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The cover article in the December Yale Alumni Magazine, “When Yale Changed: The Birth of a New Institution,” by Geoffrey Kabaservice, has generated more mail than any piece to appear in the magazine in more than a decade. It far exceeds our normal space for letters to the editor, but it represents such a wide range of reactions that we intend to continue running selected letters on the subject in subsequent issues.—Ed.
Pride & Privilege
Wow! I never thought any alumni magazine would tell so much of the truth so beautifully (“The Birth of a New Institution,” Dec.). I attended an all-male Yale under what I understood to be a 10 percent quota on Roman Catholics. I’ve just retired after 30 years of teaching at Brown—and have been replaced by a young woman who is a graduate of Yale and the Bronx High School of Science. I’ve never been so proud of my alma mater.
Still in denial over Kingman Brewster!
In turning his back on the friends and families who had supported the University from its birth, Brewster made a hideous multigenerational mistake, which alienated thousands of Yale supporters for good and grievously injured the University financially and spiritually.
After reading the tortuous explanation of his hagiographer Geoffrey Kabaservice in the Yale Alumni Magazine, I wish to make only one more point.
It was a mistake that Harvard did not make.
“The Birth of a New Institution” is the finest article I have ever read in your magazine. Congratulations to the author and to you for publishing it.
Three cheers for Yale and the officers who served it so well in those days.
Geoffrey Kabaservice’s brilliant article took me back to the days when I was interviewing Yale applicants from Omaha in the mid-1960s. There was one thoroughly disagreeable chap who did not get my vote. I gathered that this applicant was very bright with a leaning toward science, but he seemed to have an overpowering negative attitude about a lot of important things. Definitely not the “Yale type.”
Several months later, while in New Haven for a class reunion, I went to the admissions office to try to find out how and why I was totally wrong in my assessment of this young man. (He had been admitted and matriculated.) Without giving any details, the admissions official said something to the effect that “this guy may be another Jonas Salk.”
Brewster’s and Clark’s new admission policy was, indeed, working.
I had to write, awestruck as I was by Mr. Kabaservice’s account of The Creation, wherein a veritable paragon of educational institutions is created by a brave band of secular saints—and one not so secular—who triumph over the forces of darkness led by the Arch Satan Whitney Griswold. Oh, weep, John Milton!
Please. A little balance might not be amiss.
There was certainly a strong thread of bias and privilege running throughout the fabric of Yale in the 1950s, supplanted today, some maintain, by a different kind of bias and privilege. However, that bias and privilege was less in degree than in American society as a whole. The essential principles of liberal education—fairness and respect for excellence—were ingrained in that fabric long before Mr. Brewster et al. ensured that Yale would lead rather than follow our society in its development. Deliberate ethnic quotas were the invention of a later period.
The “activists” of the 1960s often make the mistake of the shaman who, recording and predicting the rising of the sun and moon, comes to believe that he is the cause.
Perhaps Mr. Griswold, viewing development toward broader opportunities and prosperity in our society as both inevitable and welcome, hoped that through an emphasis on liberal education the drift toward unbridled competition, crass materialism, and greed for power might be restrained. I am sure that he hoped Yale would avoid becoming a high-priced vocational school turning out bright graduates limited in vision and lacking in the humility warranted by their lack of experience.
As to Mr. Kabaservice’s treatment of old-fashioned prep schools vs. public schools, I find it hard to envision Tricky Dick or Slick Willie emerging from the Groton of FDR or Acheson.
“The Birth of a New Institution” was an eye-opener for this member of the “experiment” class that arrived in New Haven in 1967 (Inky Clark’s second class, if I read your article right).
I frankly hadn’t realized the extent to which the Yale of my own day was still a prisoner of its preconceptions—of the old school tie and the old boy network, of preferential admissions and historical biases. Had I known then what I know now, in fact, my own preconceived ideas might have prevented my trekking East from my California public school to Yale.
I also studied at Oxford, later, and there discovered a great preoccupation with “the fall of the British Empire”—one which was unrelated to, and which interfered with, my own interests and education. To do Yale credit, its particular soul-searching regarding its own history never interfered with me personally while I was in New Haven. Yale gave me a very good education.
