Dear President Salovey,

An appeal from the Yale Alumni Fund came to me through the mail this week.  I haven’t given to Yale in a number of years, but have decided, after much reflection on the events at Yale this fall, to send in a donation.  I thought I would explain why.

Years ago I played a very small part in Brown University’s pioneering project to reckon with the institution’s role in the history of slavery.  I had the opportunity, along with several other academics, to meet then-President Ruth Simmons and to discuss how a public monument might fit into Brown’s larger effort.  As I’m sure you know, the whole process of study and reflection took several years and culminated in a number of specific institutional initiatives that involved historical archiving, curricular reform, integration of the research in K-12 education, community engagement and investment, and a new monument on campus.

Yale did not engage in any such process, despite appeals from within and without.  Frankly, I was very disappointed and I stopped giving to the alumni fund.  Given Yale’s enormous wealth and privilege, the institution – it seemed to me – should have been resilient enough to do some serious self-examination and inquire openly into the sources and legacies of its privilege.  I was hoping that the inquiry might go beyond slavery and include also the long fraught history of town-gown relations, including for example Yale’s role in the “urban renewal” of New Haven, which destroyed black communities in the name of progress.

As an art historian, I have been amazed at the longevity of images of bondage on campus.  The portrait of Elihu Yale with his black “servant” in a silver collar that hung in the corporation boardroom did not come down until 2007, and then only in a hush-hush way with no open discussion.  A metal statue of a kneeling black man/slave holding up a sundial – once in Elihu Yale’s estate – sat in the gardens of JE College when I lived just across the way in Branford in the 1970s.  John C. Calhoun’s chained slave, in his stained glass window in Calhoun College, survived until about 1990.  All of these examples offered “teachable moments,” but they were swept under the rug of institutional amnesia.

Now that policy of willful amnesia has caught up with Yale and with many other universities across the country, as they struggle with protests and criticisms about ongoing institutional racism.  I understand that there are some who feel that your response of November 17 ( is too little, too late.  But I am also a believer in “better late than never.”  I want to commend you for getting started, and hope that a more searching self-examination will follow.

Even just a cursory glance at the online commentary in response to the student protests makes clear that you will get a lot of pushback from angry donors with deep pockets.  Without engaging in accusation, I’ll just say that these critics drastically oversimplify the issues.  If you are sitting comfortably outside the university, you don’t have the same perspective as a faculty member trying to teach the history of slavery or race or images like those that once adorned the collective spaces of Yale – much less the perspective of students of color trying to open up these discussions or simply endure them when they are dominated by others who have no understanding of them. But it is the job of the university to teach these issues, to create spaces where people can air disagreements and still listen to one another, and to work toward a better dialogue.  It isn’t easy, but it’s essential.

Brown has a twelve-year start on Yale.  It would be interesting to consult with a range of people involved in Brown’s effort and learn more about what worked and what didn’t, how the university is following through, and which initiatives seem to have the most continuing impact. We can and should learn from each other.  We need to stay open to new ideas and flexible enough to change course.

In that spirit, I enclose an annual gift with my hope that we can indeed work toward a “better Yale.”