A college friend of mine posts on Facebook: "I'm old enough to remember when Yale Masters could physically assault students and get away with it."
There was a tradition at Yale called the Coalition of Midnight Assholes: During exam week, students from the Jonathan Edwards residential college would rampage late at night through rival Branford College, making as much noise as possible.
Students in Branford, studying or resting for exams, thought this was unacceptable. Stephen Smith, master of Branford College, agreed.
In May 2006, when the Assholes came through the main college courtyard and raised a ruckus outside Smith's house, the master leapt out of the bushes brandishing a whiffle ball bat and demanded they shut the hell up. They didn't.
One of the Assholes had a megaphone. Master Smith tried to yank the megaphone out of the student's hand, but it was duct-taped to his arm. Smith wound up dragging the student across the ground.
There was a day or two of outrage. The Yale Police Department investigated. Ultimately, Master Smith apologized to the student, and that, so far as most of campus was concerned, was that.
My college friend told that story to suggest that Yale students were far less sensitive in those days. But it reminded me that in those days, a college master was willing to lay his hands on somebody for disturbing his students.
Two weekends ago, a Yale fraternity was accused of turning away women of color at the door of a party. According to the women, the fraternity bouncer told them the event was for "white girls only."
On Halloween, the university administration sent out an email asking students to be considerate in their choice of Halloween costumes. The associate master of Yale's Silliman College wrote a critical response.
Following these incidents, students of color began a protest that's lasted more than a week. On Monday, hundreds of students held a March for Resilience, carrying signs that said "YOUR MOVE YALE." Students have confronted and yelled at the master of Silliman College and demanded his resignation (in addition to a wide-ranging list of other demands for racial justice). They've surrounded the first black dean of Yale's undergrad campus, who's also an African-American studies professor, and tearfully demanded why he wasn't speaking out.
For many observers, the protests symbolize everything that's wrong with liberal college students in 2015. Students are "freaking out over an email." They were particularly appalled by an op-ed in the Yale Herald over the weekend; the Herald pulled the story off its website when it realized how much national attention it was getting.
This is the line that critics seized on:
I don't want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.
I do not want to defend the student protests. I don't want to adjudicate whether or not the frat party incident really happened, or whether the associate master's email was offensive.
To understand what's going on at Yale right now, you need to understand the legacy of racism at Yale, at other colleges, at any American institution. But that's a story other people can tell better than I can.
I want to talk about betrayal.
Life at Yale, according to the university's self-image, consists of two complimentary parts: academic life and life in a residential college.
From the admissions website:
"Yale's residential college system is perhaps the most distinctive feature of undergraduate life here."
"Far more than dormitories, Yale's residential colleges have been called 'little paradises,' each with its own distinctive architecture, courtyard, dining hall, and library as well as activity spaces such as a movie theater, recording studio, printing press, dance studio, and gym.
"With their resident deans and masters, legendary intramural sports teams, Master's Teas hosting world leaders, and spirit of allegiance and community, Yale's residential colleges provide an unparalleled undergraduate experience."
The very first selling point: "residential masters and deans." The master and dean of each college live full-time in the college itself; the "master's house" is often opened to the college for events.
From the website again:
"According to Dean of Yale College and former Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway, an important part of what makes the residential colleges 'home' is that 'adults live alongside the students, celebrating their successes and helping them navigate their challenges.'"
"A Master and Dean oversee each residential college, setting the cultural tone and atmosphere of the college. The Master of each college is responsible for its academic, intellectual, social, athletic, and artistic life. Masters work with students to shape each residential college community, bringing their own distinct social, cultural, and intellectual influences to the colleges. "
The dean is the academic adviser for the college's students. The master is in charge of its distinctive student life. He or she is the guardian of the students' "home."
It's become common for colleges to sell themselves to prospective students on the promise of expensive facilities, being cared for, and having fun — what pundits have called "$50,000-a-year summer camp." To the extent that the residential college system is a variation on college-as-summer-camp — and in large part I think it is — that's something Yale has been doing for a long time, and it's deeply rooted in the undergraduate institution.
It is ordinary enough to find advertisements making promises that products don't deliver. But most products don't cost so much or take up four years of a life. It makes sense that consumers would call a company to task for truth in advertising.
From a Medium post by a current Yale undergraduate:
The protests are not really about Halloween costumes or a frat party. They're about a mismatch between the Yale we find in admissions brochures and the Yale we experience every day. They're about real experiences with racism on this campus that have gone unacknowledged for far too long.
Each residential college at Yale has a dining hall. On most days, any student on the dining plan can eat in the dining hall of any college. But in many of the colleges, Sundays are the exception.
The policy is called "family night."
From the op-ed in the Yale Herald:
My dad is a really stubborn man. We debate all the time, and I understand the value of hearing differing opinions. But there have been times when I have come to my father crying, when I was emotionally upset, and he heard me regardless of whether or not he agreed with me. He taught me that there is a time for debate, and there is a time for just hearing and acknowledging someone's pain.
No one talks anymore about Tom Wolfe's 2004 college novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, probably because it isn't very good. But I was a high school senior in 2004, and I read it when it came out.
In 689 pages, I Am Charlotte Simmons manages exactly one insight into 21st-century college life: Throughout much of the book's second half, one or more of its central characters is in extreme mental distress. But the university is indifferent. It goes on around them, busy and massive. The university has plenty of mental health resources available, but these students fall through the cracks.
