Letters to the Editor

Letters: July/August 2021

We welcome readers’ letters, which should be emailed to yam@yale.edu or mailed to Letters Editor, PO Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905. Due to the volume of correspondence, we are unable to respond to or publish all mail received. Letters accepted for publication are subject to editing. Priority is given to letters of fewer than 300 words.

The life of Yan Phou Lee

Your article on Yan Phou Lee (“Neither Here Nor There,” May/June) deserved this cover story treatment it got. Its focus on the harsh and very painful legacy of America’s racist laws and policies can contribute to a better understanding of history and the “moment” we find ourselves in today.

While Lee’s pioneering book When I Was a Boy in China has received its share of attention (and critique) in classes on Asian American literature, far less attention has been paid to the impact of racist anti-miscegenation laws upon Yan Phou Lee and his descendants. When I graduated in 1965 from high school, interracial marriage was illegal in many states.

By sharing the story of Yan Phou Lee, we begin to have a deeper and better understanding of the lasting detrimental impact of generational trauma linked to racism and white supremacy. Yale is fortunate to have within its own archives a plethora of research material about the Chinese that passed through this university after Yung Wing graduated in 1854. The narratives surrounding Yung Wing, the Chinese Educational Mission, and Yan Phou Lee are unique and deserve far more attention at Yale than previously given.

I hope this article will get some folks within the enterprise rethinking priorities. Meanwhile, thank you for the article, and much appreciation to Lee’s descendants for reclaiming this bit of “lost” Asian American history, which in the end should be embraced by all Americans.
Rocky Chin ’71MCP
New York, NY

The article on Yan Phou Lee was excellent, with a major exception. The end of the article includes the phrase “his distance from US racism.” I fail to see how his attending Yale, his warm welcomes, and his marrying two white women demonstrate racism. In fact, the article demonstrates the opposite. I would like to know whether the author or the editorial staff threw in this gratuitous and trendy swipe at the US, while giving a free pass to what could have been labeled as primitive and male chauvinistic Chinese attitudes to ancestor worship. I am not suggesting they be labeled as such. Rather, I am against unnecessary and tendentious moralizing on the complexity of human life, and I’m simply asking why the magazine had to pick the moralizing that it did.
Daniel Farb ’76
Beit Shemesh, Isreal
The reference to US racism Mr. Farb cites was in a quotation from the late Asian American literary scholar Amy Ling. For evidence that Lee was affected by American racism, one need look no further than the fact (mentioned in the article) that he wanted to become an American citizen but could not because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Lee spoke out in articles and speeches against what he saw as “the unreasoning prejudice against the Chinese” and “the periodical outbreaks and outrages perpetrated against them without arousing the public conscience.” He regarded the treatment of the Chinese in America as unjust and pointed out the difference between their treatment and that of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy.—Eds.

I thoroughly enjoyed the cover story on Yan Phou Lee, who makes a cameo appearance in The First Chinese American, my 2013 biography of Chinese American activist Wong Chin Foo (1847–1898). I especially appreciated your discussion of the conundrum Lee faced as he straddled two cultures. I regret only that space considerations didn’t allow for a discussion of a matched pair of articles written by Wong and Lee that appeared in 1887.

Both men were early immigrants who saw much to admire about the US and had embraced Christianity. Wong had been raised by an American missionary in China and had undergone baptism there, but after arriving in America he had parted company with the religion. He blamed growing anti-Chinese attitudes among Americans in part on derogatory reports of the depravity of the “heathen” Chinese in the letters Christian missionaries sent to their home congregations to garner support for their evangelical efforts in China.

So when the North American Review—America’s first literary magazine—decided to run a series of articles by proponents of various religions and philosophies and reached out to advocates of Presbyterianism, Catholicism, Methodism, Judaism, atheism, and others to contribute articles, Wong submitted a tongue-in-cheek essay provocatively entitled, “Why Am I a Heathen?” It was less a defense of heathenism than a full-frontal attack on Christianity, and it proved so controversial that the editors decided to recruit a second Chinese to write a rejoinder.

That was Yan Phou Lee, who remained a devout Christian. In his rebuttal, entitled “Why I Am Not a Heathen,” Lee argued that Wong ought to have distinguished between Christianity and the sometimes flawed individuals who professed it. He quoted Confucius to make his point: “It is impossible to carve on rotten timber.” To his mind, those who persecuted Chinese in the US, violently or through legal means, were not Christian at all, even if they claimed to be.  

