Letters to the Editor

Reactions on race, speech, and values

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.

Thanks for the illumination you’ve provided in your most recent issue concerning the interlocking issues of race and free speech at Yale (“Race, Speech, and Values,” January/February). I have an unusual and maybe even unique view of this issue, having been an undergraduate at Yale in two vastly different eras, the early 1960s and in 1987–88. (After my second dismissal, in 1966, I thought I’d never return, but my doting alma mater welcomed me back in ’87.)

When the class of 1965 arrived in ’61, there were of course no women, and there were (as I recall) fewer than half a dozen young men who admitted to having African ancestors. Fully one-fourth of the Class of ’65 had gone to 17 well-represented prep schools (43 from Andover alone!) and more than half had gone to private school.

By way of contrast, in 1987 the prep school contingent was much leaner, women made up nearly half the class, and African Americans, though not quite what the ratio of blacks to whites in the US population would have dictated, weren’t all that far off, either.

To assert that the Yale of ’87–’88 was a more interesting place to get an education than the earlier Yale would be a complete understatement. Yale had been transformed, and much for the better. Yet many of the old attitudes persisted, and it was apparent to me at times that the black and female students must often have felt they were being looked down on by people who didn’t really approve of their presence. More than a few times I heard in classrooms remarks that the person speaking would have sincerely denied were racist, but which came from such a place of obtuse racial condescension that any “minority” student paying attention would surely have felt stung.

To be honest, on at least one occasion I made such a thoughtless remark myself, a remark questioning why freed Southern blacks during the post-Reconstruction era of frequent lynchings didn’t do more to “fight back,” and whether they weren’t a bit complicit in their immiseration. I immediately regretted my stupid question. But I couldn’t make it go away.

Lewis, if you’re out there, my friend, mea culpa.

Lawrence Kelly Houghteling ’65
Hastings on Hudson, NY


Reading your apologia, “Race, Speech, and Values,” it appears that the subtitle, “What Really Happened at Yale,” is a twist on an Oscar Wilde apothegm, newly restated: “Yale Imitates Art.”

In John Kennedy Toole’s richly ironic A Confederacy of Dunces, the protagonist, Ignatius, who eats too much and lives at home with his mother, decides that he is the only one who can advocate for the rights of the African American workers at the mildly oppressive Levy Pants factory, where he is an unproductive office worker. Wearing his flapped green hunting cap, he hoists his vast bulk onto a table and unfurls his stained bed sheet upon which he has painted the slogan: “Crusade for Moorish Dignity,” the very wording of which reveals his arch and bookish detachment from the cause of the beleaguered workers. As he confronts Mr. Gonzalez, the office manager, the entire crusade devolves into comic chaos.

There was a time when students, subject to being drafted into a pointless war, protested that war, and social injustice, and the other ways in which “the man” was holding “the people” down. Appearing on the cover of your magazine to be well scrubbed, well off, and well cared-for, and holding a banner even more inexplicable than that of Ignatius—“We out here. We’ve been here. We ain’t leaving. We are loved”—it is hard not to actually see what is already apparent from the facts. If you are any kind of student at one of the elite universities in the most successful nation in the history of the planet, you more or less are “the man.”

We still have pointless wars, a racially punitive criminal justice system, and growing income inequality, each of which strike most against the poor and minorities, and from whom there are innumerable levels of detachment enjoyed by these students. They seem to have focused on slights that they must face within the protective Yale bubble, while those for whom they might protest suffer the permanent physical and psychological damages of war, go needlessly to prison for long terms, and lose jobs and income. These students’ place at the table of plenty precludes them from bemoaning their honeyed state, and requires them to take a stand or work for those who may truly be in need.

The one plot point where Yale deviated from the eloquent Toole narrative is that Mr. Levy fired Ignatius.

Gerald Weaver ’77
Bethesda, MD


Our coverage did not include analysis of the protesters’ activism, but we note that the Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale lists among its objectives “promot[ing] the lines of communication and collaboration between the Yale and New Haven communities while developing an environment of social action and increased linkage” and that Dwight Hall claims “more than 90 student-managed member groups that engage Yale University students in contributing more than 150,000 hours of direct service each year.”—Eds.


I eagerly looked forward to reading your article about “what really happened at Yale.” Unfortunately, I learned nothing I had not already known about the circumstances at the university beyond what I had learned from an interested reading of reports from the New York Times and other sources.

