Letters to the Editor

Letters: September/October 2021

We welcome readers’ letters, which should be emailed to yam@yale.edu or mailed to Letters Editor, PO Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905. Due to the volume of correspondence, we are unable to respond to or publish all mail received. Letters accepted for publication are subject to editing. Priority is given to letters of fewer than 300 words.

Richard Brodhead’s Yale

Thank you for Richard Brodhead’s lovely memoir of the English department in the ’60s and ’70s (“I Learn By Going Where I Have to Go,” July/August), especially his memorable year as TA to treasured Shakespeare lecturer Alvin Kernan in 1970, as students picketed outside the ivy walls to call attention to the community and to the New Haven trial of Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins. None of us who were still in attendance, having crossed the picket line, will ever forget the day that a protester entered the back of the lecture hall and loudly demanded that Professor Kernan cease his lecture because it was “irrelevant”—to which the wise professor calmly responded that he found Shakespeare entirely relevant to understanding the human condition under just such circumstances, which elicited a standing ovation from his students, as I recall. It remains the most remarkably modulated example of rational discourse I have ever witnessed, still fondly recalled over 50 years later.
Nathan M. Wise ’72
Old Saybrook, CT

I thoroughly enjoyed my classmate Dick Brodhead’s absorbing piece on his (stellar!) years at Yale. I second Dick’s sense that Yale during our undergraduate years (1964–1968) was a very special place. He rightly emphasizes the remarkable demographic changes that Brewster and his young lieutenants, including Inky Clark, who became director of admissions in our second year, made. I certainly profited from them. Our freshman year was the first that public school students outnumbered those from private schools. Since I was a public school kid who needed full financial aid, that was crucial for me. I felt as if I had been given the keys to the candy store.

Unlike Dick, I did not come to Yale to study the humanities, then, and arguably even now, Yale’s great strength. Owing to the remarkable national reaction to the launching of Sputnik, I was bent on math and science. But encountering philosophy, and other humanities, at Yale changed all that. And like Dick, I never looked back. I have been teaching philosophy for the past 49 years, for the last 13 back at Yale.

Dick describes the challenges he had to live through as a young assistant professor when English departments got smitten with the “theory thing,” and Yale English became a central player. Viewing those years from the perspective of an analytical philosopher, I remember thinking, and sometimes saying, “Isn’t it time for post-post-modernism yet?” (It was early enough that that could draw a laugh, even from English colleagues.)

 Yale today is a very different place from what we knew in the mid-1960s. Though those years were certainly special, Yale is greatly improved in many ways, most obviously, because of coeducation and vastly greater racial, ethnic, social, and international diversity. What a privilege and joy it has been and still is to be able to be part of it.
Stephen Darwall ’68
New Haven, CT

Mr. Darwall is the Andrew Downey Orrick Professor of Philosophy at Yale.

Richard Brodhead’s autobiographical essay evokes my memory of being in the Yale Graduate School a decade earlier. Imagine taking a class with Cleanth Brooks, dean of New Criticism, and another with the newly arrived Harold Bloom at the very same time. For a time, my mind was absolutely whipsawed by these opposing critical approaches.
Charles H. Rathbone ’60, ’61MAT
Cambridge, MA

More on trustee elections

I think the decision of the Yale Corporation to eliminate petitioning for Alumni Trustees (“After Election, Trustees End Petition Campaigns,” July/August) might have been handled better; a statement of position and a request for comment before they made their decision would have been more transparent and more respectful of alumni sensitivities. However, I agree with the decision insofar as it’s aimed at eliminating “issues-based candidacies, with intense campaigning by petitioners who are materially supported by organizations that seek to advance specific platforms.”

I signed Victor Ashe’s petition because I thought he was right about the need for more transparency. I didn’t vote for him, because he clearly wasn’t just speaking for himself but was backed by the Buckley Program. That he had a full-page ad in the Yale Alumni Magazine and was supported by an editorial in the Wall Street Journal added to the impression that there was more to his candidacy than met the eye or was revealed in his exchange of emails with me. (I would have felt exactly the same if the support appeared to come from left-wing political organizations and media.)

