Letters to the Editor

Our readers respond

Yale, eugenics, and history

Congratulations to Richard Conniff for his comprehensive and thought-provoking article on the eugenics movement in America (“God and White Men at Yale,” May/June) and the prominent role that Yale intellectuals played in promoting the now-discredited science and public-policy agendas associated with it. As African American offspring of parents with elementary school educations living in the South at the height of the eugenics movement, my wife and I are grateful that our parents did not fall victim to these racist policies of the mid-twentieth century. Otherwise we would not now be candidates for the “highly desirable” pool of Yalie egg and sperm donors, because our parents likely could have been deemed unworthy to perpetuate their genetic stock through us.

Richard Payne ’73
Durham, NC


Richard Conniff’s “God and White Men at Yale” grabbed my attention because I was a psychology faculty member at Yale in the 1950s and knew faculty members who were close friends of Robert Yerkes, whose advocacy of restrictions on immigration Conniff deplores (as I do). I rise to Yerkes’s defense, however, to point out that the nonverbal intelligence test that he helped develop had the benefit of mostly overcoming the effects of poor reading skills on measurement of intelligence. The development of such a nonverbal test helped immigrants and others who lacked educational opportunity to get a fairer assessment of their intelligence.

Although I defend Yerkes’s achievements as a developer of groundbreaking, socially useful tests, I am glad that his views on eugenics have not prevailed.

Frank Auld ’50PhD
Birmingham, MI


Thank you for your disturbing piece about Yale’s involvement in the eugenics movement. As a freshman, in 1963, my (all-male) classmates and I were obliged to submit to what were called “posture pictures,” full-length nude photographs taken in Payne Whitney Gymnasium during our first week on campus. We all accepted the explanation that the pictures were meant to detect spinal defects, which could be corrected in an exercise program, known to all as “spaz-class.”

The posture pictures (which were also taken at other Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges) were abandoned in 1968, apparently because rebellious undergraduates would no longer put up with such an invasive practice. But the practice might have ended much sooner if the real reason behind the pictures had been more widely known.

The revelation followed an exchange in the New York Times between Yale graduates Dick Cavett ’58 and Naomi Wolf ’84 over public remarks Cavett had made about the posture pictures. George Hersey, a Yale scholar of Renaissance proportional theory, wrote to the Times to explain that the pictures were actually a vestige of the American eugenics movement. Journalist Ron Rosenbaum ’68 picked up the thread and established in a cover story for the New York Times Magazine that the pictures had been conceived as a way of exploring purported links between physical shape and high intelligence. The Nazis, of course, had taken this exploration to a ghastly conclusion.

I understand that the Yale posture photos have all been destroyed, and the whole episode seems laughable today. But it is a reminder that the highest education is no guarantee against base outcomes.

Carter Wiseman ’68
Weston, CT

The writer is a former editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine.—Eds.


“God and White Men at Yale” is a good article, but I wonder about the Virginia “practice of granting the privileges of a white person to anyone with 15 white great-grandparents.” I thought a person could only have 8 great-grandparents, but I’m a Harvard alumnus, so maybe I’m misinformed.

Bill Magaletta
La Puente, CA

Mr. Magaletta is right, of course; the article should have said “15 white great-great grandparents.” We regret the error.—Eds.


While reading about such influential Yale eugenics “scholars” as Irving Fisher and Madison Grant, I recalled the arrogant, racist character of Tom Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby.

Although Fitzgerald attended Princeton, he used Yale as an undergraduate background for his novel. In the novel’s very first chapter, Tom Buchanan expresses “ideas” in line with the American Eugenics Society of that time. The “idea,” he reminds his fellow Eli, “is that we’re Nordics … and we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art and all that.”

Tom Buchanan also attempts to support such supremacist “theory” with reference to a “scientific” scholar who “has worked out the whole thing.” Fitzgerald may have been referring to Lothrop Stoddard, author of the 1920 book The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy. Later on in his career, Stoddard was welcomed as a journalist in Nazi Germany, writing at one point that their eugenics legislation was “truly humanitarian” though “almost too conservative.”

Peter E. Kornblum ’66
Kings Point, NY


Thank you for Richard Conniff’s wonderful article about eugenics. I have a personal note to add: Oxford and Cambridge regularly send a combined debating team to the United States to debate American teams on college campuses, and they frequently come to the small former teachers’ college from which I retired. One year in the 1990s, the topic was “Resolved, that the government should guarantee our genetic health.” Of course the Oxford and Cambridge debaters far outshone their counterparts from Central Connecticut State University, but after the debate I went up and asked them about the sad history of eugenics and compulsory sterilization in this country. Not one of those brilliant Oxbridge debaters knew anything about that, or about the way America’s eugenics policies had inspired the Nazis.

Thank you, Mr. Conniff, for reminding us all of this sad chapter in American history.

Chip Neville ’62
West Hartford, CT


Alumni on Singapore

Thank you for a relatively balanced article on the faculty resolution on Yale-NUS College (“Delayed Reaction,” May/June). The lack of faculty consultation is but one among the many disheartening aspects of the university’s handling of this venture. Alumni were treated no better: I replied to the (apparently pro forma) invitation for input in September 2010 with constructive suggestions to minimize the risks, but my memo was not acknowledged and none of the suggestions taken on board.