But it is distressing, at least, to see the enormous amount of energy which Yale appears to have expended, at the time and somewhat since, on problems so irrelevant to a modern educational mission. Some institutions are born flexible, I suppose, and some are born rigid. In business the rigid ones die. I don’t know myself which one Yale is—I was only a student. I do remember Bart Giamatti once commenting on 20th-century institutions structured along 15th-century lines.
I am glad that Yale has survived. But it seems primarily the result of the flexibility and bravery of individuals—like Brewster and Clark, and I imagine many others like them—that it has done so. Your article pays these people their due. I wish I could believe that their qualities somehow could be embedded in the very structure of a university, but it seems that we must continue to rely on the flexibility and bravery of individuals.
So I hope that Yale never again will let its traditions get in the way of its educational mission. Or at least I hope Yale will remember periodically to attract and keep and listen to some non-conformist individuals, like Brewster and Clark, and even William Sloane Coffin and William F. Buckley, whenever things begin to appear to be too tidy.
Thank you for the fine article “The Birth of a New Institution.” I had no idea how much the Yale of my day was in the thrall of the WASP elite.
But is Yale a new institution, or is it merely in the thrall of a different elite?
After a first career in investment banking, I now work in a rural public school in Maine. We K-12 educators have largely abandoned the organizing principle called “ability grouping” or “tracking.” Solid research has shown that tracking provides little gain for the bright student but has done serious harm to the disadvantaged. Our vision now is to help all students achieve at high levels and to educate them together, in celebration of their diverse talents.
In contrast, the post-secondary system is wedded ever more firmly to ability grouping. Yale seems complicit in this approach and has indeed emerged as a premier pull-out program for the gifted and talented. No learning-disabled students need apply.
Why has Yale chosen such a narrow and exclusive mission? As your article points out, Yale before the War served a much broader intellectual (if not social) cross-section of college applicants. Certainly social justice is not fully served by this narrow approach. Of course, faculty will always find tracking more congenial; gifted students largely teach themselves. And can we not detect the needs and influence of Yale’s new patrons—the McKinseys, Mercks, and Microsofts of our brave new world?
I read with interest Geoffrey Kabaservice’s “The Birth of a New Institution.” As a former detractor of Kingman Brewster, I must capitulate and agree that some of the outlined changes had to happen for the better future of Yale. However, since many of these changes were faculty driven, it strikes me as ironic that I do not recall having any minority teachers at Yale. On the other hand, I do recall having some what might be called gentleman-C teachers with prep school educations. My point is that it was not only the students!
As I read Geoffrey Kabaservice’s "The Birth of a New Institution,” goose pimples broke out all over me. He may have been writing about “King” Brewster, but he was really talking about me!
When I entered Yale in 1939 as a member of the Class of 1943, I came as a graduate of a “feeder” school, and I was also Jewish. When I applied, I asked my headmaster if I should also apply to a “safe” school. He replied that it wasn’t necessary. If I wanted Yale, an application would be sufficient! Mind you, I was no genius, nor was I a star athlete. My extracurricular activity consisted of watching the Queen Mary steam through the narrows of New York Harbor during sixth-form study hall.
Nevertheless, I received my acceptance in due course. How thrilled I was! I couldn’t wait to get started.
When I arrived at Yale that fall, it was like running into a brick wall. Somehow I was immediately identified as a Jew from Brooklyn. I soon found that the other Jewish boys in my class also were so stigmatized. We were isolated, then ghettoized. By sophomore year, when I was assigned to Berkeley College, I found that all of the Jewish boys in Berkeley (with one exception) were assigned to a single entry.
Someone, evidently, had systematically planned our isolation. Yet, I had one non-Jewish friend. His name was Dudley Livingston Miller. “Dud” was a “Big Man on Campus”—Whiffenpoof, Skull and Bones, wrestler, dirty-buck shoes, and pork-pie hat. It must have taken great courage for him to befriend a Jew in spite of the pressures to the contrary. We remained friends long afterward until his untimely death.
“King” Brewster was also a BMOC as an undergrad. I didn’t know him personally, but he was well-known by reputation. I can imagine the pressure upon him by the Good Old Boys when he began instituting his revolutionary ideas, especially when some of the big alumni givers couldn’t get their sons into Yale. Bravery comes in many forms. Kingman Brewster’s was the quiet kind.
“The Birth of a New Institution” makes an important point for Yale’s future: Nothing has really changed in the admissions process, except that the social snobbery of the 1920s and 1950s has been replaced by the social snobbery of the 1990s.