I accept that we all have our own agendas but, as Zoraya Hightower ’15MEM put it, “some are more transparent about it.” So I think it would be desirable for all candidates for alumni trustee to provide a detailed biography and statement of what they hoped to bring to the job if elected, both to be published in the election materials. It would also be useful if the nominating committee stated how many candidates there were and how and why each candidate was chosen.
Jay Greer ’54
Chestnut Hill, MA

As a student of politics at Yale, an active former member of the Yale Political Union, and an active participant in the American experiment of self-government for nearly 50 years, I write in dismay to express my deep disappointment with the Yale Corporation’s decision to abolish the petition process for nominating alumni trustees to the Corporation.

Surely the present era, in which authoritarianism is again on the rise, and even what we have come to regard as the best of governments has reason to question the future of democratic institutions and access to the ballot, is not the best time—to say the least—for the governing body of one of the world’s recognized leaders in higher education to restrict ballot access among demonstrably qualified members of the electorate. As the Washington Post has admonished us in recent years, “democracy dies in darkness.”

To put it succinctly, what in the hell is the Yale Corporation thinking?
David L. Applegate ’75
Chicago, IL

In most years, the Alumni Fellow Nominating Committee gives us only two candidates to choose from. In a year when a petition candidate got on the ballot, the AFNC chose to run only one candidate against him rather than their usual two. Fear of vote-splitting was probably the reason for that decision. But this two-candidate limitation isn’t the fault of the committee, the alumni, or the candidates—it is a systemic flaw in our voting method.

Plurality voting (“vote for one only”) doesn’t accurately measure support when there are more than two candidates. In contrast, approval voting (“vote for all the candidates you support”) eliminates vote-splitting, allowing any number of candidates to run while still giving every candidate a clear measure of their true support.

Approval voting is a terrific reform that’s easy to implement, and it was recently adopted with overwhelming support by two US cities (Fargo and St. Louis). If we used approval voting to elect our alumni fellows, it would reduce the incentive to keep petition candidates out of the race.
Michael Bell Ruvinsky ’98
Los Angeles, CA

I expect most readers of the magazine have become aware of the controversy regarding nomination of alumni fellows. Yalies on desert islands have likely received several carrier pigeons on the subject.

Controversy is to be expected on such questions, and debate is healthy. But communications from opponents of the change seem almost entirely motivated by anger. Their goal appears to be not so much persuading the undecided as energizing those already committed. It is difficult to see the value of such an approach.
Ron Sipherd ’64
Oakland, CA

A singular complaint

Although I majored in biology, I still cringe when I read bad grammar. How did the subtitle to “A Thinker’s Life” (July/August)—“What makes a person care deeply enough about something to devote their life to it?”—make it past the editor?
Scott Innes ’95
Soldotna, AK

One person’s bad grammar is another’s evolving standard. Although “they,” “them,” and “their” have been used with singular subjects since the 1300s—arbiters of style have until recently agreed with Mr. Innes’s view where written language is concerned. But the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style (our house style book) have both given a limited thumbs-up to the practice in recent years.—Eds.

Symphony memories

It was gratifying to see the From the Editor page about the Yale Symphony Orchestra trip to the UK (“Summer and Music, 43 Years Ago”). Permit me to add a few points.

The vast majority of YSO alums are not professional musicians but were able to continue their extraordinary musical expertise at Yale while studying to be doctors, lawyers, philosophers, physicists, historians, and authors. That Yale possesses a great School of Music means that students in the college can continue to study their instruments with world-class teachers. In return, Yale’s musicians share what they love with the community, unlike other fields of study that remain hidden within its labs and library towers. As a magnet for society, Yale’s musicians literally change the environment of learning and sharing.

Richard Brodhead’s article (“I Learn By Going Where I Have to Go”) reminded me of an extraordinary example of what music at Yale means. Brodhead wrote, “By spring 1970, ordinary business had halted at American universities.” Indeed, in the first week of May, Yale students had gone on strike in solidarity with other university students protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War. The YSO had been rehearsing for a concert on May 9.

