I think several generations of Yale activists have had the chance to gather in protest or at least reflect on the outrageousness of the university’s top decision-making body gathering beneath a portrait of the university’s namesake with a slave. Looks like the next generation will have to come up with a new rite of passage.

Yale is finally taking the goddamn thing down. But god forbid you should think that Yale’s leaders feel regret about leaving it hanging there the past few decades:

Since the portrait is confusing without the explanation [that Elihu Yale did not own slaves], I have decided it would be prudent to exchange that portrait of Elihu to another one in the University’s collection,” Lorimer said.

The quote, from Yale’s VP and Secretary, leaves you with the sense that Yale is taking down the portrait, which involves adjusting the moldings around the mantelpiece around the painting (the classic explanation of yesteryear for why the thing had to stay up), because it’s easier than putting up a plaque explaining that the man was not a slave owner. But it’s a portrait designed to honor Elihu Yale by painting a chained Black man at his feet. It honors him with the imagery of White supremacy – an ideology of which the colonial Governor and the university named for him have been no small beneficiaries.

It’s a painting that belongs in a museum. It has no place hanging over Yale’s president as he meets with the Yale Corporation to try to chart a course for the university. It never did. (That’s the difference between engaging and exulting the problematic)

To suggest that the racist graphic is being taken down to avert misunderstanding is to make abundantly clear that you don’t get it.



The good folks at Yale Alumni for Social Justice have kindly posted a paper I wrote sophomore year about the organizing campaign through Yale clerical workers won union representation twenty years ago and the strike which achieved their first first contract. It explores how they won and what implications it has for some of the prevalent theories about gender and union organizing. If you’re interested, check it out, and if you’ve written an article or paper about social justice struggles at Yale, send it to them.


Tuesday’s New York Times piece on women at schools like Yale who plan to become stay-at-home moms addresses an important phenomenon. Unfortunately, it makes little more than passing mention of the underlying issues of class and gender which shape the choices the article pitches largely as curious lifestyle decisions.

Class divisions deeply inform women’s and men’s decision about parenting in work in multiple ways. They make it possible for some women to picture living and raising children comfortably off of the income of an exceptionally well-paid spouse without making the economic sacrifices most families have to when one parent stays home. At the same time, class divisions leave other women in positions where the work-family compromises they would like to strike as working mothers are unfeasible because they lack the bargaining power to achieve the schedules and receive the support from employers that they need. So while class makes it possible for some women and impossible for others to maintain economic security while leaving the workforce, class also makes it possible for some women and impossible for others to balance work and family responsibilities.

Underlying the responsibilities in play here are gendered conceptions which haven’t yet changed as much as many of us would like to think. It’s difficult to argue with those who suggest that a woman’s choice to stay home and raise kids deserves respect, but it’s important to consider the ways in which social structures and pressures constrict and inform that choice. The debate need not be confined to one side which argues that women and men should both be evaluated by the standards by which we’ve traditionally judged men and another side which argues for an essentialist, “difference feminist” understanding of what women are and should be that trots out old tropes about their essential nature. Instead, progressive feminists can and should take on traditional paradigms of male and female identity behavior, arguing for a shared, less gendered repetoire of goals and actions which makes traditionally male and female jobs and tropes accessible to both genders. Women who want to build homes with men can’t make fully free choices about how to balance family and work until men are equally challenged and expected to make equivalent sacrifices as well.

We’re not there yet.

An energized rally today on the Green before folks set out for this afternoon’s rally in New York with strikers from Columbia’s CGEU, unionized graduate teachers from NYU preparing for a contract fight, and workers and allies from across the Northeast. I and fourteen other undergads will unfortunately be unable to attend, at this afternoon we’re being brought before Yale’s Executive Committee for consideration of disciplinary action over our sit-in in February. I hope the Committee will recognize the action we took as an act of conscience which used non-violent means with a long history at the university to pursue changes central to realizing Yale’s best values. I hope Yale can turn its time and energy now to furthering the work of realizing equal opportunity for undergraduates and graduate employees alike.

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.

The YDN reports on the New Haven Student Fair Share Coalition’s dramatically succesful call-in day yesterday to Bruce Alexander and John DeStefano, urging a fair share settlement between Yale and New Haven with a contribution that would narrow the gap between Yale’s tax value and the PILOT money New Haven receives, a mechanism for indexing that contribution to Yale’s growth, and a commitment from Yale to enter Community Benefits Agreements for future expansion:

About 75 students gathered on Cross Campus throughout the day Monday to call Alexander and DeStefano’s offices and urge progress on talks to increase Yale’s contribution in lieu of taxes to the city. The campaign was organized by the New Haven Student Fair Share Coalition, a group of Yale organizations formed in April that claims there is a $10 million gap between the actual tax value of University property and the payments the city receives in lieu of those taxes…Any change in the status of Yale’s contributions to the city would be the first change since 1990, when the Yale Golf Course was opened to taxation and the University began paying the city for fire services. Yale, like most nonprofits, is exempt from property taxes on its noncommercial buildings. Property taxes are the major source of funding for New Haven, which has faced budgetary problems in recent years. New Haven also receives about 65 percent of the money it would have obtained from taxing Yale through Connecticut’s Payment In Lieu of Taxes program (PILOT).

