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Campus unrest

December 2015

Here are numerous articles commenting on the campus unrest which broke out at Yale in November 2015. These articles are republished here to provide background material for those '64 classmates who wish to further their understanding of the issues and perhaps express their views in our Sound Off! forum.

For links to more information, see the Yale web page Toward a More Inclusive Yale.

What Divides Us?: An Interview with Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway

The New Yorker

November 15, 2015

Amid the many conversations these past two weeks about racism and free speech at Yale University, one moment stood out. Last Thursday afternoon, hundreds gathered and expressed their grievances about the treatment of students of color to Jonathan Holloway, the first African-American dean of Yale College. Holloway, a historian of civil rights, is at the center of a campus conflict about liberalism and education as well as the meaning of an inclusive community. We spoke to him on Thursday evening about the origins of the protests and their implications for other institutions. 

Can you describe what the climate is on campus now?

I can’t speak to the graduate professional students because I don’t work with them. The undergraduates are, well, exhausted. What I think they are feeling is that they are part of something larger than their own existence, with all these rallies happening across the country — that they are living a very special moment.

There’s a sense of excitement about that. They’ve got their eyes on the administration because they got our attention, absolutely, and now they know that the president said we are going to announce some concrete changes.

They’re watching us, as they should, and they’re trying to get back to class. They haven’t been going to their classes for the better part of a week, as they’ve been trying to navigate all this. It’s getting quieter. It’s getting clarified, and we’ll see. The next frontier, frankly, is the faculty, because there’s a growing divide in the faculty about issues of free speech. The faculty are getting one version of the story, frankly, as is most of the country, about the free-speech-raising issue on campus.

The students, for them it’s not about free speech. They aren’t questioning the rights of free speech. You’re hearing this incredible pain and frustration related to the issue of being constantly marginalized, feeling that their speech and their existence simply doesn’t matter. They get that message from all kinds of different stimuli in their life, whether it’s the pop-culture world, whether it’s the stuff they’re learning in classes, or peers who don’t value them and their contributions, or peers who simply think they don’t deserve to be at this place, or that they, relatedly, don’t have the intellectual ability to handle problems — long papers, etc. It’s a lot of this stuff coming together that the students are very frustrated by, and now that it’s getting conflated into a free-speech issue, it’s galling to them.

Can you elucidate how people came to see a conflict between the free-speech issues and the issues that students are actually concerned with?

It happened in the confrontation in the college courtyard, where the video is telling a louder story than anybody else — the video that captured the student yelling at the residential-college master. She looks like someone being uncivil and shouting over the master, and he’s trying to talk about free speech, and she doesn’t want to hear it at all. The video portrays her as having an anti-intellectual and anti-free-speech kind of mindset. Like I said, for these students, that was not the issue. They said, “If you think that this is about an e-mail or about a party people didn’t get into, you’re not paying attention. This is a much deeper and broader, systemic problem, and that’s what we want to talk about today.” On the free-speech thing, there’s plenty of faculty who themselves are either free-speech purists, or who believe deeply in civil discourse and don’t want to disrupt it, or see a friend of theirs being treated discourteously — it could be any number of these things — and feel that the master and associate master have been thrown under the bus, because no one has come to their defense.

The fissure is between the faculty who are upset at the way that the master was treated and, well, the faculty who feel quite differently. That’s a growing issue, and so there are petitions floating around, not yet delivered, but being talked about, that are to support this person or that person, this issue or that issue. We’re nervous — or concerned, I should say — because there are rumblings among the faculty, but this could go in many different directions at any moment. We don’t know what to expect. There are many times in the last week when we thought something was going to zig and it zagged, with incredible speed. That’s the world we live in in these days, with social media and the rallies.

You said the students said that this was not about two isolated incidents, but that they were talking about a bigger context. What exactly is the context that they’re talking about here?

It’s in Yale’s culture, specifically, that’s what I’m speaking to. You have a very privileged university, with a lot of students here of great privilege and a lot without. You’re dealing with a coming together of people from radically different perspectives, and you take, in this case, what we’ve been hearing mostly from women of color, that they’re feeling doubly marginalized, in this very pure-air environment, where their views are discounted because they’re female, or their views are discounted because they’re black or Latina, or their views are discounted because they’re both. People are telling stories of professors presuming they wouldn’t know how to answer a question, while the white students in the seminar got a very different set of reactions on the same issue, where people wouldn’t even engage them, that fellow students wouldn’t make eye contact, wouldn’t talk about them. They’re sick and tired of people saying, “Can I touch your hair? It’s so exotic.” They’re frustrated by the notions of beauty in which they aren’t represented at all.

It’s no single thing. It’s all of these things. Then you also add the fact that, for so many of them, there are too few courses that resonate with their personal lives. This is not to say that everything we teach has to be personal, but when none of what we teach reflects your experience, that’s a problem. You’re getting that kind of frustration as well. Added to the mix are some noted faculty departures. This happens at universities, but there’s a confluence of faculty departures that are signalling institutional inability to retain faculty, unwillingness to retain faculty, or unwillingness to develop faculty. It’s all being read in the way that people are thinking, Gosh, this place doesn’t care. It just doesn’t care.

Are they talking about this in the bigger context of Black Lives Matter, and other protests and demonstrations we’ve seen on campuses across the country?

Certainly students are talking about it to one another, about what kind of moment this is. The trigger was really mostly the local issues, racial crises at Yale. There’s no doubt that these students are being informed by the world in which they’ve grown up, from when they were in ninth grade roughly to the present. Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston — how many different times in Charleston? — Cleveland. They’ve grown up seeing people their age being killed, with impunity. That’s a burden. That makes managing life quite difficult. Even if you yourself are not in a position of having your mortality threatened, the fact is, you’re living in a world where people are openly debating that George Zimmerman was probably doing the right thing, that Trayvon Martin probably couldn’t have been trusted. Where the news is saying that Sandra Bland was copping an attitude, so she brought it on herself. That’s a hell of a way to understand the world you live in, especially when you’re in college and trying to figure out who you are. Trying to decode that while navigating what the smartphone media is telling you is very hard.

Last week, there was the initial demonstration, where students were voicing their displeasure. I think you said that you were at this rally, and you listened for two and a half hours before you responded to them. When you were listening to them, were they articulating things that you were surprised at? You teach civil rights and African-American history.

