Official says his email was ‘misrepresented,’ but it’s rather vague
Yale University is trying to explain its intentions when it took down portraits of white men who served as head of a residential college ahead of a Halloween party.
Stephen Davis, the current head of Pierson College, claims that an email he sent to students last week has been “misrepresented” as saying the white men’s portraits would not be put back up in the dining hall.
Davis ignored two separate requests this week to provide the email he sent students before giving The College Fix a copy of the message after this article was published.
The Yale Daily News has also not answered a Fix query on whether its Monday report was incorrect or whether Davis asked “the nation’s oldest college daily newspaper” to subtly change its reporting in an article Wednesday.
‘Abundance of images of white men around campus’
The implication of Monday’s report by the News was that the white men’s portraits were being removed permanently from Pierson’s dining hall because they weren’t diverse enough.
They were taken down “in preparation for” Pierson’s annual Halloween party, known as Inferno, but Davis only told students Nov. 1 that unlike previous years, they “will not be remounted,” the News said, paraphrasing the Davis email.
In place of those portraits, students would paint each other’s portraits at a Nov. 6 “study break” hosted by Sam Messer, associate dean of the art school and chair of the Committee on Art in Public Spaces, and hang them “temporarily” in the dining hall, according to the News report. It’s the only mention in the article of a temporary change.
The News framed the study break as a discussion of “what kinds of values, identities and accomplishments are important to honor in public art.”
While the paintings were not removed due to “ongoing discussions surrounding diversity on campus,” as the News paraphrased Yale College Dean Marvin Chun, they were taken down “amid wider conversations about how the abundance of images of white men around campus affect Yale’s inclusivity,” the News wrote.
In the article, Davis says the portraits would be mounted in the Pierson Fellows’ Lounge and plaques describing the “historical context of each” would soon be added. It does not say they would return to the dining hall.
‘Allow me to clarify’
Davis told The Fix in an email Wednesday that the Monday News article “misrepresented” both his “words” and his “intentions,” claiming he never said the white men’s portraits would “not be remounted.”
The report “generated some misperceptions,” Davis said, so he sent a message to the college community to provide “clarifications.”
Davis pointed The Fix to Pierson’s website for his message, which took the form of a Tuesday evening Facebook post.
“In my recent conversations with students, fellows, and alums, it is clear to me that some misperceptions were generated by my email last week and by Monday’s YDN article, whose headline presented this as a decision to ‘remove’ the portraits,” Davis wrote: “Allow me to clarify.”
He said he had always planned to have the white men’s portraits reinstalled after the study break. The walls would only remain empty “temporarily in the immediate aftermath” of the Inferno party, “as a site of reflection.”
But his original plan was complicated by “some painting scheduled for the Fellows Lounge,” so in order to “safeguard” the portraits, Davis wrote they would be reinstalled next to the students’ portraits of each other by week’s end.
“I fully expect” that the white men’s portraits will be included in “any proposals we make regarding the diversification of our public spaces,” Davis wrote in the post, without specifying whether the portraits would remain in the dining hall or moved to another “public space.”
‘What alternative forms of representation might we consider?’
Wednesday’s News report on the return of the white men’s portraits, written by a different reporter, portrays the move as expected and routine.
The News does not acknowledge the Monday report at all, which still says as of Wednesday evening the portraits would “not be remounted.”
The Wednesday report appears to have incorporated the thrust of Davis’s Facebook post without citing it, saying the portraits were “temporarily removed” and “temporarily relocated” – claims missing from Monday’s report.
It cites a Tuesday night email from Davis about “the point” of the study break – a section that is not in his Tuesday night Facebook post – as well as a Tuesday email from Dean Chun that reinforces Davis’s “clarifications” without saying so.
After reaching Davis Wednesday, in order to figure out where the confusion may have come from, The Fix twice asked Davis for a copy of his Nov. 1 email to students.
He did not answer that specific query until Thursday morning, when Davis provided The Fix the full email, which could be open to more than one interpretation on the fate of the white men’s portraits.
It said “everything was taken down off the walls” because of the scheduled party, but “in the context of campus-wide conversations about diversity and inclusion,” the walls will remain empty “for the time being.”
Davis specifies that “for now,” the white men’s portraits “will be relocated and remounted in our Fellows’ Lounge,” but he does not specify they will return to the dining hall. The email implies the historical plaques will be added to the portraits while they are still in the Fellows’ Lounge.
In the next paragraph, Davis states explicitly the portraits created by students at the study break will be “temporarily displayed” where the white men’s portraits hung.
But the section could be read to suggest those portraits aren’t coming back from the Fellows’ Lounge because they don’t match the “values” of students:
Participants will also be given a chance to respond to questions in discussion with one another and to submit suggestions based on those conversations. For example, what kinds of values, identities, and accomplishments do you think it is important to honor in our community? What criteria would you like to see applied in our recognition of persons in Pierson? What does it mean to prioritize portraiture as our principal means of public recognition? What are its benefits and limitations? What alternative forms of representation might we consider?
Davis encourages students to “bring your voices and artistic skills to the table as we continue our efforts to make Pierson College an ever more equitable and welcoming place.”
He concludes that students can remain in the hall after the study break ends “to reflect further on how important the Dining Hall is for our collective expression of diversity and sense of belonging here in Pierson.”
Davis didn’t explain to The Fix in his Thursday email why he didn’t provide his Nov. 1 message after two explicit requests, except to apologize for “the delay in responding.”
The “primary purpose” of the email to students was to announce the study break, and the “issue of the portraiture” was included to provide “context,” he said.
When he said the white men’s portraits would be remounted in the Fellows’ Lounge “for now,” he meant until “the immediate aftermath” of the study break:
I didn’t specify the overall timing in this first email because my focus was on the study break exercise itself, and this (along with the YDN’s misrepresentation of my intentions in their Monday article) ended up creating some misunderstandings. I had always planned to follow up with a second email to the community [what became the Facebook post] after we hosted the study break and received student feedback.
‘Seems like historical erasure’
Wednesday’s News report also seems to revise Monday’s regarding what Davis told others before the portraits were taken down for the Inferno party.
Chun said Davis had “many conversations with students and administrators” about the portraits before his Nov. 1 email, according to the Monday report. The president of the Pierson College Council, Katherine Hong, said Davis “reached out to loop us in a few weeks ago.”
Another student, Kelsang Dolma, was under the impression the white men would be permanently removed. She told the News that “removing the paintings just because of their race kind of seems like historical erasure to me.”
Wednesday’s report, in contrast, portrays Davis as having “lengthy conversations” with Pierson leaders and students as early as this spring about “the decision not to immediately rehang the portraits as in years past.”
The News did not respond to a Wednesday email from The Fix asking why its Monday and Wednesday reports seem to be in conflict on the nature of the removal of the white men’s portraits, and what role if any Davis played in how the Wednesday report was framed.
What role does art in public spaces play?
Pierson removed the HOC portraits in the dining hall for longer than normal after the annual Inferno, but the portraits will be rehung amid student work soon.
— Chloé Glass (@chloe_glass_) November 8, 2017
UPDATE: Stephen Davis, head of Pierson College, provided The Fix a copy of the Nov. 1 email he sent students, which he claimed the Yale Daily News had “misrepresented,” after this article was published. Screenshots of the email and an analysis of its contents have been added to the article.
IMAGE: Pierson College/Facebook