In fact, I am left with the impression that students behaved in an egregious fashion given what seems to have been the most trivial of provocations—if any provocations at all—from the university administration or, for that matter, from the larger society.

Kathrin Day Lassila has the temerity to assert in her opening sentence that, “First of all, it was nothing like the sixties,” despite the fact that, judging by her class year, she was likely about ten years old in 1970. The presumptuousness reflected in that initial sentence told me from the outset that I could learn nothing of any importance or value from the article which was to follow. Forgive me for concluding that your article was intended to be a commissioned work on behalf of the administration, especially President Salovey, to whitewash (sorry if that’s a “microaggression” in your world) the university’s behavior in regard to the reprehensible behavior of the protesting students, especially in regard to the Christakis couple. Reading the remainder of your article confirmed my initial impression. You wrote as a shill for the university—or so it seemed.

Had your article reflected a modicum of critical analysis of the events at Yale, I would feel the need to write a more detailed critique. But it didn’t, so I don’t. As far as I am concerned, though, you should feel shame at the quality of your article.

Charles Morgan ’68
Neenah, WI 


I can’t decide if I should be insulted or flattered that the writer thinks an editor in her 50s is too young to weigh in on modern history. In response to the specific questions raised, no one in Yale’s administration had any role in conceiving, assigning, or writing this story, which was an accurate account of the actual events on campus.—Kathrin Day Lassila ’81, Editor


I left Yale at the end of my sophomore year in 1955 over the same issues of race and class that students are protesting now. I wouldn’t accept finding in our rooms such items as, for instance, a poem ending “he was a good nigger for burning.” The academics defending free speech represent a middle-class professional idea of the university that misses the fullness of what the students protest.

The general academic protests allege the students want to “suppress free speech in the name of equality.” There are other issues equal to free speech that universities cannot avoid. Students of color do live there, right inside the ironically titled ivory tower. As one student said to a professor, “This is our home! Don’t you get it?” So a second parallel issue is civility, suppressing at least some speech so that learning can occur—you can’t learn well if all the time you are angry, afraid, or hurt. I do recall that a certain university suppressed fraternity members who were publicly taunting female students about anal sex.

My family is tri-racial, but it is only the African American and Asian members, male and female (university graduates, incidentally) who have had police pistols pointed at them. Middle-class whites don’t understand the likely family history of Yale students of color, and the trauma that racist speech and other acts retrigger. To those defending ideas in the name of free speech: “nigger” is not an idea. Neither is blackface. Our realities are so divided. But this is our home! Don’t you get it?

Gerald Gray ’57
Albany, CA


Parents who teach their children that the world is not a safe place and that others cannot be trusted are bound to create emotionally fragile, angry, suspicious adults. Emotional abuse tears at the core of a child’s self-worth and sense of belonging. Children believe what they are told, and those beliefs color the way they see their world. What if children hear, “People hate you because of your race” or “The system won’t let you win because of who you are” from all of the important adults in their life? How will they perceive the world and the people around them?

It is safe to say that I know exactly how these children would perceive the world. I was raised by a paranoid schizophrenic who made me hide behind the couch whenever someone came to the door. I grew up believing that the utility man enjoyed turning off our power. I believed that auto inspection laws were implemented solely to oppress those of us who could not afford them. When my mother was thrown in prison for a two-dollar fine she could not pay, my suspicions were confirmed. Since we were white in a low-income area, I was also slapped, tripped, threatened, and sexually assaulted because of my race. Because of these experiences, I believed lies about myself and about the world. I became an easy target for bullies because I thought that people hated me—that I was an ugly, unlovable, despised victim. Every slight, real or imagined, reinforced my false beliefs. God and therapy have helped, but the damage was permanent.

Teaching children (or young adults) that they are hated victims of systematic oppression is not healthy. It is child abuse. It creates adults who parse every word or glance in ways that reinforce learned helplessness and despair. There is an entire generation of minority children being emotionally abused in this way, as recent events at Yale have shown. These words have power and they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you want to change the world, change the narrative. Tell all children—even Yale students—that they are eternally loved, that they are exquisitely beautiful, and that they can overcome any obstacle no matter what other people might say. Stop enabling child abuse at Yale.