That’s the tragic thing. None of this sounds new to me. That’s really the saddest thing of all — that the things that they’re complaining about are old and recurring problems. Part of that is that a college is constantly renewing itself, so new people are always coming in and trying to sort things out. That’s just a fact of college. Part of it is that there are certain intransigencies in life. Okay, so we know it’s unfashionable to wear a Klan hood, but look at how these anonymous message boards are operating. That’s not so far from the spirit of planned rallies, trying to terrorize people anonymously. Look at the issue of black criminality. That hasn’t changed. It’s just been modified in different ways. Look at the issue of mental health. That actually has changed because of the national outcry — we’re all trying to figure this out, but the things that are getting people to say they need help haven’t changed. You and I both know there have been radical positive changes and opportunities. Neither of us would have been there at Yale fifty years ago. That doesn’t mean we can be satisfied, and that doesn’t mean that people aren’t going to have really difficult challenges along the way.

There have been people who look at this situation and say, “These students, who are at one of the most élite institutions in the United States and are reacting in this way, they are coddled and thin-skinned and they should just maybe toughen up. That’s the biggest thing they need to do.”

I understand that. This is not just a black problem or a brown problem or a women’s problem or whatever. We are seeing a generation of students, and I don’t know why, who do seem less resilient than in the past. I think part of it is that things aren’t mediated like they have been in the past. You don’t have the luxury of sitting down and pondering what somebody just said, because you’re too busy putting it into a Tweet and saying, “This is an outrage.” There’s no mediation of ideas. It’s all off the top of my head and it’s pain, in this case.

I think that, because people are not getting enough sleep, and these things just keep on, Tweets keep coming in, that they are not equipped properly to process it all. I think that’s a major part of it. The other part is that students have been struggling at Yale for a long time, and at similar institutions. The administrations were not set up even to care about them. It’s not just that maybe students are less resilient, it’s that the administrations actually are doing more work to identify people who are struggling. In a different era, if you had a drinking problem, there’s a nod and a wink, and that’s just the way Buster behaved. Now we understand the women’s side, that this thing is a real problem, and, hey, wait a second, this guy drinks and he sexually assaults somebody.

We’ve got to deal with that. You build up an apparatus to deal with people in crisis, and it actually helps us understand that — you know what? — more people are in crisis than we actually thought. I think these things go hand in hand, and I don’t think anybody’s really figured it out. We can claim we figured it out, but I think no one’s got the patent on that one yet.

I think I’ve said it, but I’ve actually been buoyed in the last couple days, because I’ve seen the Yale that I believe is normal — a really smart school confronting a problem and trying in a creative way to solve it together. That sounds like an advertisement but I actually believe that it operates that way. People are being increasingly willing to presume good faith on someone else’s behalf instead of just being negative. It’s as simple as that. Time will tell where this all shakes out, but I am cautiously optimistic that we are moving to a different place here. Hell, I’ve been wrong three or four times already this week, so who knows?


The New Intolerance of Student Activism

A fight over Halloween costumes at Yale has devolved into an effort to censor dissenting views.

The Atlantic

November 9, 2015

Professor Nicholas Christakis lives at Yale, where he presides over one of its undergraduate colleges. His wife Erika, a lecturer in early-childhood education, shares that duty. They reside among students and are responsible for shaping residential life. And before Halloween, some students complained to them that Yale administrators were offering heavy-handed advice on what Halloween costumes to avoid.

Erika Christakis reflected on the frustrations of the students, drew on her scholarship and career experience, and composed an email inviting the community to think about the controversy through an intellectual lens that few if any had considered. Her message was a model of relevant, thoughtful, civil engagement.

For her trouble, a faction of students are now trying to get the couple removed from their residential positions, which is to say, censured and ousted from their home on campus. Hundreds of Yale students are attacking them, some with hateful insults, shouted epithets, and a campaign of public shaming. In doing so, they have shown an illiberal streak that flows from flaws in their well-intentioned ideology.

Those who purport to speak for marginalized students at elite colleges sometimes expose serious shortcomings in the way that their black, brown, or Asian classmates are treated, and would expose flaws in the way that religious students and ideological conservatives are treated too if they cared to speak up for those groups. I’ve known many Californians who found it hard to adjust to life in the Ivy League, where a faction of highly privileged kids acculturated at elite prep schools still set the tone of a decidedly East Coast culture. All else being equal, outsiders who also feel like racial or ethnic “others” typically walk the roughest road of all.

That may well be true at Yale.

But none of that excuses the Yale activists who’ve bullied these particular faculty in recent days. They’re behaving more like Reddit parodies of “social-justice warriors” than coherent activists, and I suspect they will look back on their behavior with chagrin. The purpose of writing about their missteps now is not to condemn these students. Their young lives are tremendously impressive by any reasonable measure. They are unfortunate to live in an era in which the normal mistakes of youth are unusually visible. To keep the focus where it belongs I won’t be naming any of them here.

The focus belongs on the flawed ideas that they’ve absorbed.

Everyone invested in how the elites of tomorrow are being acculturated should understand, as best they can, how so many cognitively privileged, ordinarily kind, seemingly well-intentioned young people could lash out with such flagrant intolerance.

What happens at Yale does not stay there.

With world-altering research to support, graduates who assume positions of extraordinary power, and a $24.9 billion endowment to marshal for better or worse, Yale administrators face huge opportunity costs as they parcel out their days. Many hours must be spent looking after undergraduates, who experience problems as serious as clinical depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and sexual assault. Administrators also help others, who struggle with financial stress or being the first in their families to attend college.

It is therefore remarkable that no fewer than 13 administrators took scarce time to compose, circulate, and co-sign a letter advising adult students on how to dress for Halloween, a cause that misguided campus activists mistake for a social-justice priority.

“Parents who wonder why college tuition is so high and why it increases so much each year may be less than pleased to learn that their sons and daughters will have an opportunity to interact with more administrators and staffers — but not more professors,” Benjamin Ginsberg observed in Washington Monthly back in 2011. “For many of these career managers, promoting teaching and research is less important than expanding their own administrative domains.” All over America, dispensing Halloween costume advice is now an annual ritual performed by college administrators.

