Fight the damn system

You can't handle the truth
    By David Bookstaber

headshotThe most useful lesson I have learned at Yale is how to fight the system. The Administration is a perfect example of a bureaucracy designed to carry out routine tasks efficiently while resisting change and failing to accommodate any extraordinary demand. On many occasions I have confronted this system. Through the use of focused, persistent efforts, I have learned that it can be overcome.

Two of my more passionate crusades have been for the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and the Yale College Course Critique (YCCC). These are institutions in which I have both a practical and an ideological interest—interests that Yale does not share.

In spite of Yale's longstanding military tradition and its distinction of having started ROTC, the Administration voted 30 years ago to revoke course credit from ROTC programs. This act prompted the Department of Defense to dissolve the ROTC program at Yale. Nonetheless, since then a few cadets each year, myself included, have attended Yale and commuted to the University of Connecticut at Storrs in order to participate in the ROTC unit there. A program that formerly earned four total credits toward graduation now provides none. Instead, it comes with an additional three-hour-a-week commute.

Meanwhile, as a staffer of the YCCC, I am baffled by the fact that the Administration can remain so oblivious to the principles of quality management that the YCCC supports. I am confused by a faculty that ostensibly makes commitments to undergraduate teaching, yet as a body is so opposed to helping an institution like the Course Critique. Those few data that are collected are withheld from the YCCC, forcing us to engage in surveying of our own. Finally, as if opposition from the Administration and the faculty weren't enough, the YCCC faces an apathetic student body that would rather complain about how few responses the YCCC gets than fill out surveys, and that would rather criticize it for poor editing than volunteer to assist the tiny, under-funded staff that puts it together each semester. What is an idealistic Yalie to do?

In this case, a few other YCCC editors and I have spent the last two years in a state of war with Yale. Our position paper and various proposals are posted on the YCCC website ( and aim to avoid the current duplication of effort between the Dean's Office and the YCCC while providing more effective course evaluations for everyone. But even with the support of a few sympathetic faculty members, our primary obstacle was simply to determine who had the authority to make changes at Yale. We spent weeks tracking down deans and administrators, trying to sort out conflicting stories and explanations. Finally, we determined that the faculty itself was the only entity with authority to change the University's position against supporting a course critique, and that the only way to present our proposals to the faculty was through the Teaching and Learning Committee. We spent months finding and confronting the indifferent members of this committee, to no avail. In the end it seemed that we had lost.

This apparent defeat only illustrates why circumventing the system is sometimes necessary. Facing the prospect of again sending YCCC staffers to survey ineffectually outside dining halls, we decided to do the Administration's job ourselves. We e-mailed all teachers of non-seminar classes and invited them to distribute our surveys along with the standard Dean's Office evaluation form. To our surprise, over 50 professors agreed. With just a few days left in the term, our small group distributed and collected surveys directly from these professors. After more than two years of trying to get the University to cooperate in creating a course evaluation system, we finally achieved a large degree of success by doing the job ourselves.

Bypassing the system is one way to win, but it is not always possible. For a generation, cadets have fought with varying intensity to return the ROTC to Yale, but have made no measurable progress. After trying myself for three years to get credit for the burdensome program that cadets assume, I finally figured out how to beat the system. I did it not by changing it, but by exploiting the fact that senior ROTC courses are close enough to political science courses that they can earn transfer credit through that department. So, for the first time in 30 years, senior cadets can get Yale credit for ROTC. It was just a matter of looking hard enough for a solution.

Don't wait for the system to help you. Don't protest or complain passively, either. Declare war on the system. Fight it, screw it, or abuse it. Just don't give up.

Recent Herald Columns by this Columnist:

Back to Opinion...