This exchange of views, ostensibly about religion, was actually part and parcel of a larger national conversation about whether Chinese people could ever truly assimilate in America. Many whites felt sure they could not and argued as much in support of excluding them. But the very fact of the Lee vs. Wong debate—an exchange in flawless English between two cultivated Chinese men who admired their adopted home, had attended American colleges, cut off their hair queues, donned Western dress, and chosen to live their lives in the United States—ought to have erased any doubt that they could and had.
Scott D. Seligman
Washington, DC

Your cover story about Yan Phou Lee gives only brief mention of the “distinguished medical career” of Lee’s grandson, Richard V. Lee ’60, ’64MD. Discussing his significant contributions to medical practice—specifically regarding the complexities of medical problems in pregnancy—and his extensive scholarly output would require a separate essay; here I will offer some less-known details of his remarkable career, focusing on his anthropological adventures.

Dick Lee’s concern for the health of underserved folk in remote areas intensified in the decade after his MD, with three years in Montana as an Indian Health Service physician among Lakota and Assiniboine (including members of Chief Sitting Bull’s band of Hunkpapa). In that same period, he worked with Yale virologist and immunologist Francis Black on infectious diseases in the Amazon rainforest and the Chilean Andes. Of that time, he says in a memoir, “I learned to fly single- and twin-engine airplanes, to scuba dive, to respect mosquitoes, ticks, and snails, and to respect the advice and humor of tribal and village leaders.”

Dick and his wife Susan came to the medical school at SUNY–Buffalo in 1976, and he quickly was granted adjunct positions in pediatrics, obstetrics, social and preventive medicine, and anthropology, where I was employed. He established a travel clinic to prepare persons for travel into medically problematic areas. In 1980, he worked with Hmong and other Southeast Asians in Thai refugee camps. He became active in our medical anthropology program, and over subsequent decades several of our students joined his rigorous “medical treks” to the Ladakh region of Kashmir/Jammu in the Indian Himalayas. These were three-week excursions, mostly on foot, to provide medical services to Leh and other remote villages. In 1989 and 1990, when war made that region unsafe, he led medical treks in northern Kenya.

He worked with people from many other regions, including immigrants and refugees in Buffalo. His association with anthropology was mutually rewarding; as he said in a 2000 interview, “I think doctoring is quintessentially anthropology. We study humankind.”
Phil Stevens ’63
Buffalo, NY

Electing trustees

The recent announcement that the members of the Yale Corporation have eliminated the petition option for nominating alumni fellows (see article in this issue) makes one wonder what so alarms them about the candidacy of Victor Ashe ’67 and what is the essential purpose of having alumni fellows. Ostensibly, these elected, limited-term trustees provide a voice for alumni in Yale governance and a source of renewed energy and fresh ideas for the Corporation. Ashe has pointed out that the exclusion of alumni from participation in nominations, the opacity of the nominating process, and the lack of information about candidates’ priorities for Yale make the choices less meaningful.

In her letter to the alumni, senior trustee Catharine Bond Hill presents the decision as one of protecting Yale from potentially divisive “issue candidates” in favor of identifying nominees whose accomplishments have prepared them generally to make decisions about Yale based on experience and sound judgment. While this is a legitimate concern, there is surely a middle ground between business as usual and the deluge, and between the risks of ossification and chaos.

I had hoped that Ashe’s candidacy would spark fair-minded consideration among alumni and trustees of the optimal balance between stability and openness, but the response of the trustees, defensive from the outset, and now bordering on panicky, has been more concerning than the issue which triggered it. Dr. Hill’s implied vision of an onslaught of zealous single-issue nominees backed by inflamed or impressionable alumni suggests that the system has been designed to give alumni a harmless illusion of influence in Yale governance, thereby enhancing their loyalty and consequent benefits to the university.

And while risk is inherent in change, we must remember that the Yale Corporation had not, in its wisdom, seen fit to appoint a Jewish alumnus to trusteeship until forced to do so by the election of petition candidate William Horowitz ’29 in 1965. Although Yale’s biases may have changed, we will be more likely to outgrow them if we loosen, rather than tighten, the Corporation’s control over eligibility for membership and consider that letting more air into the process might increase, rather than decrease, the level of light and verity in Yale’s governance.
Edward Silberman ’65
Gloucester, MA

In the spring of 2004, my boss, Senator Joe Biden, asked me to interview Victor Ashe, President George W. Bush’s nominee for ambassador to Poland. Vetting ambassadorial nominees was part of my job as Democratic staff director for Europe on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and most of the political appointees sent over from the Bush White House had been, to put it politely, less than spectacular.

So imagine my surprise when Mr. Ashe dove into details about Poland’s domestic politics, its economy, and Polish cultural life. Our conversation lasted about an hour and convinced me that Ashe was superbly qualified for his new post. He went on to serve the United States with distinction as ambassador in Warsaw.