Erika Christakis was questioning that practice when she composed her email, adding nuance to a conversation that some students were already having. Traditionally, she began, Halloween is both a day of subversion for young people and a time when adults exert their control over their behavior: from bygone, overblown fears about candy spiked with poison or razorblades to a more recent aversion to the sugar in candy.

“This year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween,” she wrote. “I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.”

It’s hard to imagine a more deferential way to begin voicing her alternative view. And having shown her interlocutors that she respects them and shares their ends, she explained her misgivings about the means of telling college kids what to wear on Halloween:  

I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.

As a former preschool teacher... it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it.

I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.

Which is my point.

I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours.

When I was in college, a position of this sort taken by a faculty member would likely have been regarded as a show of respect for all students and their ability to think for themselves. She added, “even if we could agree on how to avoid offense,” there may be something lost if administrators try to stamp out all offense-giving behavior:

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? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people's capacity — in your capacity — to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?

In her view, students would be better served if colleges showed more faith in their capacity to work things out themselves, which would help them to develop cognitive skills. Nicholas says: “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are hallmarks of a free and open society,” she wrote. “But — again, speaking as a child development specialist — I think there might be something missing in our discourse about … free speech (including how we dress) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment? In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It's not mine, I know that.”

That’s the measured, thoughtful pre-Halloween email that caused Yale students to demand that Nicholas and Erika Christakis resign their roles at Silliman College. That’s how Nicholas Christakis came to stand in an emotionally charged crowd of Silliman students, where he attempted to respond to the fallout from the email his wife sent.

Watching footage of that meeting, a fundamental disagreement is revealed between professor and undergrads. Christakis believes that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view. Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue. But many of the students believe that his responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings.

Notice that the student position allows no room for civil disagreement.

Given this set of assumptions, perhaps it is no surprise that the students behave like bullies even as they see themselves as victims. This is most vividly illustrated in a video clip that begins with one student saying, “Walk away, he doesn’t deserve to be listened to.”

At Yale, every residential college has a “master” — a professor who lives in residence with their family, and is responsible for its academic, intellectual, and social life.  “Masters work with students to shape each residential college community,” Yale states, “bringing their own distinct social, cultural, and intellectual influences to the colleges.” The approach is far costlier than what’s on offer at commuter schools, but aims to create a richer intellectual environment where undergrads can learn from faculty and one another even outside the classroom.

“In your position as master,” one student says, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman. You have not done that. By sending out that email, that goes against your position as master. Do you understand that?!”

“No,” he said, “I don’t agree with that.”

The student explodes, “Then why the fuck did you accept the position?! Who the fuck hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!”

The Yale student appears to believe that creating an intellectual space and a home are at odds with one another. But the entire model of a residential college is premised on the notion that it’s worthwhile for students to reside in a campus home infused with intellectualism, even though creating it requires lavishing extraordinary resources on youngsters who are already among the world’s most advantaged. It is no accident that masters are drawn from the ranks of the faculty.

The student finally declares, “You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!” Bear in mind that this is a student described by peers with phrases like, to cite one example, “I've never known her to be anything other than extremely kind, level-headed, and rational.” But her apparent embrace of an ideology that tends toward intolerance produces a very different set of behaviors.

In the face of hateful personal attacks like that, Nicholas Christakis listened and gave restrained, civil responses. He later magnanimously tweeted, “No one, especially no students exercising right to speech, should be judged just on the basis of a short video clip.” (He is right.) And he invited students who still disagreed with him, and with his wife, to continue the conversation at a brunch to be hosted in their campus home.

In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argued that too many college students engage in “catastrophizing,” which is to say, turning common events into nightmarish trials or claiming that easily bearable events are too awful to bear. After citing examples, they concluded, “smart people do, in fact, overreact to innocuous speech, make mountains out of molehills, and seek punishment for anyone whose words make anyone else feel uncomfortable.”

What Yale students did next vividly illustrates that phenomenon.

According to The Washington Post, “several students in Silliman said they cannot bear to live in the college anymore.” These are young people who live in safe, heated buildings with two Steinway grand pianos, an indoor basketball court, a courtyard with hammocks and picnic tables, a computer lab, a dance studio, a gym, a movie theater, a film-editing lab, billiard tables, an art gallery, and four music-practice rooms. But they can’t bear this setting that millions of people would risk their lives to inhabit because one woman wrote an email that hurt their feelings?

Another Silliman resident declared in a campus publication, “I have had to watch my friends defend their right to this institution. This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted their lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns.” One feels for these students. But if an email about Halloween costumes has them skipping class and suffering breakdowns, either they need help from mental-health professionals or they’ve been grievously ill-served by debilitating ideological notions they’ve acquired about what ought to cause them pain.

The student next described what she thinks residential life at Yale should be. Her words: “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” In fact, students were perfectly free to talk about their pain. Some felt entitled to something more, and that is what prolonged the debate — not a faculty member who’d rather have been anywhere else.

As students saw it, their pain ought to have been the decisive factor in determining the acceptability of the Halloween email. They thought their request for an apology ought to have been sufficient to secure one. Who taught them that it is righteous to pillory faculty for failing to validate their feelings, as if disagreement is tantamount to disrespect? Their mindset is anti-diversity, anti-pluralism, and anti-tolerance, a seeming data-point in favor of April Kelly-Woessner’s provocative argument that “young people today are less politically tolerant than their parents’ generation.”

Hundreds of Yale students have now signed an open letter to Erika Christakis that is alarming in its own right, not least because it is so poorly reasoned. “Your email equates old traditions of using harmful stereotypes and tropes to further degrade marginalized people, to preschoolers playing make believe,” the letter inaccurately summarizes. “This both trivializes the harm done by these tropes and infantilizes the student body to which the request was made.” Up is down. The person saying that adult men and women should work Halloween out among themselves is accused of infantilizing them. “You fail to distinguish the difference between cosplaying fictional characters and misrepresenting actual groups of people,” the letter continues, though Erika Christakis specifically wrote in her Halloween email, “I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick.”

Hundreds of Yalies signed on to the blatant misrepresentations of her text. The open letter continues:

In your email, you ask students to “look away” if costumes are offensive, as if the degradation of our cultures and people, and the violence that grows out of it, is something that we can ignore. We were told to meet the offensive parties head on, without suggesting any modes or means to facilitate these discussions to promote understanding.