The challenge of mental health crises is that the people going through them are the ones least likely to seek help on their own. Sometimes they're in denial. Sometimes they know, but feel for precisely this reason that they are incapable of doing anything about it. It's hard to make an appointment, to show up on time, much less admit to a stranger that you're in trouble and need help. You're certainly never going to seek help, and make yourself vulnerable, to any institution you already distrust.
This is true no matter how old you are.
Seeking help isn't as stigmatized as it used to be; "figure it out on your own" isn't acceptable advice to someone struggling with her mental health anymore. We are encouraged to trust institutions to care for us and help us when we find ourselves mentally fragile.
This is true no matter how old you are, too.
My freshman year at Yale, just before going home for Thanksgiving, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek list of ways in which I was, and was not, Charlotte Simmons. The feeling of unnoticed distress, the ease of falling between the cracks, was under "yes."
Neither the frat party controversy nor the Halloween email controversy is about mental health, per se.
In the wake of those incidents, students of color have enumerated the ways in which they feel let down by the university. Mental health support is named often.
The residential college was supposed to make the impersonal university personal. That mattered the most when students were struggling.
I never felt more defective, as a Yale student, than when I was walking through my college courtyard at 3 in the afternoon after sleeping most of the day, having skipped all my classes and half of my meals. I had to keep my head down and my earbuds in to avoid seeing anyone in my residential college — particularly the master or dean.
I knew it was supposed to be easier to turn to the administrators of my college for help than anyone else. But I didn't have a relationship to them as individuals, or to the college as a whole. I assumed that was my fault, that I'd missed the point of the residential college to begin with.
Every time I thought I ought to ask for the help I needed, I was choked with guilt that my college wasn't home to me. The very thought that it should have been easier to seek help there than anywhere made it harder.
Also from the Yale Herald student op-ed:
Christakis hasn't checked in on any of us. He hasn't given us any indication that he is going to or wants to heal the community.
This spring, a Yale undergraduate killed herself. Her suicide note said she needed a few more weeks to get used to her new antidepressants, but that she was afraid of what Yale would do if she took the time off. Under Yale's "withdrawal and readmission" policy, she would have been forced to take an entire year off and then reapply before attending classes again.
Usually, when students are "withdrawn" by the university for mental health reasons, they haven't requested the time off. Any student believed to be contemplating self-harm could be hospitalized. Students hospitalized for mental health issues were often forced to withdraw from the university.
Students have to be careful what they said about their mental states, and whom they say it to, for fear they could be forced to leave school against their will.
One current student told the Atlantic: "It is almost taken as a given that no matter how distressing the thoughts [of self-harm] are, or how productive it might be to talk about them in a therapeutic session, bringing them up will most often result in hospitalization, unless you're very delicate with your words."
The student's death catalyzed a conversation at Yale about withdrawal and mental health, and ultimately led to substantial changes to university policy. But students can still be required to withdraw for medical reasons if the administration deems them "a danger to self or others."
This is true of every student I knew who felt most bitterly toward the residential college system: They were betrayed.
They needed help and went to a residential college administrator to get it. They were fighting some other arm of the university — a professor, the financial aid department, the dean in charge of readmitting students who'd had to withdraw. They needed a champion within the system. Their residential college was their last best hope.
The residential college was uninterested in championing them.
I don't know what, if any, training Yale gives residential college masters or deans. I don't know if they're taught to prioritize supporting their students or challenging their students or defending the university. It wouldn't surprise me if they were given no guidance at all. The tension between supporting students and preparing them for the "real world" is easier to ignore.
Plenty of Yale alumni don't feel that just because Yale uses "home" and "family" to describe residential colleges in admissions brochures, students should actually consider residential colleges to be safe, familial spaces. "[A] college master is not a counselor," law professor Jonathan Adler wrote on Twitter.
I suspect I took the sales pitch about residential colleges too much to heart. I took a lot of Yale's rhetoric too literally before I arrived on campus. It was all I knew of the school. I didn't know any current or former students who could tell me what it was really like.
From the Medium post written by a Yale student:
The university sells itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it often isn't.
When I was a junior at Yale, I read an article — I've forgotten its name — that changed my thinking about "rights" rhetoric. I'd dismissed talk of "rights" because it was so often divorced from the reality of who held power and what they did with it.
The article acknowledged this was true. But it argued that, often, it didn't matter. When people in power claimed something, and believed it, and were proud of it, that made the words mean something. Only then could people who weren't in power, and whose reality didn't match the happy rhetoric of their superiors, hold those superiors accountable: If you really believe this, you'll extend it to us, too.
This is how social change happens, the article argued: People rise up to demand things that have already been promised, from people who pretended those things already existed.
The formal list of demands from Yale's student protesters include: firing the master and associate master of Silliman College; agreeing that the "white girls only" incident really happened and punishing those responsible; and requiring all students to take African-American studies, women's and gender studies, or ethnicity, race, and migration classes to get their diplomas.
The author who wrote the Yale Herald op-ed made a simpler demand: She wanted a home on campus, a place where she would be supported by default.
She may be asking to be coddled. Automatic support might not be something any university ought to give a student, in the classroom or outside it.
But it's also, almost certainly, what she was promised.
Dara Lind is a staff writer at Vox.