The 2020 Yale Alumni Association Assembly and Yale Alumni Fund Convocation, the annual gathering of Yale alumni volunteer leaders, got underway September 15, introducing this year’s theme and launching the first in a series of virtual events that will continue throughout the 2020-21 academic year.

The theme of this year’s Assembly and Convocation – “The Arts and Humanities at Yale: A Legacy of Excellence at Moments of Challenge” resounded throughout the two-hour kickoff event.

“With history as our guide, we know our society will face great challenges in the future,” President Peter Salovey ’86 PhD said in his opening remarks. “We need the arts and humanities to help us make sense of both everyday events and momentous disruptions. I take comfort knowing that the people of Yale will continue to enliven these fields, asking the vital questions that bring meaning, interest, joy, and purpose to our lives.”

Assembly and Convocation LogoThe event’s very presentation illustrated the challenges of the current moment: This is the first time Assembly and Convocation will be held entirely virtually, with the kickoff event to be followed in October by Salovey’s University Update, a Board of Trustees panel in November, and volunteer awards celebrations in December, headlined by the Yale Medal ceremony.

Additional plenary events are planned for the spring semester, and supplemental events and small-group discussions will be facilitated throughout the year. 

While there are many specific duties across alumni affairs and development, we have shared challenges in our leadership for Yale and shared opportunities to be ambassadors for this great institution,” YAA Board of Governors Chair Jerry Henry ’80 MDiv said in his introductory address, joined at the virtual podium by Marla Grossman ’90, chair of the Yale Alumni Fund Board of Directors.

“Over the past months the challenges have sometimes seemed to outweigh the opportunities, but nights like these remind me of how the Yale community always comes together during times of need and times of celebration.” 

The event was headlined by a deans panel moderated by Tamar Gendler ’87, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and featuring Robert Blocker, dean of the School of Music; Marvin Chun, dean of Yale College; Lynn Cooley, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; Heather Gerken, dean of the Law School; and Greg Sterling, dean of the Divinity School.

Salovey provided an introduction to this event and the year’s theme, noting the importance of the humanities at a time of great uncertainty and social unrest.

“The arts and humanities have long explored and helped us understand deep-rooted challenges in our world,” Salovey said. “Arts and humanities scholars at Yale today, like generations of faculty well known to alumni, are inspiring us to engage with complex challenges. They encourage us to consider our responsibilities – to one another, to our planet, and to the greater good.”

The deans panel picked up on this note, discussing the role of the humanities in helping us navigate, understand, and cope with the pandemic and the uncertainty that surrounds so many of our current days. It was a conversation that expanded to encompass the work being done in each of the deans’ respective schools and the multidisciplinary and real-world exploration that has contributed to that examination.

As examples, Chun focused on the opportunities open to undergraduates to work with the professional schools to further their studies, and Gerken and Blocker noted how their students have been able to expand their work beyond campus to learn more about the world and how they can impact it.

“We need to change our culture. We all need to work on this,” said Cooley, referring to the Graduate School’s work to address social justice and anti-racism efforts. “What I’m hearing now is story after story across disciplinary boundaries of ideas for how to do research in this area, how to weave issues of the history of class struggle, the construct of an empire, into our curriculum in really interesting ways. … There is a hunger for broadening all of our concepts to be humans on the earth right now.”

In summing the evening’s presentation, Grossman focused on the role alumni play in communicating the work being done at Yale – and how that helps us all make sense of a rapidly changing world landscape.

As volunteer leaders for Yale, it is especially important that we stay connected through activities like Assembly and Convocation to share best practices and new ideas,” she said. “Moreover, hearing directly from key leaders like President Salovey, Dean Gendler, and other school deans provides us with a deeper understanding of how Yale is creating a legacy of excellence during this challenging time. It is our responsibility as ambassadors to Yale to share that understanding with the rest of the Yale community and beyond.”