Yale students condemn Kavanaugh case as 'symptom of a larger problem'

Students at university with long ties to US power unsurprised by allegations in culture that ‘normalises’ sexual misconduct

Across the Yale campus, outdoor bulletin boards are plastered with the same rain-soaked message: “We believe Dr Christine Blasey Ford.”

Sexual assault allegations raised by Ford and other women against the supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have captivated a breathless and divided America. At Yale, it feels personal.

Kavanaugh, who denies the accusations, walked the halls as both undergraduate and law student. Defending his character before the Senate judiciary committee on Thursday, he proudly cited his attendance – and Yale’s academic rigour – as he tried to deflect questions about how much he drank when young.

Deborah Ramirez – the second woman to make allegations against Kavanaugh – says he exposed his genitals to her at a residence hall party when she was a first-year student.

On Friday, the Senate panel voted along party lines to send Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full chamber. But it also asked the Trump administration to order a week-long FBI inquiry. The president agreed. At Yale, the episode caused anger and frustration.

On Wednesday, undergraduates gathered to rally against Kavanaugh. One chant was: “We are tired.”

“It’s not the first time an allegation of sexual misconduct has come out about a man in power, or a man who is about to be super-powerful, or a man from Yale,” said Valentina Connell, a junior who helped organise the protest. “I was hurt and not surprised.”

For Yale, the Kavanaugh hearings have brought a sense of déjà vu: nearly 27 years ago, Anita Hill charged in televised testimony that another alumnus nominated for the highest court, Clarence Thomas, had repeatedly sexually harassed her.

Thomas forcefully denied the allegations and characterised the judiciary committee’s work as a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves”. He was confirmed. As today, many Yale students were upset at the voice of a woman being so readily dismissed.

In a front-page photo in the 18 October 1991 issue of the Yale Daily News, a wall in the law school is covered with messages of support and outrage: “Tough luck, women!” reads one. “Thomas wins,” reads another. “Women lose.”

Dianne Lake helped organise a sit-in against Kavanaugh at Yale Law School last week.
Dianne Lake helped organise a sit-in against Kavanaugh at Yale Law School last week. Photograph: Josh Wood/The Observer

Today, Hill’s name is listed alongside Kavanaugh’s accusers on “we believe” messages affixed to bulletin boards on campus. Student activists cite her as an inspiration.

“Her bravery and courage in coming forward at that time set an important precedent for other folks to know that they can do the same,” said Dianne Lake, a student who organised a sit-in at Yale Law School last week to oppose Kavanaugh. “We saw [on Thursday] that Dr Christine Blasey Ford demonstrated similar courage.”

‘When we come together, we are heard’

Yale isn’t just any university. It is an incubator of American power. It counts five presidents among its graduates, including both Bushes and Bill Clinton. If Kavanaugh is confirmed, three of the nine sitting justices will be products of Yale. For the sons and daughters of America’s elite families, New Haven has long been a pit stop on the road to success and power.

It is also a place where young men from privileged backgrounds have formed long-lasting bonds in all-male fraternities and secret societies.

Kavanaugh was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE), one of the country’s oldest fraternities. His doubters have had a hard time squaring his statement of “always treating women with dignity and respect” with his membership in the organisation. When he was in the frat, initiates walked around campus with flags made of women’s undergarments.

In 2011, long after Kavanaugh left Yale, DKE was banned for five years after members were filmed chanting “no means yes, yes means anal” outside the Women’s Center. Earlier this year, Yale launched an investigation after sexual assault allegations were made against more than half a dozen members. Students say sexual misconduct is not a thing of the past.

“Most people on this campus know people who experienced sexual misconduct at some point during their time here,” said Ry Walker, another protest organiser. “This is about the supreme court nomination, but it is also about how to hold our community to higher standards.”

Sexual misconduct and assault was “so normalised”, added the second-year undergraduate Abby Leonard, who also organised the protest. “It’s so expected as just part of life. But that’s a problem and something we need to stop expecting and start addressing.”

Ry Walker, Valentina Connell and Abby Leonard.
Ry Walker, Valentina Connell and Abby Leonard. Photograph: Josh Wood/The Observer

Lake said: “It still holds true that there are a lot of toxic things about Yale College’s sexual climate to this day and I can’t even imagine how it was back then, considering that a good amount of progress has been made.”

The undergraduate protest organisers see their university as being “complicit” in Kavanaugh’s rise and the abuses of which he stands accused.

“Kavanaugh is a symptom of a much larger problem at Yale where Yale is complicit in giving powerful men power and then being complicit when they abuse their power,” said Connell.

When Kavanaugh’s nomination was announced, Yale put out a press release filled with praise from Yale Law School personalities.

But on Friday morning, the Yale Law School dean, Heather Gerken, joined the tide of Americans asking for an additional investigation. “Proceeding with the confirmation process without further investigation is not in the best interest of the court or our profession,” she said.

While the Kavanaugh episode has been distressing, Connell said, the protests have been empowering.

“When we all come together and we all chant together,” she said, “we are heard. Administrators show up to these rallies, administrators are forced to respond … that is the crazy power we have as students.”

Lawrance Hall, the dormitory where Deborah Ramirez says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her.
Lawrance Hall, the dormitory where Deborah Ramirez says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. Photograph: Josh Wood/The Observer

The Kavanaugh hearings have been engrossing for many on campus. Eamon Hauser, a first year, lives in Lawrance Hall, the residence in which Ramirez alleges Kavanaugh drunkenly thrust his penis in her face at a dorm party in the 1983-1984 school year.

“It’s literally across from me,” said Hauser of the room where the assault is alleged to have happened. “It’s really absurd to think that something so huge in our political atmosphere could happen literally feet from where I live.”

Hauser has only been on campus a few weeks, but he says he can already feel the culture of privilege on campus. Along with the college atmosphere, that is “conducive” to sexual misconduct, he said.

The Kavanaugh episode has left Simon Rabinowitz, another first year, unsettled.

Of “the people I’m meeting”, he asked: “What if they’re the next Brett Kavanaugh?”


Josh Wood in New Haven, Connecticut

The GuardianTramp

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