This beggars belief. Yale students told to talk to each other if they find a peer’s costume offensive helplessly declare that they’re unable to do so without an authority figure specifying “any modes or means to facilitate these discussions,” as if they’re Martians unfamiliar with a concept as rudimentary as disagreeing in conversation, even as they publish an open letter that is, itself, a mode of facilitating discussion.

“We are not asking to be coddled,” the open letter insists. “The real coddling is telling the privileged majority on campus that they do not have to engage with the brutal pasts that are a part of the costumes they seek to wear.” But no one asserted that students should not be questioned about offensive costumes — only that fellow Yale students, not meddling administrators, should do the questioning, conduct the conversations, and shape the norms for themselves.  “We simply ask that our existences not be invalidated on campus,” the letter says, catastrophizing.

This notion that one’s existence can be invalidated by a fellow 18-year-old donning an offensive costume is perhaps the most disempowering notion aired at Yale.

It ought to be disputed rather than indulged for the sake of these students, who need someone to teach them how empowered they are by virtue of their mere enrollment; that no one is capable of invalidating their existence, full stop; that their worth is inherent, not contingent; that everyone is offended by things around them; that they are capable of tremendous resilience; and that most possess it now despite the disempowering ideology foisted on them by well-intentioned, wrongheaded ideologues encouraging them to imagine that they are not privileged.

Here’s one of the ways that white men at Yale are most privileged of all: When a white male student at an elite college says that he feels disempowered, the first impulse of the campus left is to show him the extent of his power and privilege. When any other students say they feel disempowered, the campus left’s impulse is to validate their statements. This does a huge disservice to everyone except white male students. It’s baffling that so few campus activists seem to realize this drawback of emphasizing victim status even if college administrators sometimes treat it as currency.

That isn’t to dismiss all complaints by Yale students. If contested claims that black students were turned away from a party due to their skin color are true, for example, that is outrageous. If any discrete group of students is ever discriminated against, or disproportionately victimized by campus crime, or graded more harshly by professors, then of course students should protest and remedies should be implemented.

Some Yalies are defending their broken activist culture by seizing on more defensible reasons for being upset. “The protests are not really about Halloween costumes or a frat party,” Yale senior Aaron Lewis writes. “They’re about a mismatch between the Yale we find in admissions brochures and the Yale we experience every day. They’re about real experiences with racism on this campus that have gone unacknowledged for far too long. The university sells itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it often isn’t.”

But regardless of other controversies at Yale, its students owe Nicholas and Erika Christakis an apology. And they owe apologies to other objects of their intolerance, too.

The most recent incident occurred over the weekend. During a conference on freedom of speech, Greg Lukianoff reportedly said, “Looking at the reaction to Erika Christakis’s email, you would have thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village.” An attendee posted that quote to Facebook. “The online Facebook post led a group of Native American women, other students of color, and their supporters to protest the conference in an impromptu gathering outside of LC 102, where the Buckley event was taking place,” the Yale Daily News reported.

A bit later the protesters disgraced themselves (emphasis added):

Around 5:45 p.m., as attendees began to leave the conference, students chanted the phrase “Genocide is not a joke” and held up written signs of the same words. Taking Howard’s reminder into account, protesters formed a clear path through which attendees could leave.

A large group of students eventually gathered outside of the building on High Street, where several attendees were spat on, according to Buckley fellows who were present during the conference. One Buckley Fellow added that he was spat on and called a racist. Another, who identifies as a minority himself, said he has been labeled a “traitor” by several.

These students were offended by one person’s words, and were free to offer their own words in turn. That wasn’t enough for them, so they spat on different people who listened to those words and called one minority student a traitor to his race. In their muddled ideology, the Yale activists had to destroy the safe space to save it.


What I Learned This Semester at Yale

Students of color are not separatists practicing identity politics — they are fed up with false histories and a false present.

by Daniel Judt, a junior at Yale majoring in American History

Published in The Nation, December, 2015

On July 1, I received an e-mail from a fellow Yale student. She urged me to sign a petition to change the name of Calhoun College, a Yale residential building named after John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina statesman who graduated from Yale in 1804. The e-mail called Calhoun “the U.S.’s most ardent supporter of slavery.” I clicked on the petition, which began: “It is deeply upsetting that it has taken a tragedy such as the shooting in Charleston to initiate the removal of symbols of white supremacy from public spaces.”

Just weeks before, Dylann Roof shot nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church because they were black. This is the kind of racism white America knows how to deal with. It is the racism I learned about in high school. Klan racism, Bull Connor racism. “You are raping our women,” Roof had said before he sprayed the church with blood. Roof wanted his actions to launch a race war. In photos on his website, he posed proudly with a Confederate flag.

Like most people, I was livid about Charleston. I wanted to strip the Confederate flag from every statehouse, every town square, every lawn. But on Calhoun, I froze. A Confederate flag was easy. Calhoun seemed more complicated. I abhorred the man and his ideas, of course. But maybe his name on a building was a good way to remember that? Should Yale forget John C. Calhoun? I imagined a student asking, four or five years down the road, “Calhoun who?” I didn’t sign the petition.

Conversations about race at Yale boiled over on November 5. Students confronted Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway in the middle of the campus and, for the better part of three hours, tried to explain why they were hurt and angry. I wasn’t at Yale when this happened. I was in Atlanta, doing research for a paper on the Atlanta Cyclorama, a painting that many have interpreted as a commemoration of the Confederacy. When I received texts from my friends telling me what was going on at Yale, I was in an archive reading an article about the premiere of Gone With the Wind back in 1939.

Mayor William Hartsfield declared the day of the premiere a holiday in Atlanta. The city was festive and frenzied. Atlanta’s own Margaret Mitchell had written a book about Atlanta’s own battle, and just three years later Hollywood — Clark Gable! — had made Atlanta’s own film. In the days leading up to the premiere, the city rewound some 70 years. The Loew’s Grand Theatre had been specially renovated, its façade transformed into a Southern mansion. Newspapers ran thick souvenir editions with detailed instructions for the rebel yell. Young men and young women asked their grandparents if they could borrow clothes. The hoop skirt returned. The gray uniform was passed down. Oh, and did they still have their swords?

