Alumni Assembly and Convocation explores creating communities at Yale
Rahul Prasad, ’84 M.S., ’87 Ph.D., chair of the AYA Board of Governors, called the 77th Assembly of the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA) and the Yale Alumni Fund Convocation to order in the early morning of Nov. 16. He introduced President Salovey to open the conference with some remarks on the theme of this year’s Assembly and Convocation — “creating communities at Yale.”
“I am delighted that the theme for this year’s meetings is building community,” said Salovey, who emphasized that upon his inauguration four years ago, one of his top goals was “to create a more unified Yale.” He acknowledged the challenges that unifying an enterprise of this size and scope presents, paraphrasing Walt Whitman to say that the university “contains multitudes.”
Salovey underscored the importance of the residential college communities, the “signature strength of Yale College for over 80 years,” which he and Marvin Chun, dean of Yale College, work every day to improve and maintain. The university invests so much in the residential college system, Salovey explained, because “we know that an education extends beyond what is learned in the classroom.”
The president spoke about the many building projects currently under way — the new residential options for students in the law, divinity, and graduate schools; the groundbreaking on the latest additional to Yale’s Science Hill, which will be “the centerpiece of Yale’s historic investment in science”; and the continued addition to what he termed the “innovation corridor on Prospect Street and Hillhouse Avenue, complete with the brand new Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai City). These new buildings and dormitories will enhance existing communities while giving rise to exciting and unpredictable new ones, he said
Salovey concluded his remarks by saying, “I am so grateful for the tremendous dedication of the alumni community and the work they do on behalf of the Yale community.”
The day’s program began with two panel discussions: “Maintaining Communities Within a Community” and “Creating New Communities at Yale.”
“Maintaining Communities Within a Community”
Weili Cheng, executive director of the AYA, introduced the panel of four Yale deans and their moderator, Kimberly Goff-Crews, university secretary and vice president for student life.
“All of you are here because you are alumni leaders,” Goff-Crews said. “You represent your constituencies and lead your communities.” She outlined the vision for student experience across Yale: “Students at all schools within Yale will have an experience that is holistic and similar to each other.”
A few years ago, Goff-Crews said, she and the deans of the schools identified the categories that should be supported and maximized for all Yale students: the academic experience, creative practice, intellectual curiosity, personal growth, university commitment, and ethical conduct. Since this resolution to standardize and improve all student life, the administration has launched advisory committees to improve campus life.
These committees are already producing tangible results, she said. For example, in the area of mental health resources. Goff-Crews noted that while on average colleges nationwide have a 1:1000 ration of mental health professionals to students, Yale has brought its own down to 1:450 in just the past few years. In addition, the Yale Well initiative was launched and with it 50 “peer wellness champions” were trained and stationed across the schools to serve as resources to their peers on topics of wellbeing and mental health. Finally, Goff-Crews highlighted pilot programs being conducted in Silliman College by Head of Silliman Laurie Santos and through the Center for Emotional Intelligence — both focusing on happiness, wellbeing, and mindfulness and how they impact overall student health. She said she hopes both will be transferrable to the broader Yale community if they prove to be successes.
Goff-Crews then introduced the four deans — of the College, the Graduate School, the School of Music, and the School of Public Health — who each described the subset of the Yale community for which they are responsible.
School of Public Health
“Public health is what jumps off the morning newspaper,” began Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH). “Emerging infections, chronic diseases, opioid epidemic, obesity epidemic — all of these are examples of public health problems.”
YSPH, however, is concerned with the more complex aspect of public health: the future-thinking facet, he said. “How do we convey prevention? How do we predict the future and make investments now to avoid illness later?” said Vermund. “In other words, how we can make an investment of one dollar today to save 20 tomorrow?” He said that although considering prevention is not intuitive, it is YSPH’s primary focus.
Vermund described the full extent of the interdisciplinary work among the School of Public Health and Yale’s medical and nursing schools. YSPH creates a web in the Yale community that touches everything from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies to Engineering to Divinity to, in the most recent collaboration, Architecture, he said. In collaboration with Dean Deborah Berke, the Schools of Architecture and Public Health have just submitted their first joint grant for work that brings together issues of public health and the built environment. Additionally, they are developing a certificate program in public health specifically for architects.
For Vermund, though, Yale is only one community that YSPH reaches out to. It has community constituencies in the general public, primary care providers and health workers, community leaders, key at-risk populations, and even the international development sector.