Instead, led by President Levin, the university has rather willfully disregarded all concerns, preferring to disparage them as “unbecoming.” Thus, it is quite jarring to read, a couple pages later in the same issue of the magazine, Levin describing the surveillance of Muslim students by the New York Police Department as “antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States.”

In your previous issue (Q&A: Rick Levin, March/April), Levin airily responded to criticism of Yale-NUS by saying, “Understanding that cultural norms are different is part of the value of this experiment.” This is a convenient shorthand for the notion that people of different cultures—in this case “Asians” (a serious fallacy promoted by the administration is the idea that Singapore somehow exemplifies or represents Asia)—are not considered to be entitled to the same level of protection of their rights as Americans. It is racism.

Yale-NUS might eventually turn out to have a positive impact in the development of an open society in Singapore, and possibly even farther afield. But probably we will have to wait for more enlightened leadership in New Haven first.

William (Bo) Tedards ’91
Taipei, Taiwan


The April 5 resolution on Yale-NUS addresses broad and deep and long-standing issues of international relations in a simple-minded way. We’ve all had misgivings about Singapore politics—so have folks in Singapore—but then we’ve had misgivings about politics in other places too. The flip side of such misgivings is the Ugly American, who simply condemned anything Not Like Us and became an infamous characterization of US foreign relations attitudes during our blind 1950s foreign policy. The question always is how to be effective in promoting our particular US approaches to government and democracy and human rights and other ideals which we hold dear.

It seems to me that a university-level educational undertaking such as Yale-NUS is about the most benign and universally acceptable approach to take to bridging cultural gulfs between different communities on the planet. We have something they need, and they very conceivably have something we just might need too, and together we can help one another. The twenty-first century is turning out to be very unlike those which preceded it, and we all can use a little mutual assistance as we proceed forward with the enormous task of understanding it. But there is no room in that effort for simplistic judgments, hasty and ill-considered, most often made in ignorance about local conditions on “the other side.”

The whole point, for both parties, is to learn from “the other side.” For that to happen, any program such as Yale-NUS has to tread, very carefully, the fine line between acquiescence and arrogance on issues of principle. I don’t see that being done by this resolution: if I were a Singaporean I would resent it, and its implications, very deeply. I encourage the faculty to withdraw it and reconsider.

Jack Kessler ’71
San Francisco, CA


I am concerned about the lack of fit between the values and goals of a liberal arts college like Yale and those of the illiberal government of Singapore, which has been governed for a half century by a political party convinced of the correctness of its authoritarian rule. Neither generational changes in leadership nor economic success (which is considerable and admirable) have had any effect on party leaders’ ideology or behavior. In the conflicts over academic freedom that are sure to come, I predict that Yale’s representatives on the governing board will be no match for the Singaporean members. The latter will surely be well instructed by government and party officials as to how to deal with genuine or perceived threats to their ideological and political control. Yale will end up seeing it their way or departing. Both are embarrassing outcomes.

Many years ago I taught at the University of Singapore, before it became the NUS, as a Fulbright professor. I visit Singapore almost annually and frequently give guest lectures at NUS. Based on that experience, I believe that Singaporeans, including university students, are strongly constrained by the narrow limits of dissent permissible in their society. Many, perhaps most, are apolitical, grateful for the economic prosperity and personal security provided by the government for a half century. I love Singapore. However, that government continues to believe that its own arbitrary rule is the key to its economic success.

I do not oppose cooperation between Yale and NUS professional schools, whose goals and approach are more narrowly technical or vocational. Yale College, on the other hand, offers a liberal education. Quoting the prospectus for Yale-NUS: “We encourage students to question relentlessly, to analyze problems carefully, and to evaluate consequences.” As a longtime up-close observer, I see no sign that Singapore government officials share these goals when the subject is the social and political organization of their society. Indeed, the obviously very carefully worded, at once legalistic and vague, Ministry of Education’s academic freedom provision only increases my doubts. They know they must gird themselves for the battles to come.

Bill Liddle ’59, ’67PhD
Columbus, OH


The faculty gender gap

I was surprised and saddened to read the statistic tucked in a sidebar (“Campus Clips,” May/June): 77 percent of tenured positions at Yale went to men between 2000 and 2012. Can this really be true? Over the past year, with the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights investigation, there has been much concern about whether Yale fosters an environment hostile to women. Creating a welcoming campus is about more than disciplining a wayward fraternity or improving policies to handle sexual misconduct (though both are important). It starts at the top with a valuing of women’s work and contributions. Clearly that is not happening if almost 80 percent of those receiving tenure are men. This imbalance is not just a matter of injustice done to individual candidates; it is a great disservice to students and the institution, and the effect will be long-lasting.

Kim Todd ’92
Erie, PA


JFK on Yale and Harvard

I liked Fred Shapiro’s roundup of Ivy League quotes (“You Can Quote Them,” May/June), but he’s missing my favorite. When Harvard graduate John F. Kennedy was awarded an honorary degree at Yale in 1962, he said, “It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree.”

Matt Levine ’04JD
Brooklyn, NY



In our article on the creators of the Rap Genius website (“Rap. Unwrapped,” May/June), we misspelled the name of one of the site’s early editors, Ariel Schneller ’06. We regret the error.  

The comment period has expired.