That night, 18,000 Atlantans lined an avenue to watch their past parade by. The past came in a shiny black car. Hattie McDaniel, whose performance the Atlanta Constitution adored, was not in the car and was not at the theater. Blacks were not allowed in the Loew’s Grand. Margaret Mitchell was in the car, and she was very pleased. “I feel it has been a great thing for Georgia and the South to see the Confederates come back,” she said, beaming.

I couldn’t figure out if she was talking about the film.

Jeff Hobbs’s The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is about the experience of one black student, Robert Peace, at Yale from 1998 to 2002. Peace grew up with his mother in a violent neighborhood just outside Newark, and his father was imprisoned when he was 7 — but he made it to Yale. Despite excelling academically and socially, he never felt truly comfortable or at home. Hobbs, Peace’s white roommate, says this of their relationship: “He knew I could never understand, and he was kind enough not to hold my sheltered obliviousness against me ... He would share with me the smallest fragment of his world and then step back into the whole of mine.”

I cling to my sheltered obliviousness every Saturday morning, and the inmates at Manson Youth Correctional Facility are kind enough not to hold it against me. I go there to tutor. Manson has grey concrete walls, a single story high, that seem to go on forever — out of sight from the parking lot, at least. The visitor entrance is a single gray door with a single glass pane at eye level. Inside is a visitor’s desk that is itself another cement wall with another single glass pane, this one at chest height. Behind that pane sits a woman who makes us sign a sheet and hand over our Yale IDs.

The group of prisoners I work with is post-GED, 18–21 years old. They told us they wanted to learn about political issues. About race, one of them said. The six inmates in my tutoring program do not buy the idea of cultural appropriation. Four are black, two Latino. When I suggested it would be wrong if I wore blackface for Halloween, they suggested I was full of shit. “You do whatever you want, and if I think you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, I’ll let you know,” Mac said. I told them they should be angrier. They should be offended. They shrugged.

I had not bothered to ask them where they were from. What they saw, who they were. How they got here. I’m actually not allowed to ask them that last one — prison rules. They are quite literally forbidden from conveying their experiences to me. They are only allowed to shrug. After two hours, I left. I can always leave.

Student movements at Yale and other schools across the country are decrying the imbalance Hobbs describes. White students like myself are rarely aware of our own consciousness — and our own culture — when we enter into an intellectual discussion. When we speak from our experience, we do not have to recognize the consciousnesses of students of color. Those students of color, though, have to recognize both their own consciousness and those of their white peers.

These student movements are political movements. They are battle cries of a mobilized generation. Yet instead of dealing with the political issues that they raise, critics on the right (and some on the left) have psychologized these movements, painting their leaders as whining children. They say that student protesters are acting from individual feelings, using muddled thinking, shouting down neutral civil discourse, and concerned with neither ideas nor politics. Or, that students are concerned with politics, but with the wrong, dangerous kind — egocentric and driven by identity.

But students of color are not separatists practicing identity politics. Their kind of politics does not exclude allies or abandon universal ethics. The demand is simply that we allow students of color to share more than just a fragment of their world.

Margaret Mitchell’s confederates are not back. Exclusion now comes in subtler forms, like the gray walls of a youth correctional facility. But there is a link between grandsons of confederates dressing up in their granddaddy’s uniforms and Yalies donning blackface for Halloween. Or between the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse and John C. Calhoun’s name on a college dorm room. Students of color recognize this link. They are demanding that white students — white people — see it too.

Otherwise, American society will not work anymore. Students of color are not imagining hurt. They are not creating false history. They are not exaggerating pain. They want white people to understand how reflexively resistant we are to surrendering our American narrative. It is a narrative that disconnects us from our past and obscures our present. It lets us honor slaveholders and supremacists, glamorize emancipation — and dismiss angry, passionate, visceral voices of dissent as childish drivel. We ought to want no part of it.

Student activists are fed up with false histories and a false present. They are proposing we write a new American narrative, one that includes them. They want to inject their experiences into the body of civil discourse. A body whose blood, right now, runs white.

Yesterday, I signed that petition to rename Calhoun College.


Listening, learning, leading: Salovey and Holloway speak to alumni delegates

During the 2015 AYA Assembly, President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway told alumni delegates that free speech and diversity should not be in conflict at the university.

The issues of race, diversity, free speech, and inclusion can make for complicated and often difficult conversations. Yale President Peter Salovey told nearly 500 Yale alumni leaders on Nov. 20 that he is ready to have those conversations on a national level and he is ready to have Yale take a lead on these powerful issues underlying a movement taking place across the nation, at Yale and other college campuses.

“Why not lead that conversation in a way that’s respectful, thoughtful, and that reflects how a university should lead,” said Salovey, who spoke along with Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway at the annual assembly of the Yale alumni. “This is an important opportunity, and I think we should seize it.”

Part of establishing that leadership position, the President and Dean noted, was taking the time to listen to all students and faculty as students organized rallies, a march for resilience, and a teach-in to address issues of race on campus. Holloway said the situation on campus was fluid, and he and Salovey thought it was important to listen and learn before announcing what steps would be taken.

While reaffirming support for Yale students, Salovey also reaffirmed his defense of free speech by citing the 1974 Woodward Report on Free Expression, which outlines Yale’s bedrock policy that expression of all kinds is tolerated at Yale, and there is no exception for controversial issues. Salovey stressed that free speech at Yale is not in jeopardy, and that free speech and diversity should not be issues in conflict.

 “Expression of all kind is tolerated on this campus even when it offends us, even when it disgusts us, even when we disagree with it strongly,” he said. “The way to deal with such speech that offends us is with our speech. All should be allowed to listen to the views of others.”

The pair recounted the difficult, but necessary conversations they both had in the past weeks with students, faculty, and alumni about these issues at Yale.

“It was a thing of beauty,” Holloway said as he described the teach-in attended by hundreds of undergraduates, graduate and professional students, faculty, and staff. “They marched to say, ‘This is our Yale also. We belong also.’ It was a civil, peaceful articulation that Yale was capacious enough to handle all of our views. That’s Yale at its finest.”

Salovey and Holloway joined the students at the teach-in, and the leaders and students spent three hours educating one another. “We heard students talk about ways to look forward,” Holloway said. “This was not a moment about not getting into a party or a controversial email. It was about something deeper and more vital.” Students across the country are expressing frustration and speaking about not belonging at their respective institutions. We all need to listen.”

