March was supposed to be Women's History Month, but at Yale University this month they were busy erasing it.
Last fall, the university sponsored a convocation to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the admission of the first women undergraduates as well as 150 years of women attending the university's graduate and professional schools. Many distinguished alumnae attended and members of the first three undergraduate classes contributed their reminiscences in video compilations as well as essays about their experience. So far, so good.
Two of the 141 women who wrote essays asked to keep their submissions anonymous for personal reasons. But when the books were published, the Yale Alumni Association had deleted the names of all the women – without asking the authors' permission or even warning them of what had been done to their work.
After centuries of women being suppressed, diminished, pushed into the background, or having their work appropriated by others, this unexpected anonymization produced the reaction you might expect. The complaints raised in a first letter of protest were dismissed by the administration, and when the campus newspaper took up the story in February, the people responsible responded placidly, assuring readers that only a few people were upset – saying, in effect, let's move on, there's nothing to protest here.
This turned out to be not even a little bit true and led inevitably to an even longer letter signed by scores of people rallying to the side of the women who had been wronged. At first, the alumni association proposed producing two versions of the book, one with no names for public distribution and one with the authors identified that would be kept under wraps at the university library.
Since this only compounded their initial error, the powers that be convened a meeting of angry people including the responsible administrators, the culpable editors, and numerous representatives of their victims, for one of those "collegial" discussions that sometimes leave blood on the woodwork.
On March 18, in a "Dear Friends" letter couched in the joyless happy talk of the bureaucratically impaired, Yale announced, "Success – It's a win-win for all!"
What did they decide? They're going to burn the books! Destroy the evidence! According to their decree, all 500 copies of the book that dare not speak its names will be destroyed. (We are not making this up.) The digital file of this abomination will go onto the pyre as well. A new electronic version of the book, including the names of as many authors who care to be identified, will be accessible through the university library. Yale says it might try to find the money to print a "limited number" of the revised edition. But these books – if they ever come into existence – will only "be available at a time and in a manner to be determined."
How many Oriental carpets have they got in the office of Yale President Peter Salovey to sweep this nonsense under? Sadly, this isn't the first time Salovey's tenure has embarrassed Yale. He has gathered about him a stumble of advisers with an unerring sense for making almost any issue worse. They have managed, by administrative fiat, to turn a genuinely historic achievement into a divisive tempest for all involved.
Yale's librarians were not included in this meeting, and they should not agree to comply with any part of the outcome. At least one copy of the anonymized book must be retained, along with the campus newspaper's original report, the letters of protest that it engendered, and the record of this meeting. They are now, above all else, intrinsic parts of the history of women at Yale. But all the administration wants to do is hide, cover up, and pretend for posterity that it never happened. For a school whose motto is "Light and Truth," there is little of either in this fracas.
Where is there any accountability for this debacle? Who approved stripping out the names of these authors? That certainly wasn't done by the co-editors on their own. Somebody higher up in the university bureaucracy had to approve this assault. How much did they spend for all the books that will be destroyed? How much will the new books cost? What were the incidental costs for the editors, the incinerators, and the staff time devoted to this farce?
These might all be good questions for the university's governing body, the Yale Corporation, to ask. But wait. That wouldn't do any good. All the proceedings of the corporation are conducted in secret, and the records are locked up for 50 years. That means the university might be ready to come clean about this ridiculous insult just in time for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of undergraduate Women at Yale.
William Kahrl is a former member of the editorial board and opinion page editor at the Sacramento Bee. He graduated in 1968 in the last all-male class at Yale. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is pleased to say he is not a Yalie.