As coordinator of alumni interviews in my region, I continue to be sometimes delighted, but more often dumbfounded and appalled, by Yale’s selection procedures. Many good kids are turned away by the mandarins in the admissions department. Many unworthy kids are accepted. Yale never even bothers to explain the decisions to us.
I’ve heard complaints that the admissions department at Yale is basically a welfare program for academic camp-followers. As Geoffrey Kabaservice so artfully implies, these people could easily be replaced by a lottery system if Yale is really serious about “assimilating” and “acculturating” members of previously excluded groups.
Such a system would also be fairer and more inclined to blunt the alumni criticism that continues from generation to generation.
Geoffrey Kabaservice’s "The Birth of a New Institution” is a stunning piece. It’s courageous for the Yale Alumni Magazine to face the multiple bigotries and exclusions (racial, religious, sexual, class, and physical) underlying the Griswoldian ideal of the “well-rounded man.” Kabaservice’s account resonates with my experience as an undergraduate and graduate student at Yale from 1953 to 1963, as well as with my own sense of what is good history.
However the magazine made a comical and misleading error in captioning the photograph on page 36, which is meant to contrast the old order at Yale with the new: “Men in coats and ties eventually gave way to coeducation and more relaxed garb in the residential college dining halls.” The “before” segment is actually a photo of a Scholar of the House meeting some time in 1956–57, not of a residential college dining hall. More importantly, the two unidentified central figures, shown waving their hands in animated conversations, are André Schiffrin ’57 (now head of The New Press) and me (now professor of history, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York). Greener and perhaps (speaking for myself) redder than blue, we are two lifelong leftists, New York Jews (admittedly from private schools), founding members of the Yale chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy (later SDS), and among the handful of socialists at Yale at the time. We offended in various ways against the Yale mainstream: attacking secret societies and fraternities, endorsing coeducation, ridiculing “shoe” culture—and going relatively dateless. Maybe pictures lie, and maybe they don’t: There is no denying that we were dressed in coat and tie when we went to Scholar of the House meetings. Nonetheless, it’s, like, bizarre to select us as exemplars of the deservedly declining Old Order at Yale in the fifties.
We borrowed the photograph in question from Manuscripts and Archives, where it was filed under “dining hall scenes.”—Ed.
By enrolling highly talented students from a much wider array of economic and ethnic groups than was the case in my day, Yale now serves the nation far more effectively than it did then.
Current Yale policy helps to spread the word among the economically disadvantaged and non-WASPs that the opportunity to study at America’s leading colleges is increasingly accessible, and that merit is what counts.
What a wonderful example of a social justice policy that promotes both the national interest and the health of the institution!
Your thorough and courageous piece on Yale’s changing admission policies resolved a question that has troubled me: Why did Yale discontinue the egalitarian selection process that enlivened the University in the immediate post-World War II years?
My first semester was during the old regime, in the fall of 1942. A symbol of the time was the usual question asked by a new acquaintance: “Where did you prep?” My increasingly sharp response was “Central High School, Philadelphia, PA.” As the fall term ended, I enlisted in the army, with no regrets, least of all that I would miss Yale.
Returning in the fall of 1945 after life as an infantry soldier, I came to understand that getting a liberal education at Yale was the best thing that could happen to me. I soon found that the whole atmosphere had changed. The former GIs studied hard, asked questions in class, and debated the eternal issues late into the night, often over a beer at the dingy Old Heidelberg on Park Street.
I never understood why the level playing field created by the GI Bill was not maintained when the veterans departed. That the return to the old admission process was a policy of the Griswold administration is particularly surprising to those of us who cherish the memory of his widow, Mary Griswold. Mary was a strong progressive voice for six years in the Connecticut General Assembly—and indeed the outspoken champion of our state’s income tax.
Your account of the democratization of Yale’s admission policy in the Brewster years argues persuasively that in searching for diversity of origin, of talent, and of excellence, Yale serves its students and the nation best. Like many Old Blues, I am confident that I would not qualify for admission today. I remain grateful for whatever made Yale possible for me, not least for the older Logue brothers who preceded me.
The article “The Birth of a New Institution,” which described the efforts of Presidents Kingman Brewster and Whitney Griswold to modernize Yale, reminded me of my experience as a female undergraduate in the School of Fine Arts (1941-43). I wanted to take an anthropology course given by Ralph Linton, but was not permitted to do so because it was given in Yale College, which was all-male.