…Josh Eidelson ’06, a member of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee (UOC), one of the Fair Share Coalition’s member groups, said that the launch of talks had encouraged the coalition. “The fact that these negotiations are happening now demonstrates the importance of pressure from students and the community in pushing Yale to have a more progressive settlement with New Haven,” Eidelson said. In addition to the UOC, 13 other undergraduate student groups — including The Black Student Alliance at Yale, Movimiento Estudantil Chicano/a de Atzlan, and Jews for Justice — belong to the coalition. Ben Siegel ’07, who is involved with Jews for Justice, said different groups had different motives for joining the coalition. “The highest principle of charity in Jewish tradition is to give in a way that facilitates other people becoming empowered and gaining control of their futures,” Siegel said. “We hope that the University will live up to those principles.” UOC member Helena Herring ’07, who helped organize the phone calls yesterday, said there was a lot of support for the coalition’s ideas. “People have been really receptive and excited by the idea and people who have been coming to make calls have not been inclusive of the member groups,” Herring said. “It shows that there is broad-based support for this.”

Alas, the article makes no mention of the amazing pies Emily Jones baked for the event, which were as tasty as they were symbolic.

Thanks for the shout out from Sean Siperstein on the Brown College Dems (cleverly-titled) blog, where he offers trenchant thoughts on the meaning of today’s NLRB decision on his campus:

Not only is this a widespread overturning of precedent and part of a larger trend, but it also ensures that the results of a referendum held among those Brown grad students eligible to unionize will remain permanently sealed and ultimately meaningless (the NLRB ruled previously that all non-science Brown TAs would be eligible, but held up the results being revealed until the current overall appeal was decided). At the time of that referendum, the Brown Democrats were part of a coalition of student groups which campaigned for undergrads to sign a “neutrality card” stating that this was a matter to be decided and debated among grad students themselves (and indeed, active organizations for and against unionization had formed in their ranks), and that undergraduate students and clubs, the administration, the Corporation and alumni ought to all recognize that principle, stay out of the debate, and let the vote proceed without further obfuscation. The effort was highly fruitful in terms of getting student signatures– perhaps the most effective thing that the Dems did during my freshman year– even if (as expected) the administration largely ignored its plea and actively pressured against/tried to prevent unionization, and I’d definitely like to think that this decision that ultimately defeats it will give us all pause to think and at the least serve as an exemplar of the direct impact of the Bush administration’s across-the-board conservatism.

Interesting that Sean sees graduate employees’ right to organize on his campus as an issue which could ignite students to get more involved in electoral politics; if anything, I think those of us organizing around the issue at Yale are struggling to mobilize students to bring the perspectives they believe in or fight for in national politics – on workers’ rights, women’s rights, free speech and such – to bear in confronting the conflict over unionization on our campus.  Among the differences which affect the climate, as Sean observes, is a radically different face on a similar administration agenda – I’ve never heard of Ruth Simmons doing or saying anything that would lead NYU’s administration to observe that she would “rather burn the university to the ground” than recognize graduate students’ right to organize.

Looks like Errol is (not surprisingly, given the number of debates the two of us have had previously over this issue) celebrating the NLRB decision stripping graduate student workers of legal recognition of their right to organize. Errol contends that this represents “Finally a common sense decision by the NLRB.” I’d say common sense explains the motivation behind this decision – as part of a broader Bush agenda of chipping away workers’ rights through court decisions, executive orders, and legislation, and as one with tremendous cache with certain University Presidents, including some with significant influence – but that that’s about the only relationship common sense and this decision have. There are a lot of points to be made in this argument; for now I’ll stick to responding to those Errol brings up directly.

It’s always been especially telling to me that the graduate student unions have all changed the name of what they do to being “graduate employees” in order to fight this battle. What does that say to me? Well it says that there is a PR game and that most people don’t actually see them as employees at all, so it’s necessary to confront them with the idea. “See I am an employee, because my wannabe union has the word employee in it.” That sort of thing.