A. F. Chai, MD
North Haven, CT


My father, James Clark Jr., was expelled from Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School along with several other young men in 1923 for writing and passing out pamphlets protesting the anti-Semitism of Yale’s fraternities. The other students were Jewish. My father was a poor white on a scholarship. He acted on principle, but he also knew from personal experience the prejudice at Yale, as it was directed at him for being a scholarship student of questionable social status. He told me that he could have been accepted into a fraternity but only on the understanding that he tutor the football players. He declined.

Several months after their expulsion, he and his fellow protesters were sent letters allowing them to return to Yale. Some did, he didn’t. He said it was a matter of pride. I didn’t ask then, but I assume now that although they were allowed to return, the injustice of anti-Semitism was not addressed.

What encourages me about the present protests at Yale is that although some of the university was offended by the protesters, no one in the Yale administration suggested silencing them or expelling them. In the almost hundred years since my father’s protest, there has been a change. In his Yale, to offend the authorities meant you were silenced and exiled, only to return if you were penitent (or acted as if you were).

The fact that the protesters wished to remove two faculty members saddens me, but I am hopeful that when the measures to educate the campus on racism takes place, tempers will have cooled and a civil dialogue will ensue without compromising the integrity of any of the participants. I am encouraged that Yale is agreeing to measures that will lead to a change of heart in the faculty and student body. You can change laws, but until you also change hearts and minds there will only be toleration—not real community. It is a difficult process but one that rewards all who take part.

Sarah Clark ’67MFA
Rockport, MA

More about “master”

The lamentable brouhaha swirling over use of the title “master” for the head of a residential college (Campus Clips, January/February) reminds me of the equally laughable but unfunny eddy of outrage over the word “niggardly” a few years ago. Both demonstrate the current lack of feeling for language, which perhaps is a hallmark of the age.

The word “master” (here cometh the lesson) derives from fusty old Latin “magister” from which we also get “majesty” and “maestro”—a word that in Spanish and Italian means “teacher” and is a highly deferential form of address, according great respect and even love. A word can have more than one use and one connotation. I’ll never forget when in fourth grade my family moved and I had to change schools. My teacher (mi maestra, as we referred to her) whom I left sweetly wrote me a letter and the envelope was addressed to “Master George Martin” (as I was called then). I had no idea what she meant calling me “Master,” but I learned that was the proper way to address a young man. Is a “headmaster” not in a way the “chief teacher”? So what gives with master of a college?

I missed the moment when Yale colleges became plantations and the master became “Massa.” Do students seriously view themselves as slaves at these colleges? I abhor this country’s history of slavery and believe it has not been adequately confronted or dealt with, and I too have qualms about Yale’s continuing associations with John C. Calhoun and what he ultimately stood for. But to abuse language in this battle and load words unnecessarily with undeserved connotations is like stabbing at a dragon with a toothpick.

Why are bright young Yale students working themselves up over something so insignificant and off the mark, and inadvertently trivializing their own great cause? In the battle for justice, is this the best use of our energy?

Every time an institution of higher learning caves in to such ignorance it loses a gem in its crown. That crown is currently full of holes and increasingly lacking luster. I’m dismayed Harvard and Princeton threw up their hands in surrender. So far, Yale has bravely used this as a learning opportunity. I hope it too does not cave in to pressure to do the wrong thing.

Jorge Martin ’81
Middlebury, VT


More political diversity?

Considering that the US electorate comprises approximately one-third liberal Democrats, one-third conservative Republicans, and one-third somewhere in the middle, the fact that 98 percent of political contributions by faculty members to federal candidates in the 2016 election cycle went to Democrats (Letters, January/February) is a statistical improbability unless there is a hiring bias on the part of the administration.

Considering the obsession of Yale with diversity in the student body, it would be well to consider an equal obsession with regard to more-balanced faculty political views. As it is, an accusation of leftist political indoctrination is easily supported.

McClellan G. Blair ’60
Indiana, PA


Ethics and organs

I am responding to the letter by two Yale Divinity School graduates who were, in their words, “surprised and shocked” by an advertisement in your magazine for a kidney donor (Letters, January/February). I feel compelled to do so because Bob Opatrny, the person who placed the ad, will be receiving one of my kidneys this month.

