Listening, learning, leading: Salovey and Holloway speak to alumni delegates

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President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway told the alumni delegates that free speech and diversity should not be in conflict at the university. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

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The issues of race, diversity, free speech, and inclusion can make for complicated and often difficult conversations. Yale President Peter Salovey told nearly 500 Yale alumni leaders on Nov. 20 that he is ready to have those conversations on a national level and he is ready to have Yale take a lead on these powerful issues underlying a movement taking place across the nation, at Yale and other college campuses.

“Why not lead that conversation in a way that’s respectful, thoughtful, and that reflects how a university should lead,” said Salovey, who spoke along with Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway at the annual assembly of the Yale alumni. “This is an important opportunity, and I think we should seize it.”

Part of establishing that leadership position, the President and Dean noted, was taking the time to listen to all students and faculty as students organized rallies, a march for resilience, and a teach-in to address issues of race on campus. Holloway said the situation on campus was fluid, and he and Salovey thought it was important to listen and learn before announcing what steps would be taken.

While reaffirming support for Yale students, Salovey also reaffirmed his defense of free speech by citing the 1974 Woodward Report on Free Expression, which outlines Yale’s bedrock policy that expression of all kinds is tolerated at Yale, and there is no exception for controversial issues. Salovey stressed that free speech at Yale is not in jeopardy, and that free speech and diversity should not be issues in conflict.

Watch videos of the President’s and Dean’s talk with alumni

“Expression of all kind is tolerated on this campus even when it offends us, even when it disgusts us, even when we disagree with it strongly,” he said. “The way to deal with such speech that offends us is with our speech. All should be allowed to listen to the views of others.”

The pair recounted the difficult, but necessary conversations they both had in the past weeks with students, faculty, and alumni about these issues at Yale.

“This was not a moment about not getting into a party or a controversial email. It was about something deeper and more vital.”

— Dean Jonathan Holloway

“It was a thing of beauty,” Holloway said as he described the teach-in attended by hundreds of undergraduates, graduate and professional students, faculty, and staff. “They marched to say, ‘This is our Yale also. We belong also.’ It was a civil, peaceful articulation that Yale was capacious enough to handle all of our views. That’s Yale at its finest.”

Salovey and Holloway joined the students at the teach-in, and the leaders and students spent three hours educating one another. “We heard students talk about ways to look forward,” Holloway said. “This was not a moment about not getting into a party or a controversial email. It was about something deeper and more vital.” Students across the country are expressing frustration and speaking about not belonging at their respective institutions. We all need to listen.”

Salovey said that that there is a very real sense among underrepresented students that they experience acts toward them that are discriminatory and hurtful. “I think it happens in the world, and it happens on campuses,” he said. “I think it’s very real, and I think we should try to grapple with it. Students are not unrealistic about it. They simply say, ‘We just want to get the same kind of education that everybody else does. We feel like we don’t belong.’ These are members of our community simply saying, ‘We don’t want to be excluded. We want to be part of things.’”

“I view this not as something we should be running from or spinning, but rather as an opportunity for Yale to show the kind of leadership that we show on all issues,” the President added. “We should be in front of this national conversation and in creating campuses where everyone who comes feels like they belong, gets a great education, and has an enriching social experience regardless of their background before coming to Yale.”

Holloway spoke from his perspectives as an administrator, as a historian who studied civil rights and is currently teaching a lecture course on post-emancipation African-American history, and as a black man who had experienced some of the same things when he was an undergraduate.

“I knew intellectually the kinds of slights [the students have] endured were familiar to me when I was in college,” he said. “Things have gotten radically better, but the fact is that at an interpersonal level, it is still quite difficult to be a person from a marginalized community. I know for a fact that those of you who were in the first class of women at Yale know exactly what I’m talking about. You had to navigate a lot of things that the men did not have to navigate.”

Holloway also said that as privileged as he is to be the first black dean of Yale College, having privilege and resources doesn’t mean anything when you step into certain situations. “Part of me has to wonder if I’m pulled over what might happen. That is the reality of my life. I don’t say it to complain, but people need to understand that the undergraduate experience in its own way reflects that kind of reality. It’s historical: it’s not new, but it’s personal and it’s real. That’s what we’ve been hearing over these last few weeks.”

The President urged the alumni to participate in the conversations about belonging and inclusion. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Holloway expressed pride in the steps the university announced it would take in a series of messages to the community. Salovey reaffirmed that the Christakises would continue as master and associate master of Silliman College, and also announced a variety of actions that Yale can put into motion immediately. Those actions reflect input from student groups, faculty groups, alumni, and parents. He noted that a center for the academic study of race and ethnicities had been discussed since 2009. Others are newer ideas that Salovey thinks are appropriate at this moment.

Before taking questions from the audience on everything from naming the new residential colleges to renaming Calhoun College, Salovey encouraged the alumni to engage on the issues of belonging and inclusion.

“Yale deserves your participation in this conversation,” he said.

See more stories from AYA Assembly LXXV

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Media Contact

Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326