessary and appropriate in 1969 is still necessary and appropriate.

Robert Hinton ’91PhD
Hamden, CT


This is the letter I would like to receive from the president of Yale:

It is my firm belief that Yale must be a bastion of academic freedom and freedom of speech. As an institution, Yale has sought to balance these two fundamental tenets with the rights and concerns of its many constituencies, which include students, faculty, administration, employees, graduates, and our neighbors in New Haven.

Now a minority of the student body has challenged the university to take extreme steps to rectify perceived injustices not only of today but of the past. Yale has grown, changed, and adapted over the past 314 years. Especially in recent years, it has gone to great lengths to embrace diversity in all forms. If this is to be successful, it must embrace a free exchange of opinions, ideas, and conversations, some of which may seem offensive. A rigorous academic environment must be open to opposing points of view, even if not deemed “safe” or “comfortable” to some participants.

We see no need to rewrite history by imposing contemporary standards on the beliefs and actions of Yale figures of the past, any more than we might want to repaint a Rembrandt.

Ultimately, we believe students should understand the distinction between “needs” and “wants.” We have done our best in providing what our community needs. It is up to the students to determine if their wants are being satisfied. This includes accepting academic freedom and the right to free speech everywhere on campus.

If any members of the Yale community are not satisfied with our positions, they should decide for themselves whether they wish to continue at Yale. There are many students who would feel privileged to replace them.

James B. Cowperthwait ’59
Boca Grande, FL


More thoughts about Calhoun

I must confess my shock at the debate regarding the proposed renaming of Calhoun College (“Renewed Debate Over Renaming Calhoun,” September/October). Not shock that someone would suggest it, but rather shock at the rationale. You quote Colin McEnroe ’76 as saying “It’s not called Calhoun College So Let’s Talk About That. It’s called Calhoun College, and it’s an easy feat to spend four years at Yale without ever having one of those ‘teachable moments’ about the background of the name.” Really?

Before I arrived at Yale, I taught at a stereotypical small liberal arts college in a less-than-affluent part of the country, where a significant number of our students were first-generation college students. Every so often one of them would chide me for setting high academic expectations, reminding me, “Come on, this isn’t Harvard or Yale.” In my Intro to Political Science class, we would have hard conversations about democracy, and I would ask them, “At what point do you think the US could legitimately claim to be a democracy? At its founding, only white male property owners could vote—meaning most of you in this class could not. Let’s talk about that.”

One of my colleagues in the history department taught a class on local history, which included a stop in the entryway of our academic building, where two large plaques listed all the contributors to its construction in the 1920s. In between the local newspaper and the names of the prominent families was listed the local lodge of the KKK. Let’s talk about that, invited the professor.

The fact is, at our small college, which did not have the reputation of Yale, we found lots of opportunities to teach students to think critically about history and social science. If a small no-name liberal arts college can do that, why not Yale?

Perhaps the larger question the university should address is not whether or not to rename Calhoun College, but rather, why aren’t undergraduates given the opportunity to talk about that?

Michelle Boomgaard ’11MDiv
Pittsburgh, PA


If Calhoun College is to be renamed, I respectfully submit that the most fitting alternative would be J. Q. Adams College. This is not in honor of John Quincy Adams’s performance as the sixth president of the United States, although he was the only president in the pre–Civil War era who was a strong advocate for higher education and scholarship. However, it was after his service as president, when he returned to Washington as a member of the House of Representatives, that he came most directly into conflict with John C. Calhoun, specifically on the subject of slavery.

In the Gag Rule controversy of 1836–1844, the pro-slavery forces, led by Calhoun, attempted to prevent any discussion of the subject from taking place in Congress. Adams led the struggle for free debate about slavery in Congress and against the horrors of slavery itself, once promising on the floor of the House that “If every slaveholder, slavetrader, and slavebreeder on this floor does not get [in such a free debate] materials for bitter reflection, it shall be no fault of mine.” He also raised the possibility that slaves themselves might have the right to formally petition Congress on the subject, a suggestion that led to a near-riot on the floor of the House and to calls for his expulsion by slaveholding congressmen from the Southern states.

It is also worth noting that Adams was a Harvard alumnus, who was later appointed its Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. He was a proud defender of his school’s honor, once stating that “as an affectionate child of our Alma Mater, I would not be present to witness her disgrace” in conferring an honorary degree upon Andrew Jackson, a Southern slaveholder who was also “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar.”

