Letters to the Editor

Letters: July/August 2018

Readers respond about women in the Whiffenpoofs, 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.

Brodhead on Yale, past and present

I enjoyed Richard Brodhead’s essay (“How Higher Education Has Changed. And How It Hasn’t,” May/June), and I certainly appreciate his service to Yale. However, I do disagree with one of his points about Yale admissions in the early 1960s. I spent the 1962–63 school year at Yale as an assistant director of admissions before returning to Duke Law School the next fall. I was a graduate of a public high school in Monessen, Pennsylvania, and, as my father was a locomotive engineer in a steel mill, a substantial amount of financial aid was required for me to attend Yale.

During my year at the admissions office, I saw no signs of any quotas, racial, religious, or otherwise. In fact, one admissions officer visited segregated black high schools in the South, and several of us visited public high schools that had never sent a graduate to Yale. The Class of 1967 that we admitted was the first class to have a majority of public high school graduates. I recall celebrating that accomplishment with my fellow public high school graduate and fellow admissions officer Inky Clark ’57 (later the dean of admissions) when the work of the admissions office was completed in the spring of 1963. I was not at Yale when the Class of 1967 actually matriculated, but when the class was admitted we believed that history had been made.

William H. Lear ’61
Palm Desert, CA


For a man who was present at Yale and Duke in senior decision-making roles, Brodhead takes no personal responsibility for the negative things that have happened on campus over his 50 years in academe. Does he like what he sees: the suppression of free speech, the lack of intellectual diversity among the students and a 90-percent-liberal faculty, the resort to quotas to achieve heterogeneity that leaves some matriculants ill prepared to succeed?

Regardless, the defining moment of Brodhead’s career was his rush to judgment to condemn the Duke lacrosse players in 2006–07. He was the president of Duke at the time and infamously stood with the faculty, students, law enforcement, and the media against the accused in a case of flagrantly presumed guilt.

Yes, he apologized. But wouldn’t you have thought that, instead of spilling so much ink celebrating the New Yale at the expense of the Old, he might have ruminated at least a little bit on what the experience taught him personally? Yet not a word. Very disappointing.

Scott W. Herstin ’69
Naples, FL


Women and the Whiffs

I am always amazed when The Simpsons’ Montgomery Burns, Class of 1914, puts in an appearance on the pages of the Yale Alumni Magazine to decry some modernizing offense that the young whippersnappers have perpetrated. In this case, using aliases from later classes, he laments the feminization of the Whiffenpoofs (Letters, May/June).

The amount of misinformation in the two letters is impressive. Here are a few points. Female and male vocal ranges overlap by an octave or more. The death-defyingly high first-tenor parts in the Whiff songbook can easily be sung by altos. Even sopranos have those notes, though their upper range might go unused for the year. Differences in vocal sound have decreased over the decades as a breathier, more microphone-focused sound has become popular. There has been a trade-off: less macho Student Prince chest voice singing and more Gene Puerling–influenced dense but well-tuned chord crooning. 

The newer groups can sing the most gorgeous and intensely difficult charts. And they dance. As Heraclitus teaches, the only thing constant in life is change. Indeed, what the two letters show most sharply is a lack of having heard how singing has changed over the decades.

As for increasing their standing with the ladies, the move to accept females in the Whiffenpoofs reflects something more profound than the old style of road trips to Smith, and sexist songs like “Minnie the Mermaid” and “Aphrodite.” It is about justice. And about treating singing colleagues with respect. And about equal opportunity. The Whiffenpoofs are Yale’s singing ambassadors to the world. What does it say, five decades after coeducation, that Yale would still send an all-male group to represent us? What is amazing is that it didn’t happen long ago. There is still room for Whim ’n Rhythm—who did, by the way, hear auditions from male applicants; none were selected.

Dear Mr. Burns—recall the wisdom of Heraclitus. The only options are to accept change gracefully or shout, “Get off my lawn!” Unless of course you intend to tell Smithers to release the hounds.

Richard Slade ’80
New Rochelle, NY


Oh, Yale Alumni Magazine: I will never understand why you published not just one, but two letters to the editor mourning the end of the Whiffenpoofs as an all-male group. My dudes! It’s 2018! Personally, singing in the Yale Glee Club was one of the brightest joys of my time at Yale. This is despite the fact that even then, in 2010, we would hear from elderly alumni that the chorus sounded so much better when it was all men.

I am sure that these same old men were outraged when Yale welcomed women just 50 years ago, crying that “a great tradition has come to end” even then. Instead of wasting more words on them, I’ll just say, to the young people of the Whiffenpoofs and Whim who made this decision, bravo! This is not about sound, but about access and power. You stand courageous, not cowardly as the letter writers would have you believe. And you know that our voices are even better together.

