Yale administrators succumb to anti-speech activists
Erika and Nicholas Christakis, whose advocacy of free expression at Yale University earned students’ ire, have both cancelled their courses next semester in a partial concession to the controversy initially sparked by an email about Halloween costumes.
“I have great respect and affection for my students, but I worry that the current climate at Yale is not, in my view, conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems,” Erika Christakis told The Washington Post.
She and her husband, Nicholas Christakis, will remain in their administrative positions at Silliman College—Nicholas as Master and Erika as Associate Master—but both have cancelled their course offerings for the upcoming spring semester in response to an outpouring of hostility from students accusing them of insensitivity toward racial minorities.
The controversy began in late October, when the school’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent a mass email reminding students to avoid wearing potentially offensive Halloween costumes. Erika Christakis sent a reply in which she argued that freedom of speech is valuable even though it occasionally causes offense.
“Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense—and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes—I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” Christakis wrote.
Rather than demanding that they be sheltered from potentially upsetting concepts, Christakis suggested that students should either ignore such slights or else use them as an opportunity to confront the perpetrator about their feelings.
The email prompted student protests on campus calling for Erika to resign, leading at one point to a confrontation caught on video in which her husband was surrounded by a mob of hostile students demanding that he apologize for defending the content of his wife’s missive.
Mr. Christakis explained that he unequivocally supports freedom of speech—“even when it’s offensive” and “even when I don’t agree with the content”—but failed to mollify the students, one of whom complained that Erika’s email had made her feel that Yale is no longer a “safe space” for her.
Faculty members and administrators were more divided, however, with some siding with the student protesters and others defending the Christakises.
An open letter strongly supporting “the right of Erika and Nicholas Christakis to free speech and freedom of intellectual expression” attracted signatures from 70 faculty members, with the author claiming that dozens more had indicated their support but declined to affix their signatures for fear of stoking additional tensions.
However, a different open letter expressing sympathy with the students’ grievances attracted a far greater number of faculty endorsements, though it did not explicitly mention the Christakises.
University President Peter Salovey, meanwhile, recently announced a number of initiatives that Yale will be taking in an effort to promote inclusivity and diversity on campus, but refused to add to the pressure on the Christakises, saying they would continue in their current roles at Silliman College.
In place of their teaching responsibilities, Erika, an early childhood educator, has said that she will return to her previous work with young children and families, while Nicholas, a physician and sociologist, plans to take a sabbatical to focus on his lab research.
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