In short, in what better way could Yale atone for the act of naming a residential college after John C. Calhoun, referred to by historian David Potter as “the most majestic champion of error since Milton’s Satan,” than by renaming that college after the Harvard man who was Calhoun’s greatest adversary in exposing and condemning the wrongfulness of legalized, race-based slavery?

David Hoffman ’80
Jerusalem, Israel


Political diversity?

I read with interest that Yale will seek greater diversity among its faculty (“What Color Is Yale’s Faculty?” November/December). It was recently reported that 94 percent of political contributions by faculty members at Cornell are to the Democratic party—not much diversity there. What is the equivalent number at Yale? Might I, and a considerable number of my Yale classmates and friends, dare to hope that in seeking greater diversity, Yale will also take into account political orientation?

Victor Dial ’59
Gstaad, Switzerland


The most recent FEC data on political contributions to federal candidates in the 2016 election include 84 faculty members who listed Yale as their employer. They gave a total of $127,023, 98 percent of which went to Democratic candidates; 80 of the 84 individuals gave to Democratic candidates.—Eds.


Advertising for an organ

We were surprised and shocked to see the paid advertisement in the November/December issue from Bob Opatrny seeking a kidney donor for himself. We are sensitive to the anguish Mr. Opatrny is experiencing and can appreciate his desire to do everything that is possible to speed his road to recovery. Nevertheless, the growing practice of private advertisements for donor organs is alarming and highly questionable ethically; it essentially privileges an elite group of individuals with the money and connections to provide themselves with access others are denied. This practice undermines the ethical foundations of the national transplant program approved by Congress, provides unfair access to some, and advances the alarming trend of privatization that is challenging more and more public institutions, services, and practices upon which a more just and egalitarian democracy relies.

Mr. Opatrny is free to pursue a donor in any way that is legal. But Yale, or its publications, should not aid and abet his ethically questionable pursuit. While advertising policy is not the same as editorial policy, the photo, design, fonts, headlines, and placement of the advertisement clearly intend to blur the two in ways that are journalistically suspect, encouraging readers to believe that Yale’s endorsement is implied. As graduates of the Divinity School, we look to Yale for leadership in moral inquiry and critical reflection. We do not expect to find Yale complicit in turning over the distribution of access to critical health care to market practices and forces that privilege the few over the many.

Please remove our names from the subscription list for the magazine. We will look forward to receiving news of Yale from other outlets.

Lydia Veliko ’89MDiv
John H. Thomas ’75MDiv
Chicago, IL


Neither we nor the advertiser intended to “blur” the distinction between editorial and advertising. The ad used different design conventions and typefaces from those we use in our editorial pages, and it was marked with the words “Paid Advertisement.”—Eds.


A perfect moment

I appreciated your article “A Place of One’s Own at Yale” (September/October). It turned my mind to the hill at the Divinity School. On a crisp October day in junior year, my roommates Zack Leonard and Tony Rockwell and I managed to find ourselves at odds. It was our first year off campus; living in the Elmhurst, with the honeymoon clearly over, we were emphatically on each other’s nerves. With the then-recently rereleased Modern Lovers album as our soundtrack, we drove out in Tony’s ramshackle Volvo wagon to the Div School.

The reputation of the hill there as a good spot for sledding with dining hall trays preceded it, but, absent snow, we were left to improvise. The three of us started rolling down over the crackling leaves at a velocity teetering on the edge between gleeful abandon and downright recklessness. We repeated this exercise—which lifted our moods almost instantaneously—as many times as stamina would allow, a memorable episode of 20-year-olds acting like 9-year-olds (and stone-cold sober, mind you).

In the film Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray recounted the quest for the “perfect moment,” an endeavor doomed to failure by a flawed social order and a perverse human tendency toward dissatisfaction. But that afternoon on the Div School hill, we enjoyed a moment with which, even after 30 years, I would be hard pressed to find fault.

Brad Martin ’88
Barrington, RI

1 comment

  • Carl Youngdahl Divinity '73
    Carl Youngdahl Divinity '73, 11:53am January 15 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    RE: Ron Taylor's letter " The Current Protests " and the " Southern Strategy ":

    Let's leave aside the fact that Lincoln was a Republican, and that Democrats held the segregated South captive for 80 years, ...And that the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960's passed with more Republican support than Democratic support..and that George Wallace, Bull O'Connor, Harry Byrd and Lester Maddox were all Democrats into the 1970's and beyond... Jimmy Carter swept the South in 1976. Did that " Southern Strategy " make President Carter a racist ?

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