I had lost touch with Ambassador Ashe until his recent petition campaign for alumni fellow on the Yale Board of Trustees. From his campaign literature and from an email exchange with him, I got the impression that his only “agenda” was to bring the board’s election procedures into the twenty-first century and thereby to introduce fresh perspectives to the governance of our alma mater. I’m not sure what senior trustee Catharine Hill in her letter to alumni meant by “issues-based candidacies,” but I would never support anyone who might in any way contribute to the polarized atmosphere currently crippling our national life. As someone from the opposite side of the political aisle, I voted for Ambassador Ashe without reservation.
Mike Haltzel ’63
Alexandria, VA

I am much dismayed by the decision of the Yale Corporation to eliminate the possibility for petitioning candidates to earn a spot on the ballot in alumni fellow elections. The abrupt decision deprives Yale graduates of the opportunity to vote in a free and open election, one in which the candidates have publicly discussed their approach to the role of trustee and have had ample time to listen to and communicate with alumni.

Instead, Yale alumni will be asked to vote for appointed candidates about whom they will have received but little information prior to the election. Where are the “Lux et Veritas” absent the opportunity for dialogue, exchange of ideas, or questions which a petition candidate brings to the table?

The timing of the decision is suspect, and the decision-making process itself is contrary to good corporate-governance principles. It is imperative to restore and preserve the practice of allowing trustee nominations by alumni petition, a tradition which dates back to 1929.
Kathleen B. Boll ’86MA
Grosse Pointe Park, MI

Many alumni were upset by the decision of the Board of Trustees not to accept petition candidates in the future. But alumni have always had the right to vote with their wallets. So I hope that those alumni who support the decision of the board will continue to support that board with generous contributions to the Yale endowment. I also hope that those who do not support the board’s decision will, nevertheless, continue to support higher education.

Dr. David Thomas ’78, ’86PhD, the successful alumni trustee candidate in the recently contested election, is president of Morehouse College, one of the 37 member institutions of the United Negro College Fund, and Dr. Ivy Taylor ’92 is president of Rust College, another member institution. What all 37 of these colleges and universities have in common is that none of them has a $30 billion endowment or an enrollment drawn disproportionately from the children of our country’s wealthiest 1 percent. So contributing to any of these 37 institutions instead of Yale is an excellent way of furthering educational opportunities for the disadvantaged and expressing disapproval of the Yale Board of Trustees’s decision on petition candidates.
Jim Ditkoff ’68
Darien, CT

Making sense of math

I appreciated and enjoyed reading Richard Panek’s article about Daniel Spielman (“Infinite Complexity,” May/June). We get few articles about science and engineering and even fewer about pure mathematics. I’m a novelist, and I must admit I fulfilled my science requirement at Yale taking Rocks and Stars and Physics for Poets. However, I was then, and remain, fascinated by advances in science, engineering, and mathematics. Articles like this one help me better understand my world, as well as what in the world those mathematicians do in those offices all day. Please keep more like it coming.
Karl Marlantes ’67
Woodinville, VA

I’m used to stellar writing in your magazine, but Richard Panek’s article about Daniel Spielman raises the bar. Not only did Panek make an abstruse subject accessible to this English major, but he also set down one of the wittiest and most evocative sentences I’ve come across in quite some time: “If his wife told him she was going out for drinks with some nodes of hers . . .” made me chuckle with approval. Panek captured Spielman’s state of mind like an iron filing in a superconducting magnet.
Geoff Neigher ’67, ’71JD
Los Angeles, CA

I am an experimental physicist. It’s rare for someone to tackle the problem of writing about advanced mathematics for non-mathematicians. The author used good analogies (e.g., using social networks as an example). In my case, noting the connection to quantum mechanics was also appreciated.
Peter Wanderer ’70PhD
Shoreham, NY

There at the start

Two boys on tricycles rode off the pages of your May/June issue and warmed my heart. These two attend the Calvin Hill Day Care Center (“Still Caring”). Mary Pearl ’72, Kurt Schmoke ’71, Ron Taylor ’71, and other student volunteers in the Classes of ’71 and ’72 saw the need for day care serving Yale’s union workers and graduate students. They appealed to the administration, working with Henry Chauncey, Kingman Brewster, Albert Solnit, and Seymour and Katharine (Kitty) Lustman. Support was found throughout the Yale community.

As the wife of a graduate student at Yale Divinity School, and also a graduate of YDS myself, I was hired to stand up Calvin Hill as its first director in 1971. We were housed in the newly finished basement rooms of the St. Thomas More Catholic chapel, just across the street from Davenport College. A normal day included 30 preschoolers, a core group of student volunteers and those studying child development, researchers, and appreciative parents for delivery and pickup. Meals came from Yale dining halls where some of the parents did the food preparation.