I will attempt to reply concisely:

1. It is my kidney. I can give it to whomever I choose, and I chose to give it to Bob.

2. Had I not seen Bob’s ad, I would not have even considered the possibility of donating one of my kidneys. Thus, there is now one more kidney in the available pool of kidneys, and none of your precious “many” awaiting transplants will be deprived of one because of my decision.

3. Have either of you ever spent any time on a dialysis machine? Donated one of your organs (and I don’t mean checking a box on your driver’s license application)? Try walking a mile in a man’s shoes before criticizing his actions.

4. When I first noticed it, the full-page ad was clearly a paid advertisement, and most likely was to most anyone else familiar with published media. I didn’t observe the least hint of a “blur” between the ad and editorializing.

So rather than reprimanding the magazine for not adhering to your own particular interpretation of social justice, let me suggest a different outlet for your energies. I know of at least two people who registered to offer their kidneys for donation years ago, and yet have never been contacted by any organization to follow up on their generous offers. With nearly half a million people on dialysis in the United States, it seems statistically unlikely that there hasn’t been a need for their kidneys. Thus, one could infer that the “national transplant program approved by Congress” mentioned in your letter clearly isn’t working. Maybe you should consider spending some effort at helping fix a dysfunctional system, rather than criticizing the efforts of someone who hasn’t been served by this system and is instead using a different approach to address his problem.

George Gagliardi ’79
Lexington, MA  


Fighting food truck waste

Crossing the road to the numerous food carts at Ingalls Rink (“Keep on Truckin’,” January/February) is a familiar and daily ritual for dozens of students at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES) who spend their time in Kroon Hall. The presence of the carts is not entirely positive, though, as anyone who has observed the spillover of foam containers in the nearby trash bins can attest.

Your article overlooked an important effort spearheaded by the FES Environmental Stewardship Committee (ESC) intended to reduce this cart-derived waste stream. For many years, the FES ESC has sold reusable clamshell containers to many food cart supporters at biannual sales. Staff members keep extra containers in their offices for guests in order to strengthen the culture of reuse rather than disposal here at FES. As we praise the growth of these hard-working cart vendors, we must also take a close look at the best way to manage the environmental implications of this type of food service. The FES ESC plans to partner with vendors to expand sales of reusable containers, an effort they have received very positively to date.

Kristin Qui ’17MEM
New Haven, CT

Define “alumnus”

As a member of the class of 1975 who worked hard to graduate Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude, with a BA with honors in English, and who paid lots of money during many years to be able to make this assertion, I am really annoyed that former vice president Richard Cheney keeps showing up in various publications, including the current issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine—when, in fact, he did not graduate in 1963, or in any year, from Yale College.

Please take Dick Cheney’s name off the roster for Yale College 1963. He did not graduate from Yale College. Ever.

Marsha Rabe ’75
Guilford, CT


The university counts everyone who has completed a semester at Yale as an alumnus/a. Among the qualifying nongraduates: J. Fenimore Cooper, Class of 1805; Julie Harris ’47Dra; Paul Newman ’54Dra; and Mark Rothko ’25Art. —Eds.


Memories jogged

It was a pleasure to read the tribute to G. Evelyn Hutchinson (“The Founder of Modern Ecology,” November/December). I had the good fortune to take his undergraduate course in ecology. One memorable aspect was a field trip, probably to Linsley Pond, to experience seasonal lake stratification, known as spring overturn, a phenomenon that greatly enhances the availability of oxygen in the bottom of a lake in temperate regions.

Another most fortuitous aspect of my Yale undergraduate experience was to do research in fish endocrinology at Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory under Grace Pickford, Hutchinson’s wife for a short time 20 years earlier. An outstanding scholar, Dr. Pickford wore her hair cropped short and customarily chose to dress in a shirt and khaki trousers. Tradition had it that she was once apprehended entering the women’s restroom at the medical school library.

Charles E. Burden ’55
Richmond, ME


I noted with interest a reference, in Judith Ann Schiff’s Old Yale column (“Building a Better Yalie,” January/February), to legendary swimming coach Bob Kiphuth. She relates that Bob was hired in 1914. I remember with pleasure participating in his daily informal fitness class in 1953–54 or so. While he held the class to keep his swimmers in shape, he invited the rest of us to join in. I used to attend, along with classmate Tom Briggs. Thanks for refreshing my memory on one of the great attributes of our Yale experience.

Christopher Knowlton ’54
Williamsburg, VA

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