Some thoughts on what yesterday was about:
Tuesday night, after four months since receiving the platform for real financial aid reform borne out of our hundreds of canvassing interviews and supported by over a thousand students, President Levin had a great opportunity to offer real solutions, or to take to heart the voices of students who had. And he blew it. He opened the under thirty minutes on financial aid by trying to discuss our platform and the parallel Yale College Council in terms which made clear just how empty his claim that he couldn’t respond until February 22 because he was carefully reviewing our proposal had been. He told students he wanted feedback on whether Yale should make some change on the student contribution or the family contribution, insisting that Yale “can’t lead on every dimension.” Not something one would hear Levin say if we were talking about different dimensions of, say, scientific research. Yale can and should lead on drawing a diverse group of students and on fostering a more equal and more integrated experience for those who are here. A choice between the student contribution and the family contribution is an impossible choice. And it’s a meaningless choice for those students working additional hours to pay what Yale expects from their parents as well. But when those students spoke up Tuesday night, Levin responded by making facial expressions roughly approximating Bush’s during the first debate while questioning their honesty and describing them all as extreme cases. He even went so far as to conjecture, with a shrug, that if there was a problem it only affected a couple hundred students. I’m not sure whether it was this baseless claim, or the implication that the quality of life of a couple hundred students could not be an urgent issue for the university, which angered more of us. So it should have come as no surprise to Levin that students left deeply disappointed and personally insulted.
Yesterday we demonstrated that we’re not willing to sit back and wait for President Levin to offer what he thinks is a sufficient proposal for change, and we’re not willing to settle for a proposal which makes modest change in either the student contribution or the family contribution. So fifteen of us showed up at the Admissions Office as a tour group was leaving and let Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw know that we didn’t plan to leave without a meaningful commitment from Levin to comprehensive reform. Dean Shaw told us we’d have to be out of the building by 5 PM, passed the message along to Levin, and then disappeared into selection committee. We never heard from Levin, despite enough phone calls from students inside and outside of the building, alumni, and parents that the phone began going directly to voicemail. Unfortunately, it appears Levin would rather arrest his students than talk to him.
Folks working in the office were by and large very friendly to us, with a few notable exceptions, and we had a number of productive conversations with some of them about our campaign. We weren’t able to communicate directly with any more prospective students, because the Admissions Office was soon locked to the public and tours were moved to the Visitor’s Center. Because this was signified only with a sign on the door to the Admission’s Office, our folks on the outside got ample opportunities to talk to somewhat confused visiting families about what we were fighting for, to generally very positive response by all accounts, before giving them directions to the new location. The Admissions Office made the peculiar decision to communicate with those families only by yelling at them through the window. The low point during the day in our interactions with others in the building was during the noontime rally outside when Phoebe opened and leaned out of a window to address the crowd and Deputy Secretary Martha Highsmith physically yanked her back into the building (fortunately, the whole thing was caught on camera by Channel 8). Not long after that, they cut off all internet access in the building.
There are no words which can describe my admiration for the tremendous organizing undergrads, as well as folks from Local 34, Local 35, GESO, and the broader community did outside all day yesterday, in constantly shifting conditions and fairly unfavorable weather. Every time a door opened and we heard surging chants, I think each of us was moved and inspired. They did amazing work, talking to visiting families, sending a delegation to President Levin’s office in Betts House, finding Yale Corporation member Margaret Marshall on the way to a Master’s Tea and calling on her to come visit us, dropping into dining halls to share news, and standing outside yelling through the cold for hours.
One of their greatest accomplishments was keeping a powerful crowd outside for the nearly three hours over which Yale made gestures and having us arrested and then, presumably in hopes of waiting out the crowd and the cameras, chose to delay. It had been a full two hours (much of it spent singing, which inspired at least one administrator to turn up “We are the Champions” in his office) since the time we had been told that morning was closing when plainclothes police showed up in an unidentified van and Martha Highsmith had someone videotape her (despite some technical difficulties) reading to us from the Undergraduate Regulations. When we made clear that we still had no intention of leaving without a commitment from Levin to a financial aid policy which better reflects the best values of the university, the police told us were under arrest. We were taken in pairs into Jim Nondorf’s office, cited for simple trespass and led out, singing “Carry It On” and holding our citations, to a still strong crowd. There we shared some stories with each other and ate the pizza that they had been unable to get to us while we were inside before heading back to campus.
On the eve of the Yale Corporation’s meeting, right before the budget deadline, we mobilized a new breadth and depth of student support, leveraged new pressure, took our message to new audiences, and demonstrated the urgency of the issue. Now it’s time to keep building.