The university was ostensibly shut down. The YSO musicians, however, unanimously voted to give the concert provided it be a benefit to help create a day care center for Yale’s workers—named for Dallas Cowboy and Yale alumnus Calvin Hill ’69. And on May 9, 1970, a packed Woolsey Hall brought the shattered campus together with music. The brilliant solo cellist was a first-year mathematics student, Louis Rowen ’73PhD, who is currently a professor at Bar Ilam University in Israel.
When the YSO first toured (France, 1971) and played the music of Debussy, Scriabin, and Ives at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the French public was astounded by the quality of a student orchestra that was not from a conservatory, but from the very kind of institution led by Robert le Sorbon in the thirteenth century—one that included a music faculty as part of its broader educational structure.

The alumni magazine’s current editor is a perfect example of why the YSO is so important. At Yale, where she majored in English, she also played Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique in England, where she met former Yale president Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41 and William Waite ’51—both of whom should be considered fathers of the YSO.
Having referenced the “anguished final movement” of Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, she knows something only second violinists know about the opening of that movement and its jigsaw puzzle of notes that only makes sense when the first violins play with them. The lesson it teaches those who play “second fiddle” is a key to understanding the building blocks of civilization itself and the secrets composers tell their interpreters.
John Mauceri ’67, ’70MPhil
New York, NY

Mr. Mauceri was music director of the Yale Symphony Orchestra from 1968 to 1974.

I don’t believe I met Kathrin Lassila on that wonderful Yale Symphony Orchestra trip to the UK, but I was also on it. I was a “ringer,” if you will, as the percussion section needed an extra player and I was in the Yale School of Music.

The seasickness was not pleasant. I hadn’t realized I had so much company in that regard, because I was holed up in my cabin most of the time! They administered anti-seasickness shots on the ship, but it was too late by then, and the shots had no positive effect on me. When we’d left Southampton, the English Channel was so calm . . . little did we know.

I have a lot of very good memories, although many have now faded. I do recall that we found a virtually deserted Manchester on a Sunday afternoon with almost nothing open, even for meals. And there were posters all over town announcing an upcoming Meat Loaf rock concert.

Thank you for that very nice remembrance. Very much appreciated.
Warren Stein ’79MusM
New York, NY

Student mental health

Yale needs to accept partial responsibility for the suicide of Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum (“First-year Student Dies in Suicide,” May/June). Adding 14 new full-time mental health and wellness staff to Yale College’s health service, while a welcome addition, is not a complete answer. I believe Yale needs to provide greater recognition of the hothouse atmosphere of the elite Ivy League college. I would like to hear an administration discussion of the tremendous pressure felt by students.

The pressure now is as great, if not greater, than the pressure I felt in 1965, when I was a junior and attempted suicide. I worried I couldn’t keep up with the brilliant students who surrounded me. I felt I didn’t belong among these students, who were on their way to successful careers. I also experienced the burden of family expectations. My parents and grandparents expected me to re-establish the worthiness of our ancestors, who went to Yale, and of my father, who failed to graduate. I imagine it’s no different for students today, who are often the first in their family to go to one of the preeminent universities in America. This expectation falls heavily on a student eager to please.

The issue of providing access to professional mental health help is very important, but I have found that peer support may be of even greater assistance. Being able to share your problems with others like yourself has huge impact, and hearing their methods of dealing with mental health issues provides a pathway to wellness.
I reinforce the statement that no Yale student should feel so alone that suicide seems the only way out. I was saved from death by my own hand by many others, but it took 50 years before I learned from my loved ones and other mental health patients the route to happiness. It should not take so long.
Carlton Davis ’68, ’71MArch
Pasadena, CA

Yan Phou Lee in America

There was a lot to think about in your excellent article about Yan Phou Lee (“Neither Here Nor There,” May/June). The uneasy place of Asian Americans in our society is of course a timely subject. Although I was concerned, on starting to read, that Lee’s story would be overtaken by a spasm of wokeness, the narrative was so strong and engrossing that I needn’t have worried. Lee clearly faced prejudice in America, but just as clearly his pride and prickliness made him a figure all readers could recognize, regardless of their race. I especially liked the input of Lee’s descendants, who seem securely assimilated while insisting on the importance of their roots.
Jeff Wheelwright ’69
Morro Bay, CA

Schwarzman Center

Shame on your magazine for publishing the diatribe against alumnus Stephen Schwarzman and his politics (Letters, July/August). Perhaps the letter writer is unaware that her nemesis Mr. Trump garnered some 74 million votes in the 2020 election, including, I hazard, more than a few Yalies in addition to Mr. Schwarzman. Do the rest of us also need to launder our reputations?