Salovey said that that there is a very real sense among underrepresented students that they experience acts toward them that are discriminatory and hurtful. “I think it happens in the world, and it happens on campuses,” he said. “I think it’s very real, and I think we should try to grapple with it. Students are not unrealistic about it. They simply say, ‘We just want to get the same kind of education that everybody else does. We feel like we don’t belong.’ These are members of our community simply saying, ‘We don’t want to be excluded. We want to be part of things.’”

“I view this not as something we should be running from or spinning, but rather as an opportunity for Yale to show the kind of leadership that we show on all issues,” the President added. “We should be in front of this national conversation and in creating campuses where everyone who comes feels like they belong, gets a great education, and has an enriching social experience regardless of their background before coming to Yale.”

Holloway spoke from his perspectives as an administrator, as a historian who studied civil rights and is currently teaching a lecture course on post-emancipation African-American history, and as a black man who had experienced some of the same things when he was an undergraduate.

“I knew intellectually the kinds of slights [the students have] endured were familiar to me when I was in college,” he said. “Things have gotten radically better, but the fact is that at an interpersonal level, it is still quite difficult to be a person from a marginalized community. I know for a fact that those of you who were in the first class of women at Yale know exactly what I’m talking about. You had to navigate a lot of things that the men did not have to navigate.”

Holloway also said that as privileged as he is to be the first black dean of Yale College, having privilege and resources doesn’t mean anything when you step into certain situations. “Part of me has to wonder if I’m pulled over what might happen. That is the reality of my life. I don’t say it to complain, but people need to understand that the undergraduate experience in its own way reflects that kind of reality. It’s historical: it’s not new, but it’s personal and it’s real. That’s what we’ve been hearing over these last few weeks.”

Holloway expressed pride in the steps the university announced it would take in a series of messages to the community. Salovey reaffirmed that the Christakises would continue as master and associate master of Silliman College, and also announced a variety of actions that Yale can put into motion immediately. Those actions reflect input from student groups, faculty groups, alumni, and parents. He noted that a center for the academic study of race and ethnicities had been discussed since 2009. Others are newer ideas that Salovey thinks are appropriate at this moment.

Before taking questions from the audience on everything from naming the new residential colleges to renaming Calhoun College, Salovey encouraged the alumni to engage on the issues of belonging and inclusion.

“Yale deserves your participation in this conversation,” he said.


Statement from President Salovey: Toward a better Yale

November 17, 2015

President Peter Salovey sent the following message to the Yale community on November 17.

In my 35 years on this campus, I have never been as simultaneously moved, challenged, and encouraged by our community — and all the promise it embodies — as in the past two weeks. You have given strong voice to the need for us to work toward a better, more diverse, and more inclusive Yale. You have offered me the opportunity to listen to and learn from you — students, faculty, staff, and alumni, from every part of the university.

I have heard the expressions of those who do not feel fully included at Yale, many of whom have described experiences of isolation, and even of hostility, during their time here. It is clear that we need to make significant changes so that all members of our community truly feel welcome and can participate equally in the activities of the university, and to reaffirm and reinforce our commitment to a campus where hatred and discrimination are never tolerated.

We begin this work by laying to rest the claim that it conflicts with our commitment to free speech, which is unshakeable. The very purpose of our gathering together into a university community is to engage in teaching, learning, and research — to study and think together, sometimes to argue with and challenge one another, even at the risk of discord, but always to take care to preserve our ability to learn from one another.

Yale’s long history, even in these past two weeks, has shown a steadfast devotion to full freedom of expression. No one has been silenced or punished for speaking their minds, nor will they be. This freedom, which is the bedrock of education, equips us with the fullness of mind to pursue our shared goal of creating a more inclusive community.

Four key areas, outlined below, will give structure to our efforts to build a more inclusive Yale, and the deans of all of Yale’s schools will provide leadership across the university. I look forward to working with everyone in the days and months ahead to refine and expand on these themes. In a time when universities and communities around the country are coming together to address longstanding inequalities, I believe that Yale can and should lead the way. Many of you have proposed ideas for constructive steps forward, and my hope is that our collective endeavors can become a model for others to emulate.

The conversations we are having today, about freedom of expression and the need for inclusivity and respect — principles that are not mutually exclusive — resonate deeply with the issue Dean Holloway and I addressed at the beginning of the semester, about the name of Calhoun College. At that time, I quoted President Lincoln and said that Yale, like our nation, has “unfinished work.” This is just as true with the work that stands before us now. I am eager to embark on it with you. 

Strengthening the academic enterprise

Race, ethnicity, and other aspects of social identity are central issues of our era, issues that should be a focus of particularly intense study at a great university. For some time, Yale has been exploring the possibility of creating a prominent university center supporting the exciting scholarship represented by these and related areas. Recent events across the country have made clear that now is the time to develop such a transformative, multidisciplinary center drawing on expertise from across Yale’s schools; it will be launched this year and will have significant resources for both programming and staff. Over time, this center will position Yale to stand at the forefront of research and teaching in these intellectually ambitious and important fields.

Yale already has outstanding faculty members who are doing cutting-edge scholarship on the histories, lives, and cultures of unrepresented and under-represented communities. To build on this strong foundation, I will ask the committee that oversees the allocation of resources in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to devote four additional faculty positions to these areas, housing them in relevant FAS departments and programs. We will hire the very best scholars to bring their knowledge and insight to our students and the broader community.

In the meantime, in expectation of increased student interest, we are adding additional teaching staff and courses in Yale College starting in spring 2016 that address these topics. To continue the conversation outside the classroom, throughout the university, Yale will launch a five-year series of conferences on issues of race, gender, inequality, and inclusion. 

Earlier this month Provost Ben Polak and I announced a $50 million, five-year, university-wide initiative that will enable all of our schools to enhance faculty diversity. This is a campus-wide priority. Within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which includes the faculty who teach in Yale College, we will invite one of our senior faculty members to take on the responsibility of helping to guide the FAS in its diversity efforts and its implementation of the initiative. This new leadership position will be located in the office of the dean of the FAS, and will hold the title of deputy dean for diversity in the FAS and special advisor to the provost and president. The deputy dean will also coordinate support and mentoring for our untenured faculty. Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler and the FAS deputy dean will convene a new committee to advise them about faculty diversity issues and strategies for inclusion.

