Mr. Transparency?: A Talk with USG President Connor Diemand-Yauman

by Matthew Sanyour ’11

As the new semester was approaching its midway point, I had the opportunity to discuss campus issues, some old, some new, with our sitting USG President, Connor Diemand-Yauman ’10. This psychology major from Ohio is something of an unusual figure in campus politics. Unlike his more recent predecessors, Diemand-Yauman has held elective office in the USG for all four years of his Princeton career.

In order to gain a better understanding of how he has consistently been able to win the support of his peers for the past three years as well as what he will do in his final year in student government, we touched upon the campus issues that most matter to him.

Of his past initiatives with the USG, Diemand-Yauman expressed particular satisfaction with the “Own What You Think” Campaign which was a response to Juicycampus.com, a previously controversial website which has since slipped from the public consciousness. In seeking to address the concerns of anonymous public character assassinations without granting the gossip website further public acknowledgement, Diemand-Yauman pursued a positive alternative—a so-called “love wall” where students could post anonymous compliments about peers, rather than calumnies and rumors. This was only one part of a campus-wide campaign that generated national media attention. Diemand-Yauman cited this past example as a hallmark of his desire for creative solutions that address student concerns without falling into counterproductive pitfalls.

Similarly, when talking about the unpopular grade deflation policy of the University, Diemand-Yauman emphasized the need for a new approach: “The strategy of the USG in the past has been in my opinion very incendiary, and, at times, antagonistic. I’m not saying that’s necessarily bad because I have the advantage of hindsight. There is such a misconception of the way student government works…many people believe that we have the power to change things unilaterally within the University. While I recognize that we are elected officials and I do think we have an important role, we do not have the power to bend policy at our will.”

In light of his predecessors’ unsuccessful experiences, Diemand-Yauman has shifted away from a directly confrontational stance and sought to instead conduct a critical examination of the policy and the impact that deflated GPAs have had on the success of Princeton graduates since its implementation. If the policy is indeed found to be injurious, it may help convince faculty and administrators to reconsider. Diemand-Yauman’s proposal calls for a study undertaking a statistical analysis of admissions to graduate and professional schools, as well as of acceptance rates to highly competitive jobs such as consulting posts at top firms like McKinsey, to see whether grade deflation has in fact harmed the competitiveness of Princeton students. He also cited the need for a more effective system of notification about Princeton’s strict grading policy, to graduate and professional schools via direct mailing alongside Princeton transcripts.

Diemand-Yauman’s signature political theme of an increasingly open and responsive government guided by public opinion and research fell by the wayside, however, when the topic of discussion turned to the new housing issues. Here, he supported the work of the Undergraduate Life Council, upon which he holds a seat but which is officially headed by Arthur Levy ‘10, which took place largely behind closed doors, with little or no public discourse. Diemand-Yauman seemed concerned with this critique of the policy-making process, but he defended Levy’s leadership on the issue.

While Diemand-Yauman has emphasized, and to a great extent has successfully pursued transparency in the USG, the gender-neutral housing has been the one striking counterexample. The recent program has gone from a nebulous crusade to concrete policy formulated in explicitly closed proceedings. The new pilot program for next year, which was announced only a week after my interview with Diemand-Yauman took place, was a surprisingly rapid implementation of a new policy for which the reasoning remains questionable at best. It remained unclear in our discussion why the proceedings on the establishment of the pilot program were not discussed publically and why Diemand-Yauman did not employ his increasingly familiar tactic of conducting a campus survey or study. If studies of Princeton’s peer institutions that have adopted such programs were considered, they were considered behind closed doors and the results remain undisclosed.

“I know that there has and will continue to be a very comprehensive evaluation of the issue…In terms of observing models at other schools, I know that Yale has been looked at…For this pilot program to be a success, I think that it’s important that we entertain the idea of trying something here, and not doing so in such a way that infringes upon the rights of other students.”

Diemand-Yauman broached the issue of secrecy and offered his rationale; “Now specifically back to the issue of gender neutral housing. At this point the issue is [being] discussed, yes. While it’s not being discussed publically, what I can say…”

I interrupted, asking, “Doesn’t that seem problematic, prima facie?”

“It doesn’t and the reason why is that I will not advocate for an expansion of the pilot program without broadly soliciting student input. What will come out of this current discussion is at most a pilot program. Once we have that data, once we have that information, then we will make a decision.” He added his assurance that a student survey will take place the year after the implementation of a pilot program, although he will be out of office at that time.

Although Diemand-Yauman specifically raised the need to consider the concerns of transgender students, he did not adequately address why the housing solution necessarily entailed male-female cohabitation rather than providing private rooming and bathroom accommodations for transgender students. Most problematically, and most obviously, the program could easily be subverted into a means for couples to have University-sponsored cohabitation, rather than relying upon the informal network of at-will stay-overs that already exists within the openness of the current housing system. When I inquired as to whether a boyfriend-girlfriend pairing using gender-neutral housing for the purposes of cohabitation would constitute an abuse of the program he explicitly stated that it would be a violation, saying that “I think that would be going against the spirit of such a program. I think the spirit of the program is that you accommodate a specific population that has just as much of a right as you or I to feel comfortable in our day to day life at Princeton.” But Diemand-Yauman offered little detail as to how this distinction would be maintained, and one cannot imagine a vetting process for determining which students seeking opposite sex roommates are not doing so for the purposes of supplementing their sexual escapades that is not either far too invasive to be tolerable or far too lax to be credible.

Perhaps even more unfortunate than the program’s ill conception is the fact that this debate is only being had after it can no longer influence policy. Diemand-Yauman seemed genuinely concerned with the comfort of that specific population of students for whom this is a central issue, and he appeared to be sincere on this issue. But in spite of his intentions, the gender-neutral housing program appears to be at best a muddled and ill-conceived attempt to provide a comfortable living space to a specific population, and at worst a heavy-handed social experiment steeped in radical ideology.

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