Vermund reemphasized the YSPH commitment to prevention, even on the global community scale. “I like to remind people that when you’re working in global health, it’s one thing to convince the minister of health that something’s important,” he said, “but it’s another thing to convince the minister of finance. And without the minister of finance, you’re going nowhere.”
He listed some of the local initiatives YSPH is committed to: CARE (Community Alliance for Research and Engagement) in partnership with Southern Connecticut State University; CIRA (Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS) at Yale; the CDC-funded Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in partnership with Griffin Hospital in Derby, Connecticut; the YSPH Day of Service, in which the majority of public health masters students volunteer for the day; and masters student projects and internships at various organizations and levels of community.
“In public health, we are inherently grounded in the community,” concluded Vermund, and he thanked the YSPH alumni for their continued advice and support.
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
“As President Salovey mentioned, one of the main missions of a great university like ours is to advance knowledge, to improve the world,” said Lynn Cooley, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). “I would argue that the graduate students are the main engine of progress here. Our students create new ideas, technologies, and preventions.”
Currently, the GSAS has over 60 degree programs, in which 2,792 Ph.D. students and 244 master’s degree students are working. “One way to think of the graduate school is that our community is really everywhere at Yale,” said Cooley, pointing out that GSAS has students stationed in all three physical sectors of campus: the medical school, West Campus, and central campus. “The graduate students are literally everywhere,” she said.
“In one sense, they’re contributing to the greater Yale community every day,” she added, “but in another sense, their being so dispersed makes it challenging to develop a centralized graduate student community.”
Nonetheless, the GSAS students now have an expanded and updated central meeting place in the McDougal Center, which has relocated from the Hall of Graduate Studies to Founders Hall at the former site of the School of Management. Cooley said, “We’re calling it the McDougal Center 2.0, and having just opened in September, it is already crowded and vibrant, filled with students going there from all over campus to study and meet up.”
Additionally, the GSAS has another new space to look forward to, she noted. New graduate student housing is quickly rising on Elm Street above the storefront that will be an L.L. Bean. “They’re already calling it the ‘L.L. Bean dorm,’” said Cooley to laughter from the audience. This new housing will replace the dormitory space in the Hall of Graduate Studies, which itself is undergoing a metamorphosis. In the renovated 320 York St. building humanities graduate students “will have working space and community space there like they’ve never had before,” said Cooley, while GSAS students in STEM will have a similar meeting place at the new science building, which is being constructed on Science Hill.
In regards to additional spaces that would foster more student extracurricular life, “we are also very excited about the Schwarzman Center, a project for all students at Yale,” added Cooley. “The planning committee was populated by students from all the schools within Yale. There will be a space within the Schwarzman Center just for graduate students, but the theme of the Schwarzman Center is to bring together all students.”
Like Vermund, Cooley ended on a note of gratitude for the dedication of alumni. She specifically called out the GSAS alumni-organized annual event, “Where do I go from Yale?” day, which has alumni sharing insights with current students who are “trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up.”
“Our communities are what make Yale strong,” said Marvin Chun, the new dean of Yale College. “The strength of our communities is really what separates us from our peer institutions.”
“Particularly in the case of Yale College, I’m a huge believer in the strength of our residential college communities,” he said. “Every undergraduate student who comes here is part of many different groups — their major, their singing group, their athletic team — and yet the central community for each student is their residential college. If you don’t have this central community as a base for your life in college, there is a propensity for self-segregation, fragmentation. By having a group of very different students eat and live together, the residential college system gives students the opportunity to learn from peers who have different interests, backgrounds, and aspirations from themselves. I really believe that Yale College does the residential college system better than any of our peer institutions.”
Chun expressed excitement about new communities forming within Yale College — both within the two new majors, Statistics and Data Science and Neuroscience, as well as within the two new residential colleges, Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin. “The new residential colleges are uplifting campus morale and energizing the place,” he said. “They opened up smoothly and on time, and already have a strong sense of community thanks to the leadership of transferred upper-level students and the heads of college, Tina Lu and Charles Bailyn.”
Chun said he’s had a great first four months as dean of Yale College, and that one of the most delightful parts of being a new dean has been “learning about alumni interest and engagement.”
School of Music
Robert Blocker, the dean of the School of Music and the longest-serving dean on the panel, opened his remarks with an observation about the space where the assembly was being held. “Sprague was placed at the center of campus to be a place where music could be advanced by this community.”
“As I look over the musical enterprise at Yale,” Blocker reflected, “I continue to be amazed by the fact that over 35% of Yale students continue to be engaged in some sort of musical activity — from a singing group to a bluegrass group to a jazz group to a choir.”
