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Learning From Flap Over 'Sissies' T-shirt a Priority for Yale College Dean

Today's Yale Daily News features an article on Yale College Dean Mary Miller, who outlines for the newspaper the goals for her tenure in an interview. Miller, Torch readers will remember, was front-and-center in a controversy sparked last fall when she intervened in the affairs of Yale College's Freshman Class Council (FCC) by nixing the proposed design of a T-shirt for the annual Yale-Harvard football game. The T-shirt, taking a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, read "I think of all Harvard men as sissies" on the front, a line which prompted complaints from some in Yale's student body over the use of the supposedly derogatory term. Refreshingly, amidst discussion of budgetary and curricular matters, Miller admits that she "had a lot to learn" about free expression on campus when she took on the T-shirt controversy.

Of her decision to pull the T-shirt design, Miller told the News in November that "[w]hat purports to be humor by targeting a group through slurs is not acceptable." Miller's overbearing treatment of the FCC (which she also later claimed she had authority over) led to widespread criticism and ridicule of Yale, which had already taken a massive PR beating over its censorship of the images of Mohammed in Jytte Klausen's book The Cartoons That Shook the World.

Eventually, Yale started to get the picture. Responding to FIRE's December 2009 letter, Yale President Richard C. Levin confirmed that "it is not the role of the Dean or any other University official to suppress the speech of any student or student organization." Regarding the use of Miller's position and influence to pull the design, Levin also wrote:

But, as best I can determine, it would have been possible, and not unreasonable, for some members of the Council to interpret Dean Miller's counsel as a directive. This we regret. Dean Miller and I stand by the University's commitment to free expression, and we would not want to give any students the impression that the content of their speech is subject to censorship.

Miller's interview with the News echoes Levin's words, an encouraging sign that she intends not to repeat her earlier mistakes. As the News reports, in a section of the interview titled "Trial by FIRE":

Miller said some of her lessons about the deanship had to be learned the hard way, pointing to her role in the conflict over Freshman Class Council T-shirts for the Harvard-Yale football game. In November, Miller expressed concerns about the FCC shirts — which included the word "sissies" in an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote — and the FCC eventually scrapped the design, having interpreted her comments as a directive. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent an open letter to University administrators in December, criticizing their involvement. In response, University President Richard Levin said he regretted the misunderstanding between Miller and the FCC.

When the dust settled, Miller asked the Office of General Counsel to conduct a legal workshop on the Woodward Report, Yale's policy governing free speech, for her and other deans.

"We could have done a better job," Miller said. "I had a lot to learn, and I wanted to be sure that other officers of the Dean's Office learned along with me."

FIRE has over the years made numerous entreaties to the Yale administration to remember its commitment to free speech as dictated by its influential and admirable Woodward Report, a document which upholds, among other things, "the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable." We're thus pleased and encouraged to see Miller and her colleagues take active steps to better understand and employ Yale's policies. And, in a culture where admissions of fault are devilishly hard to wring from administrators, Miller's admission that she "could have done a better job" goes a long way to saying that she indeed wants to do so.

As I wrote about Southwestern College yesterday, a healthy atmosphere where students and faculty feel comfortable expressing their views and feel they have the backing of the administration is an essential ingredient in the life of a university, and neglecting it can make it exceedingly difficult to conduct the other business of the institution.

Fortunately, Miller seems to understand this. Let's hope she's as good as her word.

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