Women were required to sit at the back of the lecture hall for a general art history course given by Dean Everett Meeks. One of my friends was slightly deaf and asked him if she could sit near the front. He told her that this was against the traditions of Yale. She dropped the class.
It took 26 years after I left to resolve these issues.
In his panegyric about Kingman Brewster, Mr. Geoffrey Kabaservice appears to suggest, through his focus on and repetition of Yale’s asserted change to a meritocracy, that all of us (including Brewster?) who preceded this change lacked merit, and all those who followed possess it. I have some doubts about this notion.
Perhaps Kingman Brewster’s personal views can be illustrated by an incident I will never forget. Just after Freshman Convocation in 1969, my younger son and I encountered President Brewster at the entrance to Woodbridge Hall. When I introduced my son to Kingman, he asked him where he had gone to high school. Hotchkiss was the answer. Then the President of Yale said to the incoming freshman: “WASP, preppy, double legacy. You’re exactly what we don’t need at Yale!”
I congratulate you enthusiastically for publishing Geoffrey Kabaservice’s article. It is extremely well written, but more important, it deals with the type of critical questions that confront Yale. We need to see more of this type of article in the Yale Alumni Magazine.
We live in a dynamic and competitive world. If you step out of the narrow departmental arguments and do a reality check to see where the truly exciting, relevant, and bountiful innovations are taking place, you will notice that the intellectual landscape has shifted a great deal in the last couple of decades. Schools that in my days distinctly trailed Yale (I think of Stanford, MIT, and Columbia) have fundamentally reinvented themselves, possibly several times, so that by now they have become our peers, and have even leapfrogged over us by some measures. Kabaservice’s article details the anatomy of one such courageous reinvention undertaken by Yale in the past. It should be the Yale Alumni Magazine’s charter to tell us what new paradigm the current administration must, by necessity, be pursuing for Yale.
Tobacco vs. Alcohol
I’ll be surprised albeit thrilled if the recent University Properties ban on tobacco sales (“Light & Verity,” Nov.) effects even a slight decline in the tendency for people on and around campus to light up. Nevertheless I see no hypocritical link between the University stock portfolio and the tobacco taboo.
Yale should liquidate its tobacco holding immediately, but only because other sectors of the economy offer so much more in terms of growth opportunities.
University spokesman Lawrence Haas says, “We don’t want to be in a position of encouraging or condoning a practice that is demonstrably harmful to people.” However, I think Yale should look hard at the fact that alcohol remains at the hub of most University-related events despite full awareness of its toxic potential. One need only attend a class reunion or any football weekend for evidence of this.
I’m not advocating a return to the days of prohibition. But in view of the far too many Yale graduates whose lives have ended prematurely over the years as a result of substance abuse, I’d urge University policymakers to embark upon a get-high-on-life-rather-than-alcohol campaign and to encourage students, faculty, and alumni to do the same.
I wish to express my agreement with the “group of professors and preservationists” who objected to the new balcony in Berkeley’s dining hall (“Worth the Wait,” Nov.). The idea of adding a balcony at the level of the windows’ bottom edge does not disturb me, but the balcony should certainly have been in keeping with the rest of the room. Good architecture is not an “intergenerational event,” but rather a work of art. Time and again I am dismayed at modern architects’ lack of good taste and common sense. Let us hope that future generations will replace the green lamps, door, and railing with something worthy of the space.
It appears that in his note about the “Edible Insects Weekend” (“Details,” Dec.), Bruce Fellman has confused the words “arachnid” and “arthropod.” He writes, “Crowds came for the arachnids” and “dishes … featured arachnids.” The Class Arachnida includes spiders, scorpions, mites, ticks, and their relatives. It is one Class within the Phylum Arthropoda (“jointed-legged” creatures). The other Classes of Arthropoda include the Crustacea (lobsters, shrimp, crabs, and relatives), Chilopoda (centipedes), Diplopoda (millipedes), and the largest Class, Insecta (with over one million species of insects). The weekend celebrated many types of arthropods, but especially the insects and arachnids. I often tell my students that calling a spider an insect is as logical as calling a human being a fish!
In our October “Who’s Blue: College and University Presidents,” we overlooked James T. Laney '50, Emory University.
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