Please do not allow the alumni magazine to become yet another forum for the expression of political viewpoints. There are other venues more suitable for such activities. We are better than that.
William H. Jarrett II ’54
Atlanta, GA

I think that the dishonesty, racism, and cruelty of the Trump administration was disgusting and appalling. I also think that Mr. Schwarzman has the right to support his political choice, no matter how much I disagree. I don’t support “canceling” those with whom I disagree. I do wonder whether the money was well spent, or should have gone to other projects.
Phil Gans ’69, ’72JD
Golden, CO

The electric chair

Thank you so much for mentioning my book Two Truths and a Lie (Output, July/August). I am honored to be in these pages.

As you noted, my book is about the execution I witnessed when I was a young reporter for the Miami Herald and my years-long search to determine whether the man I saw die was innocent.

In your description of my book, you referred to the electric chair at Florida State Prison as Old Sparky. Since you put that phrase in quotation marks, a reader might assume that those were words I used too. I’d like to make it clear that I absolutely do not refer to the electric chair in my book by that or any other nickname. As someone who witnessed an execution—one that went awry—I don’t think of the electric chair as a pop-culture phenomenon, an object of fascination, or a quaint oddity of the justice system deserving of an affectionate moniker.

I think it’s important now, especially when states are returning to the electric chair as a method of execution, to be very clear about what the chair is and what it does—and what that means for us, as a society. Any understanding of the electric chair and the death penalty must begin with the words we use to consider it. And I hope we can at the very least agree that the death penalty is not a joke.
Ellen McGarrahan ’85
London, UK

History in a bottle

Megann Licskai presented a photo essay on baby bottles that is not only an artistic, but also a historical delight (“What’s in a Bottle?” January/February). Working as an engineer before becoming a historian helped me enjoy the evolution of shapes and materials for an object we all know well today.
Tom Falco ’62, ’94MPhil
West Haven, CT

Bush on first

I missed the decision to rename Yale Field for George H. W. Bush ’48 (“Poppy’s Field,” July/August)—but what a great move. As an eighth grader at nearby Sheridan Junior High, I had two wonderful buddies—Doris Allen and Johanna Johnson—whose fathers were the Yale baseball coach and manager of ticket sales at Yale Field, respectively. We made frequent trips to that venue, where we saw Yale win consecutive Ivy and Eastern NCAA championships. Among the many stars were a bunch of returning World War II vets, the best of whom was first baseman Bush. He was a superb fielder, not a hitter, but I seem to remember his late-inning scoreboard-hitting drive that beat NYU and sent the Bulldogs to the College World Series. What great memories, and what a well-deserved honor for our late president!
David O’Brasky ’56
Peoria, AZ

Earthly rewards

I read to my daughter the story of Divinity School registrar Lisabeth Huck waiting 11 years for the opportunity to give the class “Evil in Early Christianity” the course number REL 666 (“Class from Hell,” March/April). Her reaction was: “That woman deserves a raise!”
Paul Kujawsky ’78
Valley Village, CA

Corrections
In a photo caption accompanying Richard Brodhead’s essay (“I Learn By Going Where I Have to Go,” July/August), we wrote that Brodhead entered Yale in 1963. It was 1964.

We identified Molly Worthen ’03, ’11PhD, who wrote our feature “A Thinker’s Life” (July/August), as an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina. She is an associate professor.

The photographs of the School of Nursing’s disaster simulation (“Scenes from a Fake Emergency,” March/April) were taken by Bob Handelman, not Mark Ostow.


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