NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A Veterans Day protest in which a student dressed in black placed red-painted latex gloves around a display of small American flags at Yale University has stirred some controversy at the Ivy League school, which has been working to improve its image among military students.
Senior Casey Odesser says her act, which she described as more performance art than protest, was meant to spark questions about U.S. imperialism and be a reminder of the death associated with U.S. military conflicts, not to disrespect members of the armed services.
“Yale has a large international community, and I think it’s really quite offensive of the university to celebrate the military when there has been so much violence because of it that directly affects many students,” Odesser said.
Yale has a growing military community. As recently as 2010, there were no undergraduate veterans at Yale, according to the school.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter handed out commissions to the university's first ROTC graduating class in more than 40 years.
It says there are now 16 veterans and one active duty Marine Corps member studying as Eli Whitney scholars, a program for nontraditional students who have had their educational careers interrupted. Dozens of other vets are enrolled in the school’s graduate and professional schools, according to Yale.
Odesser’s display was removed by an Army veteran, according to the Yale Daily News. Another student, Jake Fischer, who served as a medic in Afghanistan, also took issue with Odesser’s act and criticized it in an opinion piece in that paper.
He questioned why Odesser chose to target a display honoring veterans, who do not set U.S. policy. The blood on his hands usually came from helping save lives, he said.
“I definitely support their free speech,” he said. “I just think it wasn’t a productive use of their speech and the way it was done wasn’t meant to change anyone’s mind, but simply to express their contempt for certain people.”
Not all veterans were critical of the protest.
James Hatch, a 52-year-old freshman and former Navy SEAL, was seriously wounded in Afghanistan. He said he feels welcome at Yale and believes publicity over someone exercising free speech rights is misplaced.
“I was given a card by my classmates thanking me for my time in the military,” said Hatch, who is an Eli Whitney scholar. “So I feel like the whole ‘protest’ thing is a silly clickbait subject because it has ‘Yale’ in it. I feel quite welcome here.”
It's not easy to find military veterans in undergraduate programs at most Ivy League schools.
Adrian Bonenberger, the president of the Yale Veterans Association and a co-chair of the Yale Veterans Network, said he doesn’t feel the protest is reflective of any bias against the military on campus.
“We’re proud to be part of an exceptional and empathetic community that understands our concerns and experiences,” he said. “This critique does nothing to diminish that reality.”
But Yale College Dean Marvin Chun told the Yale Daily News that the demonstration begs the question of how students should stage protests.
“I think there’s still a very large space in which students can respectfully protest, and that’s basically all we ask students to do,” Chun said. “Use that large space, express your views, but in ways that don’t intrude on other people’s opinions and the ability to express themselves.”
The school will always stand behind the right of students to protest, but also honors the service of veterans and is “deeply proud to count many in its community,” Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart said.