Expanding programs, services, and support for students

Starting in 2016-2017, the program budgets for the four cultural centers will double, augmenting the increases made this year and the ongoing facilities upgrades resulting from last year’s external review. The expanded funding will enable the centers to strengthen support for undergraduate students and extend support to the graduate and professional student communities. Staffing will be adjusted, and facilities for each center will continue to be assessed with an eye toward identifying additional enhancements. In addition, I will ask the deans of our schools to explore ways in which our community, including our extraordinary alumni, can increase the support and mentorship they provide to our students.

Financial aid policies for low-income students in Yale College, the subject of a spring 2015 report by the Yale College Council, will also see improvements beginning in the next academic year. Details will soon be announced, and will include a reduction in the student effort expectation for current students. In the meantime, funds for emergencies and special circumstances already available through the residential colleges, and the financial aid offices are also being reviewed and increased. We will follow up with the graduate and professional schools to ensure that they also have the capacity to support students in times of emergency.

Professional counselors from Yale Health will work with the directors of the four cultural centers to schedule specified hours at each center, building on the existing mental health fellows program in the residential colleges. Additional multicultural training will be provided to all of the staff in the Department of Mental Health and Counseling at Yale Health, and renewed efforts will be made to increase the diversity of its professional staff. These changes are in addition to the improvements that we are already making in our mental health services for students across the university.

Improving institutional structures and practices 

Educating our community about race, ethnicity, diversity, and inclusion begins with the university’s leadership. I, along with the vice presidents, deans, provosts, and other members of the administration, will receive training on recognizing and combating racism and other forms of discrimination in the academy. Similar programs will be provided to department chairs, directors of graduate and undergraduate studies, masters and deans, student affairs staff, and others across the university.

We are also making funds available to improve existing programs and develop new ones — both during orientation periods and beyond — that explore diversity and inclusion and provide tools for open conversations in all parts of the university about these issues. Programs may take the form of trainings, speaker series, or other ongoing activities. We will appoint a committee of students, faculty, and staff to help us develop and implement these efforts, so that we can learn to work together better to create an inclusive community, a community in which all feel they belong.

The work of creating robust and clear mechanisms for reporting, tracking, and addressing actions that may violate the university’s clear nondiscrimination policies will be rolled out in two phases: in the first, which will take place immediately, we will work with students to communicate more clearly the available pathways and resources for reporting and/or resolution. Then, in the spring, we will review and adopt, with input from students, measures to strengthen mechanisms that address discrimination. I have asked Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kim Goff-Crews to lead this work.

Representations of diversity on campus

To broaden the visible representations of our community on campus, I am asking the Committee on Public Art to hold an open session at which members of the campus can present ideas for how we might better convey and celebrate our diversity and its history. Just as Yale in recent years has heralded the role and contributions of women by increasing the number of portraits of women across campus and by commissioning the Women’s Table in front of Sterling Memorial Library, we can more accurately reflect the vibrancy of our university community.

Finally, many of you have asked with renewed interest about the names of the new residential colleges as well as the name of Calhoun College. In the next year, the Yale Corporation will be deciding the names of the two new colleges that will open in August 2017. I have asked the Corporation’s senior fellow to organize meetings with several other fellows at which community members can express their views both about names for the new colleges and about Calhoun. Corporation fellows value, and will continue to hold, in-person and other discussions as they move toward making decisions.

We take these important steps in the full knowledge that our community will have to do much more to create a fully inclusive campus. To lead the way forward, I am creating a presidential task force representing all constituencies to consider other projects and policies. The efforts that we launch today, and the commitment to the core values they represent, must be continuous, ongoing, and shared by all of us. I thank all of you for the perspectives you have offered already and for all that you will contribute to the work that lies ahead.


Columns by Cole Aronson, Yale Daily News

The following content includes 5 columns by Cole Aronson, a sophomore in Calhoun College who writes a weekly column as a staff columnist for the Yale Daily News.

Defending Erika Christakis

by Cole Aronson, staff columnist, Yale Daily News

November 2, 2015

On Wednesday, Dean Burgwell Howard wrote an email to Yalies asking them not to “threaten [Yale’s] sense of community” with their Halloween costume choices. “We would hope,” Howard writes, “that people would actively avoid those circumstances that … disrespect, alienate, or ridicule … based on race, nationality, or population.” And then, on Friday, Erika Christakis, associate master of Silliman College, wrote to the Silliman community about the dangers of making campuses “places of censure and prohibition.”

Christakis laments that emails like Howard’s suggest that adults have “lost faith in young people’s capacity … to exercise self-censure, through social norming.” This “shift from individual to institutional agency” disempowers students. If Yalies want their culture changed, Christakis argues, edicts from above are the wrong way to do it.

To be sure, the University administration can and should counter egregious student behavior. Yale is not just a disburser of facts, but an institution to make moral men and women. At the same time, an email concerning students’ Halloween attire seems a bit petty, especially given the binge drinking and debauchery abounding the same evening.

Ultimately, though, Christakis thinks the administration — and everyone else — lacks a way to distinguish among “appropriative” costumes and more benign ones. “What is the statute of limitations,” she wonders, “on … dressing up as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans?” Though there’s certainly a difference between dressing as Tiana and wearing blackface, this reply misses the point: Howard and Christakis’s critics on social media are not treating students who dress up in supposedly “appropriative” costumes in good faith.

Howard concedes in his email that “in many cases the student wearing the costume has not intended to offend.” However, “their actions or lack of forethought have sent a far greater message than any apology could after the fact.” Burgwell dissociates the costume from the person wearing it. What makes a given action different from person to person is the intention behind it — for instance, it’s okay for parents to yell at their children in public. If a stranger did the same, we’d consider it boorish. So why would we remonstrate someone who in daily life is racially tolerant, liberal, etc. because they wore a borderline insensitive costume?

Burgwell simply assumes that minority students will take offense at such garb. But they might be less perturbed if they considered that the aim of students wearing costumes on Halloween is — almost certainly — to have fun, not reinstitute Jim Crow or kick minority students out of Yale. They might, of course, find some costumes to be in poor taste, as I do. In that case, they should do what Christakis urged and explain their feeling to their peers in a constructive way.