For Blocker, the entire purpose of his school is to foster community. “Music is the common language,” he said. “In this school, we have only 200 majors, and 40% of those are international students. Their language barriers are overcome by the universal language of music … and what the music enterprise does for Yale, it tries to do for the larger world as well: to bring hope. Music is the currency of hope.”
Blocker explained that they don’t just expect to produce excellent professional musicians — in fact, that is what the School of Music expects of them upon arrival at Yale — but instead, “We want our graduates to be cultural leaders. We want them to repair the world. That’s why the presidents of Julliard, the New England Conservatory, and the University of Richmond are all Yale School of Music graduates. That’s why any number of deans and professors are Yale School of Music graduates.”
Within the Yale community, the School of Music does interdisciplinary work, provides practical instruction to undergraduates, and encourages mutually respectful relationships between the students and staff who maintain the music facilities. It streams performances from Sprague to the larger world and also streams the Metropolitan Opera for student consumption — making Yale the only university to do so, he noted.
“We are a small school with a very large public window,” Blocker said.
In conclusion, Block noted that at the Yale School of Music, the new Adams Center at Hendrie Hall “already has students running into each other” to converse, play, collaborate, and, most importantly, care together.”
“Creating New Communities at Yale’
For the second session of the Assembly and Convocation, a panel of directors of new university initiatives convened to discuss the formation of new communities within Yale.
This second panel included the directors of the Wright Laboratory, the Office of International Affairs and Scholars, the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai City), and the Office of LGBTQ Resources. It was moderated by Charles Bailyn, head of Franklin College and former inaugural dean of faculty for Yale-NUS in Singapore.
Discussing his experience creating brand-new community at Yale-NUS, Bailyn said he could distill the process of community-formation into two steps. “First, you have a vision, an idea of what you want to accomplish, and second, you have to figure out how to implement that vision given the local circumstances.”
He talked about creating community via architectural choices for the dorms at Yale-NUS. Traditionally at Yale, entryways in buildings create communities within the residential college community, he noted, populations of a few dozen who regularly passes each other on the stairs. However, in Singapore, due to land constrains, they had to build up instead of out, which made traditional entryways an architectural impossibility. But, said Bailyn, there was a brilliant alternative.
They designed the vertical dorms to have the elevators stop only on every third floor, and on those third floors, they built common rooms. Therefore, students from those floors above and below had to pass each other as they moved through their residential space on a daily basis. This is how NUS very literally built in an important aspect of community for its students, noted Bailyn.
Under the leadership of Karsten Heeger, the new Wright Laboratory is now in operation. Housed in the refurbished space that used to hold the nuclear accelerator, Wright Lab is a state-of-the-art facility that encompasses various science applications.
“As a scientist, my professional community is worldwide, but as a teacher, my community is much more local,” he said, noting that Wright Lab will serve as a “home base” for this more local community. According to Heeger, Wright Lab is a place for individuals to come together under a “shared understanding of science.” Heeger explained that “the Wright Lab is an example of how research, learning, and education can be combined” in one place.
“What may not be obvious all the time is that science is a social activity,” said Heeger. “The way we make discoveries is discussing ideas and to discuss ideas, we need to have places that bring people together.” Bringing people and their ideas together under one roof is what Wright Lab is hoping to accomplish, he noted.
Office of International Students and Scholars
Unlike Heeger who described his community as a group defined by a shared understanding, Ann Kulhman, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS), has to define her community by a legal parameter, she said: International students and scholars at Yale are, officially, “individuals who come to Yale on non-immigrant visas.”
As a community, they are over 6,000 strong and represent 120 different countries. “About 21% of all our students are international,” said Kulhman, inspiring an audible gasp. “That breaks down to 11% in Yale College, 30% to 40% in the graduate school, and 40% in the School of Music.” This does not even capture the many international scholars and researchers Yale hires annually who also become part of the university community, she noted.
Kulhman explained that much of the work OISS engages with is visa and immigration compliance. Their primary goal, she said, is to make sure all international students and scholars are legally able to continue studying and working here.
That said, she added, “Yale has paid lots of attention to creating student life for this community.” Some of this is programming for cultural competence, she said, noting that for many years now, they’ve offered the popular “Understanding America” series out of their office.
Additionally, OISS organizes fun outings to neighboring Connecticut towns and points of interest the international students and scholars might not be able to get to otherwise, due to limitations on driving and other such practical hindrances.
