The Magazine

Victimology 101 at Yale

While the rest of the university tightens its belt, guess who's exempted from the austerity campaign?

Mar 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 25 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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In December 2008, Yale University president Richard Levin announced a series of budget cuts to compensate for a 25 percent drop in the value of Yale's endowment. This February, the university launched the Office of LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer] Resources to provide support for Yale's homosexual community. According to its director, the new office is intended to make the "University feel like a friendly place as opposed to an alien, hostile place" to gays. The recession, it appears, is going to have little impact on the academic culture of victimology and the ever-growing bureaucracy that supports it.

The idea that Yale is an "alien, hostile place" to gays is one of those absurd conceits that could only be maintained in the alternative universe of academia. Yale students and faculty are undoubtedly the most tolerant, least homophobic people on earth; Yale helped launch the field of gay studies three decades ago and has only increased its involvement since. A partial list of milestones in Yale's support for the self-conscious cultivation of gay identity would include:

* 1986, establishment of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center; sentencing of a student to two years of academic probation for making fun of Yale's Gay and Lesbian Awareness Day (the sentence was withdrawn after First Amendment second thoughts);

* 1990s, start-up of the Pink Book, an official reference guide to courses geared towards lesbian and gay concerns;

* 1998, authorization of an undergraduate concentration in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies;

* 2001, roll-out of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies, further increasing the lectures, conferences, and visiting professorships in LGBTS;

* 2006, inclusion of "gender identity or expression" in Yale's nondiscrimination policy (which, of course, already protected sexual orientation) after students campaign for the change; hiring of a "special assistant to the deans for LGBTQ issues" (what the addition of the "Q" signifies was left unexplained); start-up of an oral history project on Yale's record on LGBTQ issues, featuring student interviews of gay Yale alumni; and

* 2009, inauguration of the Office of LGBTQ Relations.

At present, Yale's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies committee sponsors research and course offerings designed to foster "critical analysis of queer and normative sexualities, the formation of sexual and gender minorities, and the role of sexuality in culture and politics across the world." The Pink Book currently recommends 22 courses, including History of Sexuality, which canvasses the "construction of heterosexuality and homosexuality, the role of scientific studies in moral discourse, and the rise of sexology as a scientific discipline" (enrollment limited to freshmen); Cross-Cultural Narratives of Desire (another freshmen-only course); Gender Transgression, which studies the "issues that arise when a person does not have a 'readable' gender identity; what it means to break gender rules; ways in which gender defines sexual categories such as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and bisexual; [and] the role of race in gender transgression"; and Music and Queer Identities.

The LGBT Co-op, a university-subsidized student group that "work[s] to provide safe spaces" for LGBT students, organizes the usual pride weeks, complete with S&M lectures and talks by "well-known" transvestites. In 2001, Yale's Pride Week sent out flyers to local high schools and featured a High School GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance] Coffee.

In light of this history, one might think it impossible to maintain that Yale needs a new LGBTQ office in order to "feel like a friendly place as opposed to an alien, hostile place" to gays. Especially since the director of that new office, Maria Trumpler, has already been serving as "special assistant to the deans for LGBTQ issues." But Trumpler herself charges that Yale has heretofore failed to confer on gays the power to form a community, reported the Yale Daily News.

If you're tempted to ask why students require administration backing in order to form a "community," you don't understand the codependent relationship between self-engrossed students and the adults whose career consists of catering to that self-involvement. Students in today's university regularly act out little psychodramas of oppression before an appreciative audience of deans and provosts. The essence of those psychodramas is to force the university to recognize a student's narrowly defined "identity" through ever more elaborate bureaucratic mechanisms. Rather than laugh the student players off the stage, the deans, provosts, and sundry other administrators willingly participate in their drama, intently negotiating with them and conferring additional benefits wherever possible.

In 2007, at the behest of feminist students, Yale added yet another layer of costly bureaucracy-the Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education Center-to its already generous sexual assault infrastructure. I asked physics professor Peter Parker, convenor of the college's Sexual Harassment Grievance Board and a sponsor of the new S.H.A.R.E. Center, how many sexual assaults on students there were at Yale. He said that he had "no idea." (In fact, the number of reported unconfirmed assaults can usually be counted on one hand.) So if students came to the administration demanding a malaria treatment center, would Yale build it without first determining the prevalence of malaria on campus? I asked him. "We didn't make our judgment based on numbers, but based on concern by students in the community," he answered.

Faced with such a pliant oppressor, students have to get quite creative in manufacturing new causes of grievance. At the opening ceremonies for the new Office of LGBTQ Resources, junior Rachel Schiff, a coordinator for the LGBT Co-op, complained: "The fact that we don't actually have a physical space says lots about Yale's stance towards LGBT life on the ground at a metaphorical level." Actually, whatever the metaphorical meaning of the lack of office space, the literal meaning is quite simple: Yale was in a hurry to roll out the new office, and it faces a shortage of empty buildings. Finding an independent home for LGBTQ Resources is one of director Trumpler's first priorities. Does Rachel Schiff's clearly delusional idea that "Yale's stance towards LGBT life on the ground" has been anything other than accommodating set off any warning signals among administrators that its students are losing contact with reality? Apparently not; such preposterous charges of administration indifference to this or that favored identity group are greeted at every American college with meek silence.