Molly Perkins ’10
Cambridge, MA


Another kind of Yale woman

Regarding your most recent “From the Editor” column (“The Year of Women,” May/June): in 1969, I was a 19-year-old woman recently married to a Yale student and began my senior year at Yale as a so-called “special student,” one who was married to a Yale student or teacher. I took a full course load, and my grades were sent back to my original college, from which I graduated. I never really met the new 1969 women, as they were not in the upper-level classes, and I lived off campus. It was a very awkward year. Everyone was polite, but no student or professor ever really talked to me, and I was never part of the Yale College community at all.

The next year I moved on to the Yale School of Medicine for the most joyous and stimulating years of my life. I still lived off campus, but now I was welcomed as part of a group of friends, lab partners, library crammers, and ward novices. I was utterly happy. I have been proud ever since to say that I was a Yalie and have been involved with Yale for many years. 

When I think back on that sad senior year, when I was the only girl in all of my classes, I think that this was awkward for the other students as well. These memories are replaced now by the years in the medical school, which were so fantastic. Though I am not one of the pioneer women of 1969 being interviewed for next year’s anniversary, I was a part of Yale as well.

Amy Starr ’74MD
New York, NY


The day Scully got tenure

Reading your many moving tributes to the late Vincent Scully ’40, ’49PhD (“In Awe of the Power and the Beauty,” January/February), I wish to recall an unusually memorable encounter. We were never close, he 11 years my senior, but both being young, with related interests, it seemed inevitable that we could be unusually frank with one another. I was also very fond of his most sympathetic first wife Nancy, and with the spirited, lovable three sons from that marriage.

One day, I happened to be in the art history department, filing photographs as part of a bursary job, when Vince came along in an unusually elated mood. He rushed over in an uncharacteristically confidential manner to say that he had just received tenure. Of course, I congratulated him, but I could not contain my amazement when he went right on to say, “That’ll show those sons of bitches!”

This passionate qualifier made Vince’s views of his senior colleagues abundantly clear. (Almost all of them were 1930s Yale College grads, including George Heard Hamilton, George Kubler, and Charles Seymour Jr. The whole department seemed either independently wealthy or had married so as to guarantee that state.) “But Vince, if you feel that way,” I said, “why would you want to stay here?”

He gave me an atypically contemptuous gaze, followed by the withering remark: “Colin, you just don’t understand. I love Yale.” Until very recently I failed to understand just how one could separate colleagues from college. How could he raise so ravishingly bardic a voice (his mother was a singer) to bring successive student generations so generous an epiphany—revealing the secrets of the nature of the shingle style, the Acropolis, Fallingwater, or Navajo architecture—while harboring such hatred for his senior colleagues?

Today, at 86, I finally follow the truth and insight of Vince’s passionate words, spoken so long ago, when they fell on the deaf ears of this then-young refugee for whom blind love could contain nothing but danger and denial. Not only had I dared question, but worse yet, I had failed to understand the pure nature of Vince’s true romance.

Colin Eisler ’52
New York, NY


The history of hacking

In Alan Wechsler’s article about a hackathon at Yale (“Get With the Programming,” March/April), he states that, according to the Wikipedia article on hackathons, the first organized hacking contest occurred in 1999. But this is misleading, because the Wikipedia article actually says that 1999 was merely the first “usage” of the term “hackathon.”

For example, an annual conference popular among the first generation of Apple Macintosh programmers, of which I was one, was known as MacHack. According to its own Wikipedia article, that conference lasted 20 years, from 1986 to 2005. Essentially a small-scale “hackathon,” it was an intense, multi-day, 24-hour-per-day affair. And each year it included a highly anticipated hacking contest, albeit with disincentives for “useful” hacks. In 1994, I won its Best Hack award.

The thing is, the hacks so many of us worked on may not have been considered useful at the time. Yet some were proof-of-concepts that subsequently evolved into computer behavior that nowadays is ubiquitous, such as smooth-scrolling displays exhibiting simulated momentum, or windows zipping about the computer’s screen along various animated paths. The idea was to create some computer behavior that no one had ever seen before and that still made some kind of logical/visual sense—simply to be a cool programmer circumventing conventions or limitations, as well as to be amusing, beautiful, etc.

Such hacks are like certain mathematical proofs. Arcane and seemingly useless when discovered, but suddenly practical in some later future. So I think the idea that Yale’s “hackathon” has to be only in the service of demonstrable and immediate usefulness should not sit well with anyone interested in all flavors of creativity.

Onward, into the fog . . .

Doug McKenna ’76, ’78MS
Boulder, CO

The comment period has expired.