Hats off to these members of the Class of 1971. Fifty years later, their vision and energy are still building blocks for ongoing generations of preschoolers and parents in the New Haven community. I recall them all with great fondness.
Nancy Sherwood Willcox ’61MAR
Lancaster, PA

Across centuries

Brava to Judith Ann Schiff for connecting the graduating Class of 2021 with its centennial predecessor classes of 1721, 1821, and 1921 (“The ’21 Club,” May/June). How nice it would be for this to become an annual practice as each succeeding Yale College class graduates.
C. Daniel Ward ’55
New Canaan, CT

Responding to suicide

This spring, Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum ’24 took her life in Lanman-Wright Hall on Old Campus (“First-year Student Dies in Suicide,” May/June). A straight-A student in Directed Studies, Rachael came from a low-income background and received a Horatio Alger Scholarship. Rachael struggled with her mental health, and Yale’s withdrawal policies meant she could quickly lose her Old Campus housing and health care if she sought the emergency mental health care treatment she desperately needed.

Over the past two decades at least six other Yale undergraduates have taken their lives: Greg Norris ’00; Cameron Dabaghi ’11; Luchang Wang ’17; Hale Ross ’18; Rae Na Lee ’19; and Thomas Lawrence ’21. What has Yale done in response to these tragedies? Not enough.

In 2013, the Yale College Council produced a “Report on Mental Health,” highlighting delays in treatment, an unsupportive medical withdrawal policy, and negative perceptions about Yale Mental Health and Counseling. Then in 2014, “Falling Through the Cracks: A Report on Mental Health at Yale Law School,” was released. Almost half the YLS student body responded to their survey; 38 percent of students considering treatment never pursued it due to “distrust of Yale Health’s quality of service, excessive wait times, and confidentiality policies.”
And in May, the student coalition Mental Health Justice at Yale produced “Spring 2021: Demands and Report.” This report discusses the need to reduce wait times, increase staffing, guarantee year-round access to subsidized health care regardless of enrollment status or geographic location, and eliminate the onerous application for reinstatement following withdrawal.

Students with serious mental health challenges face a catch-22: taking time off to improve their mental health may completely separate them from affordable health care and friends who understand them best. Meaningful change will clearly take advocacy, particularly from alumni.

We’re part of a growing group organizing for overdue change and supporting Yalies on withdrawal. If you have a story to share, please fill out our Wellness Survey: https://is.gd/YaleWellnessReformSurvey.

No Yale student should ever feel so alone and desperate that suicide seems like the only way out. Rachael was not the first casualty of Yale’s indifference. Let’s make sure she’s the last.

Martin Snapp ’67, Christine Traut Miller ’73, Paul Mange Johansen ’88, April W. Smith ’96, Crystal Astrachan ’04, Alicia Floyd ’05, Lily Colby ’10, Rishi Mirchandani ’19, Euiyoung Kim ’21

In April, the university announced the addition of 14 new full-time mental health and wellness staff positions in Yale College and at Yale Health.—Eds.

The Schwarzman Center

The March/April issue (“A Place for All Yale”) devotes 12 pages to a new student center donated by someone who openly supports a white supremacist. Stephen Schwarzman ’69 apparently saw the racism, bigotry, and cruelty of the Trump administration and decided he was fine with four more years of it. Mr. Schwarzman’s support of Trump is not a mere “political difference.” It is indecent and shameful, and so is Yale’s eagerness to launder his reputation in exchange for a donation.
Paola Sada ’92
Washington, DC

Speaking his language

When I heard about Stanley Eisenstat’s untimely death (“A Computer Scientist Loved for His Teaching,” March/April), I was reminded of a half-remembered story. Eisenstat was only ten years or so older than I am, and had only gotten his doctorate a few years before we met, but even then he seemed to think on a higher plane.

He taught a comp sci class I took my sophomore year (1974–75); as I recall, that year he taught it using the APL programming language (before they called it coding), a highly symbolic and memorably esoteric language. Anyway, one day that year I was walking down Broadway and passed a consumer electronics store that was having a promotion for some new brand of audio equipment they were selling. “Advanced Phased Linear” or something like that. They were handing out free T-shirts, emblazoned with the tagline “APL Speakers Demand to Be Heard!” Of course I wore it to class the next day, and got a big chuckle from (fluent) Professor Eisenstat. For a brief moment our planes intersected, colingually.
Michael F. Dunn ’77
Milton, MA

1 comment

  • Paul Mange Johansen (ES '88)
    Paul Mange Johansen (ES '88), 1:51am July 02 2021 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    We applaud the addition of 10 full-time clinicians to the Mental Health and Counseling staff. This represents an important yet partial first step toward meeting the reasonable student demands described in the Spring 2021 Mental Health Justice at Yale report (https://is.gd/MHJY_DemandsAndReport). We draw a clear distinction between these mental health clinicians and the four new full-time "community wellness specialists." The former are trained to diagnose and discuss psychiatric illness, while the latter provide practical strategies for overall well-being. We sincerely hope the presence of "community wellness specialists" will reduce the number of students who progress to serious mental illness. But for those students who do, Yale should have enough clinicians on staff to see them without delay.

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