This is a cheap and, I’d say, pretty misleading argument. The people subject to this decision are students at the Universities in question and employees of these universities. Sometimes they call themselves graduate employees because those two words communicate that they are both graduate students and employees. Hence GET-UP, Graduate Employees Together, U-Penn. Yale’s parallel union is called GESO, Graduate Employee Student Organization (Light and Truth alleged last year that the fact is was called GESO rather than GSEO showed its members were lazy students. I’ll like to hear them pronounce GSEO). I’m not sure what Errol means when he says that they “changed the name of what they do,” although he certainly makes it sound sinister. What they’ve done, rightfully, is come up with various phrases which allude to the multiple identities they take on simultaneously in the academy. I’d guess it’s the confluence of those identities, not their reflection in names, which Errol and others have a problem with:

That being said, it is obvious that graduate students do work, and probably much of it. Why doesn’t that make them employees of the university and not students? The only thing that separates the two is the possibility of the award of a professional degree. All the other people who recieve payment from the university who are employees are not being paid in their capacity as degree candidates, and it seems to me someone being paid in their capacity as a degree candidate should be considered a student. The payment that the university extends to it’s graduate students for their work is more akin to the financial aid of an undergraduate being paid in work study than it is to a teacher in secondary education.

To insist that GESO members are not “employees and not students” is to take down a straw man argument – GESO members have never contended not to be students. What they are is employees and students. The receipt of educational certification from an employer doesn’t make them as singular a phenomenon as Errol seems to suggest. Apprentices organized some of the first unions in this country so as to better secure the conditions and compensation they deserved for the significant work they were doing while training under their employers. Stipends and benefits for graduate student teaching assistants and researchers are not comparable (except in that both are too low…) to financial aids grants for undergraduates because, while the university’s award of financial aid is hopefully grounded in an understanding that education at the university is strengthened by the presence of a more diverse student body, undergraduates are not being compensated for the provision of a service to the school. Just ask the IRS, which recognizes the former, and not the latter, as salaries. Meanwhile, it’s Yale’s administration, not GESO, which has for the past months engaged in covert and strategic renaming, couching the teaching and research requirements for graduate employees in new language as academic requirements in anticipation of a new NRLB ruling. The fact of the matter is that graduate students are doing over 30% of the work of teaching at our august university, and that they are replacing paid faculty in doing so.

The [generalized] University’s obligation to all its students to provide an atmosphere conducive to learning is perhaps it’s highest one and that being said, it matters very much to that atmosphere if a graduate students’ family doesn’t have an affordable health care plan, or enough money to eat well balanced meals. The University should take care of these needs, and, if the best way to assure that it is in tune with the needs of its students is to recognize them as a group rather than a collection of individuals, I certainly believe that the University should do that. The University should also be perceptive to the outcries of its students that they want to be represented collectively because it’s in the best interest of both the students and families involved and the University to do so. However, that group, those families, that collectivity, are not, and shouldn’t ever be considered a union.

No organization (certainly not the Graduate Student Assembly) has acheived as much for Yale’s graduate students as GESO, whose organizing drive has won the concessions on stipend increases, childcare, international visa reform lobbying and a score of other issues which then become repackaged by Yale’s administration as further evidence of why Yale’s graduate students don’t need a union. That’s because no other type of body has demonstrated the same capacity to leverage pressure, represent constituents, and effect change. But we needn’t just look at Yale. Graduate student unions across and beyond this country have won landmark agreements with universities protecting the institutional support, resources, and freedoms whose procurement by graduate student employees, as Errol says, are vital to the health of the university for all its members. Why shouldn’t graduate employees pursue collective representation through unionization?

It doesn’t do justice to the struggles of everyday working people by calling it so, but most of all, it doesn’t represent the truth of the situation.

But it does represent the truth of the situation, which is that these unions’ members are workers with a right to organize protected by the Wagner Act and the Declaration of Universal Human Rights. They receive payment for the work they do for an employer, and unlike most undergraduates, the majority of them depend on the funds they receive from the university to support themselves and often dependants (this proportion rises as the benefits provided by the university rise, and as this proportion rises, so does the diversity of the graduate employees). The construction of a group called “everyday working people” as the proper constituents of a union, and of a distinction between that group and the workers in question – be they teachers, writers, waiters, nurses, or graduate employees – is not new, and neither is the struggle of every group of workers to demonstrate and defend their right to organize. These struggles absolutely have different contours, and different stakes. But they remain parallel struggles, and while a good number of Yale undergraduates believe that the question of whether Mary Reynolds, GESO Chair and American Studies Teaching Assistant, has the same right to a union that Bobby Proto, Local 35 President and pipefitter does, is a question of whether Mary’s is more or less oppressed than Bobby, my experience is that many fewer members of Local 35 and Local 34 (Yale’s service and maintenance and clerical and technical unions, respectively) see it that way. My experience is that many more members of Locals 34 and 35 see their stake in GESO’s right to organize as similar to Local 35’s stake in Local 34’s right to organize back in 1984, when conventional wisdom was that “pink collar unions” were a contradiction in terms which would destroy the collegiality and intellectual vigor of the university. What doesn’t do justice to their struggle for the right to organize is not GESO’s campaign for the same right, but rather Yale’s campaign, with the unfortunate assistance of the Bush administration and the NLRB, to deny it.

