Getting minds right at Yale: Five points

The Washington Free Beacon has afforded us an invaluable peek into the diversity regime that rules higher education and roughly speaking every other governing institution in the United States. I refer of course to Aaron Sibarium’s Free Beacon story “A Yale Law Student Sent a Lighthearted Email Inviting Classmates to His ‘Trap House.’ The School Is Now Calling Him To Account.”

Sibarium’s story includes the Trent Colbert’s audio recording of his meetings with Associate Dean Ellen Cosgrove and Office of Student Affairs diversity czar Yaseen Eldik. The audio takes us inside the asylum. (The Office of Student Affairs page that I consulted over the past week to get Eldik’s official position right appears to have been altered to conceal the cast of characters.)

Sibarium’s story has prompted much commentary and reflection. It is, as they used to say in the good old days at the Drudge Report, impacting. See, for example, the parenthetical note above regarding the YLS Office of Student Affairs home page.

At the Atlantic, staff writer Conor Friedersdorf makes five observations based on Sibarium’s story and Colbert’s recordings. Friedersdorf calls them “five major errors,” but I think that is slightly off. The “errors” appear to me to be pillars of the regime. They intimate that it is rotten to the core.

Friedersdorf’s five points in any event help to flesh out aspects of the malfeasance committed by YLS, all of which are compounded by Dean Heather Gerken’s disingenuous public statement. I posted Gerken’s statement as well as the draft apology Eldik wrote for Colbert in “Getting minds right at Yale: In their own words.”

Friedersdorf’s story is here and worth reading in its entirety. I am posting Friedersdorf’s five points regarding the YLS authorities’ treatment of Colbert below the break. There is much more to be said, but this is a useful start (links omitted, emphasis and italics in original).

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1. They failed to share important context with the community. In their first meeting with Colbert, the administrators listened to him explain at length that he had no idea trap house had racial connotations. Eldik then told him, “Having met with you and spoken with you, you’re an honest person; you’re someone who clearly has integrity; you’re a good person, and I want that to be what people see from you. And I would hate to have to spend however much longer in this vortex of people making claims about who you are without even having met you once. So I’m very protective over you.”

Later, when those same diversity bureaucrats put out a public statement about the matter, they did not include the temperature-lowering fact that Colbert had said he didn’t know that trap house had any racial connotations, or that they judged him to be honest, or that he “clearly has integrity,” or that his classmates should not make claims about him without knowing him. Instead, they emailed the law students, “We understand that an invitation was recently circulated containing pejorative and racist language. We condemn this in the strongest possible terms. As the Law School’s Discrimination and Harassment Coordinators, we are working on addressing this. If anyone has concerns they would like to discuss further, please reach out to us.” That was two-faced behavior, and most people subjected to it would feel betrayed.

2. The diversity officers exploited the complexity of Yale’s rules and procedures to pressure Colbert. The American legal system that Yale Law students will enter after graduation is typically at its most abusive when authority figures in government or corporations exploit their own superior knowledge of its intricacies to mislead and manipulate the inexperienced. The law school ought to be teaching students to eschew and oppose such abuses.

In this matter, Eldik and Cosgrove used their private meeting with Colbert to urge the outcome they wanted: a written apology from him to his classmates. While pushing for that outcome, they could have told Colbert what Yale later clarified in a public statement: “Yale University and Yale Law School have strong free speech protections, and no student is investigated or sanctioned for protected speech.”

But the administrators would’ve had less leverage over Colbert if he had understood that the speech at issue was protected and that he would not be officially investigated or sanctioned for it. So they kept Colbert guessing as to whether or how he was being investigated or disciplined, and whether Yale administrators might report him to the bar, making vague insinuations and maintaining strategic ambiguity—even as Colbert explicitly, repeatedly, asked for clarity. They modeled abuse of authority of a kind Yale Law graduates denounce furiously when their clients are subjected to it, and gave all students and faculty reason to distrust the forthrightness of Yale diversity administrators.