Of course, other students can be counted on to respond less than respectfully to the constant assertion of victim status; the resulting friction happily fuels the further expansion of the student services bureaucracy. In 2008, a Yale fraternity photographed its members holding a tiny sign "We Love Yale Sluts" in front of the Yale Women's Center (dedicated to providing a "safe space" for Yale women). The fraternity posted the photo online. The Women's Center denizens and university bureaucrats predictably took the bait. Yale promised to refurbish the Women's Center, created a permanent Intercultural Affairs Council, and established two committees to study the incident. Those committees recommended chartering a standing committee to implement changes in Yale's sexual harassment policy. The fraternity members were charged with intimidation and harassment, but eventually were cleared.

Yale's response to the photo incident seems nothing if not scrupulously attentive. To Trumpler, however, it was rather lackluster. Today's even more bulked-up bureaucracy would immediately generate "discussions around issues of gender and sexuality," she told the Yale Daily News.

Many students come to college asking the question: Who am I? At its best, a liberal arts education responds to that question by pushing students outside of their limited selves and into the vast reaches of human imagination and experience. It assumes that students can enter lives radically different from their own-that a Chinese-American girl, say, can find meaning in Odysseus' quest to return home-and that they can start to participate in a centuries-long conversation that contains sorrows and fears that most 18-year-olds can barely imagine. No freshman can understand the battle between Lear and his daughters, but 40 years later, it might return to him with a deep pang of recognition. Thomas Hobbes's warning regarding the ever-present threat of anarchy will likely remain wholly abstract for secure American students until they have seen more of the world. When they have, however, his articulation of the fragility of social order may echo in their minds as terrifyingly true.

Today's solipsistic university, however, allows students to answer the "Who am I?" question exclusively, rather than inclusively. Identity politics defines the self by its difference from as many other people as possible, so as to increase the underdog status of one's chosen identity group. (Women have commandeered an underdog identity even though they are the majority on campuses; that no one objects is a measure of their clout.) And because the robust growth of the student services bureaucracy depends on the proliferation of identity groups, administrations busy themselves with identity-based constituencies that might not even exist.

Yale's Committee on Gender-Neutral Housing, composed of the dean of student affairs, the Council of Masters chair, the associate dean for physical resources and planning, and the special assistant to the deans for LGBTQ affairs, has been meeting since the fall of 2007 to decide whether Yale should allow juniors and seniors to live with roommates of the opposite sex, an accommodation demanded in the name of transgender students. (Yale, along with Princeton, is the only Ivy not to have authorized so-called gender-neutral housing.) There is no suggestion in any of the news coverage that Yale has tried to determine how many transgender students are actually enrolled at Yale.

Indeed, Trumpler opposes requiring students to identify themselves as transgender in order to qualify for mixed-gender housing. This don't-ask-don't-tell policy is doubly convenient-it preserves the mystery around whether the "T" in LGBTQ actually has any local referent, and it allows heterosexual students to shack up. But only someone ensnared by heteronormativity would suppose that this latter group would seek mixed-gender housing for carnal purposes. Junior Emma Sloan told the Yale Daily News that the idea that men and women are necessarily attracted to the opposite sex is "antiquated."

While the drive to define oneself oppositionally is good for student services administrators, it is not so good for education. Can a student who is furiously itemizing the many ways she has been dissed as a female of color or a lesbian, say, lose herself in the opalescent language of A Midsummer Night's Dream or hear the aching melancholy in Wordsworth's "Intimations" ode? She will have been taught to scour books for slights to, or affirmations of, her own self, but neither the play nor the poem is directly about her carefully cultivated identity.

Yale's sprawling student services bureaucracy is drearily typical. It matters not whether a college is private or public, large or small; all are encrusted with layers of expendable adults catering to students' most narcissistic tendencies. The growth in this bureaucracy helps explain exploding annual tuition costs, which at elite private colleges now run over half the median family income.

In the years ahead, expect to see a new constituency pushing for the expansion of identity-based services and courses: graduates of the solipsistic university. Older alumni might have provided a brake on the trivialization of their alma maters; instead they blindly shoveled hundreds of millions of dollars into colleges about whose radical transformation they preserved a carefully cultivated ignorance. Now those older alumni are being replaced by younger generations who take for granted that universities should cultivate students' narrowly defined identities. Yale, for example, administers two alumni funds to support undergraduates pursuing LGBT studies; their respective donors come from the classes of '83 and '85. Other identity fiefdoms in colleges across the country have their own recent alumni patrons.

Yale's new Office of LGBTQ Resources is initially funded at $20,000 a year, obviously a minute fraction of the college's $100 million deficit for 2009-10. But the costs of the office exceed its immediate budget. By perpetuating the premise that Yale not only should officially recognize students' balkanized identities but has still not satisfactorily done so, LGBTQ Resources guarantees ongoing student demands and continues distorting the idea of a liberal arts education. Yale could take that $20,000 and purchase every low-income student a complete Shakespeare, the Federalist Papers, and all the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. It could fund a Ph.D. candidate to conduct an evening reading group on the Enlightenment philosophers. Surely such endeavors would contribute more to the expansion of students' minds than making another offering to their self-regard.

In his December 2008 letter on Yale's budget problems, President Richard Levin affirmed the university's mission of "educating the most talented and promising students for leadership and service." Teaching students to identify phantom insults to their egos doesn't train them for leadership and service but merely for future whining. The economic crisis is the perfect opportunity for every college to say to its students: "We recognize you as young people forged from a common humanity. We hope to cultivate in you humility regarding the limits of your knowledge, a passion to overcome those limits, and a deep gratitude for the landmarks of human thought that it will be your privilege to study for the next four years. We are dismantling the college's multicultural, identity-based services because you don't need them. Find yourselves by engaging with beauty, intellectual complexity, and each other."

Heather Mac Donald is a John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.