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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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.