Kulhman predicted that the international student and scholar population will both grow in numbers and continue to receive strong support from the university administration.
Andrew McLaughlin, executive director of Tsai City (Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale), introduced himself as the start-up, investor guy “who’s back at Yale to justify it all.”
“I’d spent years moaning to Yale about how seldom Yale students came to start ups, how I never got to convince investors to fund the projects and ideas of Yale alums,” said Laughlin, “and, eventually, they invited me to come fix that problem.”
McLaughlin says that it’s already evident to him that there is much student interest and energy around innovation and entrepreneurship. His vision for Tsai City is that it will support much more than the traditional for-profit startups. He believes Tsai City can provide valuable training and skills to any students interested in launching non-profits, spurring affect activism, or even very broadly engaging in solving “real-world problems.”
Tsai City is already hosting a variety of programming, including an intensive program that takes students through the process of prototyping their product. “Yale students are very good at talking about their ideas and presenting them,” said McLaughlin, “but they are weaker at prototyping, taking that next step.” He announced that Tsai City will be soliciting support from alumni mentors in industry to help students realize these ideas in the upcoming cycles of intensive prototyping.
At Tsai City, community-building is evolving as its programming evolves, he said, taking the start-up approach towards shaping their offerings: testing out all the good ideas and seeing what sticks.
Office of LGBTQ
For Maria Trumpler, director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources, her new community space has been a long time coming. As of this fall, the Office of LGBTQ Resources exists on the first floor of the old School of Management Building, directly below the new graduate student McDougal Center. “It means a lot to have a space on campus that reflects this point of identity for people who study, teach, work, and do research at Yale,” said Trumpler.
Trumpler described the evolution of support for the LGBTQ community at Yale: “In the 1960s, gay and lesbian groups began to pop up on campus. At that time, these groups were mostly there as support networks, something inward-facing and there primarily to serve the undergraduate students who were a part of them. Then, in the early 1980s, the students started to turn those organizations outwards and work on outward-facing goals like raising broader community awareness.”
However, the LGBTQ community at Yale exists beyond the scope of the undergraduate community and that fact was not reflected in the resources available, according to Trumpler. That is how she convinced Yale that an Office of LGBTQ Resources was a necessity, that Yale needed a place and a support system not only for undergraduate students but also for graduate and professional students, researchers, faculty, and staff.
In 2007, Trumpler and the LGBTQ Office got the administration’s go-ahead to claim a physical space on campus, but when the recession hit the next year, Yale halted any new building projects. To make do while they still did not have a room of their own, Trumpler and her colleagues got custom mugs printed that read on one side “The Office of LGBTQ Resources” and on the other “Queer Tea.” She explained that community can arise from shared experience as much as shared space, and sharing hot beverages could still give people in the LGBTQ community at Yale a reason to come together.
Now, in 2017, the office has this “beautiful” new space built for both drop-in community and facilitated programming, a space complete with a lounge, kitchen, and place to screen movies. The Office of LGBTQ resources is open from noon until 10 p.m. every day for any Yale community members to drop by, make “Queer Tea,” and enjoy conversation together, she noted.
In response to an audience member’s question, Trumpler explained that the Office of LGBTQ Resources might be what some media would call “a safe space,” although she said she does not use that term. She said that it is a place for free discourse and expression, too.
“We do assume that everyone who comes into the Office of LGBTQ resources will respect the other individuals there, for disagreement feels possible in a space where you are fundamentally respected for who you are, and you’re then able to disagree about some pretty important things.”
Also at the Assembly and Convocation
The two-day Assembly and Convocation also included breakout sessions, receptions, dinners, tours, and an address by President Peter Salovey about the state of the university.
Special awards were also presented during the event. These included:
The AYA’s highest honor, the Yale Medal, was presented to five alumni who have made outstanding service to the university. This year’s honorees were Anne Boucher '80; Kenneth D. Inadomi '76; Charles B. Johnson '54; Randolph M. Nelson '85; and Linus Travers '58, '59 M.A.T. (See related story.)
The Yale-Jefferson Awards for Public Service, which this year went to Linda Spoonster Schwartz ’84 M.S. YSN, ’98 YSPH for her work on behalf of veterans; J.T. Flowers ’17 (who was unable to attend the ceremony) for his work with A Leg Even, an association for low-income, first-generation students at Yale; and law student Sameer Jaywant for his work using law and politics to build a more tolerant and diverse society that values civic engagement, human rights, and the rule of law. See related story.
In addition, the Yale Alumni Fund recognized fundraising volunteers. See related story.