3. Yale diversity officials acted like a crisis-PR team. At multiple points in the recording, Eldik and Cosgrove talk of wanting the matter to go away as soon as possible (a goal Colbert himself suggested that he shared), rather than wanting it to play out in the way that is most just, procedurally sound, and educationally rich. When Colbert expressed his willingness to converse one-on-one with upset peers—interactions that would have value for all involved—the diversity bureaucrats discouraged him. As Eldik put it, “I don’t want to put the onus on Black students to reach out to you to talk more.” The administrators also said that “nipping this in the bud,” as Cosgrove put it, would be best. Eldik went so far as to explain that they needed to make sure their office looked good. As he put it: “I also don’t want to make our office look like an ineffective source of resolution because we’re just writing to students and telling them, ‘He’s so sorry; accept our expression of his apology’ on your behalf, so it looks almost as if, like, we’ve all just sort of folded into each other. And it erases your individuality and your agency in this.”

But any concern for Colbert’s individuality and agency was called into question soon after, when—according to the Free Beacon’s account and other outlets’ subsequent interviews with Colbert—Yale’s diversity administrators composed a draft apology for Colbert, apparently preferring the PR value of a quick letter of contrition over the educational benefits of letting a student reflect and write to his peers in his own words. What kind of educators interject themselves as ghostwriters for students? Colbert declined to sign the letter. (He did implement a review process for future NALSA emails and post a conciliatory message in an online forum offering to discuss the matter with anyone who wanted.) But if he had put out their statement as if he had written it himself, he arguably would have been violating Yale Law’s code of conduct. One wonders if bygone apologies at Yale were actually drafted by diversity officers. I emailed Eldik, Cosgrove, and Yale Law Dean Heather Gerken to clarify, among other things, how often the school writes apologies for others and whether doing so is standard procedure, but the officials didn’t respond to specific questions.

4. The officials failed to acknowledge their own conflicts of interest. Students can learn from writing their own apologies, insofar as apologies are warranted, and more generally from working out problems among themselves. But that process can include conflict that makes administrators nervous, and if students succeed in working out their problems on their own, then the diversity bureaucracies will look less necessary.

When he recorded parts of his meetings, Colbert correctly sensed that, in his case, his interests and those of the diversity office were divergent. Yet in the recordings, Eldik and Cosgrove repeatedly talk as if all of their interests are aligned, even as they say and prepare to do things that illustrate the divergences. Colbert worried that the written apology they sought would afford antagonists an opportunity to pick apart whatever he wrote, extending the controversy and leaving him worse off than if he did nothing. Eldik acknowledged that an apology would be scrutinized but minimized that concern, assuring Colbert, “I can’t imagine that that would do anything other than make you a thoughtful, reasonable, kind person, and that is more likely to have this go away, which is clearly what you want, than, I think, any other alternative.”

A better-informed and more transparent adviser would have directed him to the academic literature on apologies—including the strongest case for and against making one. As the USC Marshall School of Business scholar Peter Kim once explained to me, ​​if a transgression is seen as intentional––as was true in Colbert’s case––“an apology can be quite harmful.” Rather than finding an apology appropriate, it is typically seen in these circumstances as confirmation of the belief that someone has done wrong and has character flaws. Deans are not obligated to give any PR advice to a student. But if they do, they shouldn’t omit all information that cuts against their desired outcome. A law school, of all places, should be especially attentive to the ethical obligations that go along with representing oneself as someone’s mentor and advocate.

5. The university failed to safeguard student expression. In Yale’s telling, the university does not investigate or punish protected speech. Administrators may not technically violate that standard by asking you probing questions in multiple meetings and condemning your actions in an all-student email. But “the university’s excuse that no formal investigation occurred is woefully inadequate,” the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan organization that works to protect free expression and due process for faculty and students, declared in a statement, because Eldik and Cosgrove were “at best, exceedingly vague about the process the student was undergoing and what consequences he might face if he failed to cooperate,” and, “to the ears of any reasonable student, some of these remarks were at best negligent, and at worst veiled threats.” The foundation is right: “If administrators want to invite a student to participate in an informal and optional conflict resolution process, the burden is on administrators to make crystal clear to the student that participation is wholly voluntary and that the student will in no circumstances face any punitive consequences for declining the invitation.”