You read it here first: Today at Yale’s Class Day, Keynote Speaker Ken Burns delivered, to repeated and riotous applause, a clever and moving speech which included an impassioned and poetic condemnation of the dangerous course down which unjustified military aggression abroad and suppression of dissent at home are leading this country. Warning that America’s greatest threats come from within, he blasted a corporate and consumerist media and an ahistorical and extremist political establishment. And the crowd – made up of graduates, students, faculty, administrators, and family and friends of President Bush’s alma mater – loved it. Afterwards, several of us gathered to protest as Bush, who chose not to attend the ceremonies, entered Sage Hall for a meeting with Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead (the topic? Bush-Brodhead 2004? Who knows…). There was one guy one the other side of the street yelling “Four more years!,” but he seemed lonely.

Phoebe recounts a deeply disturbing discussion with Yale Financial Aid folks:

And she freaking tells me no, definitely not, “We never want to be like Princeton.” And why not? Because “we believe that every student and every parent should have to sacrifice something for their education.” About the Harvard plan, she tells me that “we believe that every student and every parent needs to pay something, even if it’s only $100.” Like they positively want everybody to be squished into the “my family and I sacrificed our lives so I could come to Yale” mold. It’s infuriating. And then she tells me that the real purpose of the Harvard plan is just “sticker shock,” “to get more low-income people to apply, because here, they have to take it on trust that we’ll make it affordable, but there, they’ll just see that and know they can afford it.” And I said to her, well, the financial aid folks did a survey at Harvard, and the new plan was created in response to finding out from this survey that, actually, people and their parents aren’t able to afford the amounts that they’re supposed to pay, and students end up taking out loans to pay for parental contributions, and all else, and the plan wasn’t some PR deal but actually about making Harvard affordable for people. And then she tells me, “you know, well, we don’t need do do that then, because, actually, we have more low-income students than Harvard or Princeton does” (she says it to me as if of course I’m not “one of them” and she and I are talking about some freaking statistic–like, let’s do just enough that we achieved the “low-income” quota for this year, and then stop). And I tell her that, atually, I was under the impression that Harvard had more people on financial aid than did Yale. And then she went on about, well, yes, but the way it breaks down, there are more specifically “low-income” people at Yale than at Harvard.

I’ll take these people more seriously when they start fretting that wealthy legacy kids are missing out on the chance to work their way through college. Meanwhile, to argue that financial aid students are being deprived of life experience if they don’t have the experience of working dozens of hours a week to make it through school while telling the rest of the students that they should devote their time outside of class to being leaders in lots of extracuricculars sends a simple and chilling message: Some are meant to be management, and others are meant to work for them.

To the Editor:

The New Haven Student Fair Share Coalition, which Associate VP for New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand called a “small group” making a “partisan press bid,” (“Fair share coalition presses for payment”) represents sixteen undergraduate organizations, from the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, to the Black Student Alliance at Yale, to the Muslim Student Association, to Peace by Peace, which together are calling for Yale to make an institutional financial investment in New Haven commesurate with Yale’s economic power in New Haven and its aspirations for local and national leadership. Last night, before a vote in which half of Dwight Hall’s Cabinet demonstrated support for the Fair Share Campaign, Yale’s Associate General Counsel referred to the push for the nation’s second wealthiest university to contribute more to one of the nation’s poorest cities as “a zero-sum game” (“Dwight Hall rejects Fair Share proposal,” 4/21). This echoes Morand’s argument in these pages (“Math won’t add up in proposed PILOT cuts”, 3/5) that for an $11 billion institution to spend more money on improving the public school education of low-income children would have to mean spending less money on extending a Yale education to low-income undergraduates. Our coalition is calling on Yale to stop clinging to an 1834 tax “super-exemption” and to show civic leadership at a time of fiscal scarcity when citizens throughout the city will be paying increased taxes for the third year in a row and further cuts to education funding appear imminent (“City ready for cuts in state aid,” 4/14). For the Office of New Haven and State Affairs to pit the needs of undergraduates and those of New Haven’s other students against each other while accusing our coalition of being “divisive” is as cynical as it is ironic.

Today was the National Campus Day of Action for disclosure by Farallon Capital Management. Here at Yale that meant a satirical protest by Yale Student Shareholders for Aggressive Management of the Endowment (Yale SHAME), chanting “Profits over People!” and calling on Yale to invest in privatizing and selling off Yale’s resources in the manner that its clients have exploited natural resources around the globe. We then took matters into our own hands by marking trees on cross-campus to be felled and setting up equiptment to drain and sell the water from the Women’s Table.

Pictures and quotes are on-line here.