Yet an open letter to Christakis recently circulated among the student body takes Burgwell’s uncharitability one step further. Already signed by hundreds of Yalies, it accuses Christakis of asking minority students to invite “ridicule and violence onto [them]selves” by allowing peers to wear potentially offensive costumes. Christakis, the letter says, wants folks to ignore the “violence” that grows out of the “degradation of … cultures and people.”

The philosopher Slavoj Zizek could not have overstated it better. Christakis was simply arguing that a university should not trouble itself with the tasteless outfits of a few students, even if those students are criticized for being obnoxious. The letter makes the unbelievably serious claim that Christakis is promoting physical harm against minority students. Such a response hardly dignifies a response.

Another point Christakis makes is that we do not care about all instances of offense. “No one around campus,” she writes, “seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes.” Definitely, Yale ought to worry more about white students’ prejudice toward black students than the reverse. But do we want a campus where folks who belong to certain groups have their sensibilities ignored and those who belong to other groups are entitled to censor speech? Religious conservatives aren’t out policing the denizens of Toad’s, even though many surely think that they ought to dress modestly. And they certainly aren’t accusing scantily clad or axe-wielding trick-or-treaters of promoting “violence” against anyone.

The Christakis donnybrook is a lesson in intellectual charity and treating all students as adults. Christakis is not hostile to any minorities. To the contrary, by advocating a campus where feather-dress costumes are met not with tar, but with dialogue, Christakis treats all students as equals. Her opponents ought to emulate her.

Replace wounds with discourse

by Cole Aronson, staff columnist, Yale Daily News

November 9, 2015

Yale had a rough week. A woman reported two Fridays ago that the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity hosted a “white girls only” party. Hundreds of students confronted Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis last Thursday about race at Yale. And dozens protested outside the William F. Buckley Program’s conference on free speech this weekend. Hundreds of students of color and their allies exhorted Yale to improve. Yale should heed (much of) their message while deploring (some of) their methods.

Many students on Cross Campus expressed anger about the alleged — since Yale is investigating, I won’t speculate on the truth of the claim — “white girls only” party and the treatment of minority students generally. A discussion about racism at Yale should include an acknowledgment that a university with so many students feeling so much pain is failing somehow. That said, the reaction to the alleged party is evidence that Yale has already developed some checks on flagrant bigotry. Hours after the initial allegation, hundreds took to social media to sympathize with the alleged victim, SAE’s president was in contact with the Yale administration and, days later, hundreds convened on Cross Campus in solidarity with Yale’s women of color.

While such blatant bigotry is heavily publicized when it occurs, subtler forms of discrimination appear to be much more common. Conservatives especially should admit this. Institutions and people develop behaviors over centuries. It’s not credible to suggest that racism will disappear from Yale’s community just because it’s now populated by liberal Democrats. The difficult question is what counts as racism.

One view of this question was aired to Holloway last Thursday. Students grieved about unsolved mental-health problems, the lack of minority faculty in certain departments, and callous freshman roommates. I was not in Silliman College later that day but I understand that similar things were said to Master Christakis, along with complaints about the email his wife, professor Erika Christakis, sent the Silliman community two weeks ago. The view of many students was, in effect, that the important thing about an action is how it is received, not the intention behind it.

This view’s main problem is its lack of charity. By divorcing action from actor, it gives a general warrant for people to judge what others say and mean on completely arbitrary and expansive grounds. Was Christakis authorizing students to wear offensive costumes, or making minority students unsafe? Or was she expressing that perhaps certain costumes are, even if in poor taste, meant in jest, rather than in harm? A plain reading of her email yields the latter interpretation. And we consider people’s intentions all the time in everyday life. When someone asks, “How was your day?,” one doesn’t think, “She wants to subject me to miserable reminiscences of the six things that went wrong before lunch.” One thinks, “She cares how I’m doing .”

The lack of charity inherent in judging actions independent of intentions is already having consequences. Many students behaved reprehensibly toward Holloway and Christakis, though neither man means students harm. We cannot have a university if students say, “What the f—k have you been doing?” and impute racial betrayal to the Yale College dean, or when a student commands a teacher to be quiet. Whatever conversation Yale has over the coming months, all Yalies should condemn this sort of abuse. And Yale administrators harm their students when it permits them to say such ugly things to authority figures without consequences. That’s simply not how adults behave.

I still think there is something to the view that racism is a matter of reception, rather than intent. Further, those who hold this view and are in pain now deserve acknowledgment. No good discussion can occur without their input. But people who hold that view cannot be permitted to shut down other people from expressing their views simply because they offend. Then, a debate becomes a shouting match, and justice becomes the advantage of those who feel the most strongly. If a difficult discussion leads to cursing and insults, then Yale has failed to instill its students with a respect for the pursuit of truth.

Yale has to proceed along two paths. Too many feel too much hurt. Many students’ wounds need binding. But a wound is not itself an argument. This doesn’t mean it isn’t important: it’s cruel and wrong to tell a suffering friend their feelings don’t matter. But Yale needs a vision for moving past ameliorating pain and toward developing a university based on inquiry and respect. That requires malice toward none, and charity for all.

The world is indeed watching Yale — to see whether it can elevate students past the plane of grief to the plane of discourse, which is the University’s plane par excellence.

The "next" worse Yale

by Cole Aronson, staff columnist, Yale Daily News

November 16, 2015

Last Thursday evening, 200 students with the moniker “Next Yale” presented Yale President Peter Salovey with a list of demands. He promised a response sometime this week. As the administration ponders how to respond, it’s a good time to think about the purpose of Yale as a university, and how Next Yale’s demands relate to that purpose.

We are here because, apart from our career aspirations, we find the pursuit of knowledge to be a worthwhile vocation. As Michael Oakshott, the British political thinker, said to his students at the London School of Economics in 1939, “‘Society,’ no doubt, will make demands upon you soon enough … [But] you have come here to get acquainted with truth and error, not with merely what is and what is not serviceable to a lunatic productivist society.”

The boundary between truth and error remains, at the very least, difficult to see.

Whether our knowledge is limited innately or simply as a function of inadequate technology, we do not know. Our knowledge of the limits of human knowledge remains itself limited. And so we will have to be content to live in a good amount of darkness.

The University, with its commitment to scholarship, to teaching, and to discourse, provides a place for those most committed to groping in that darkness. And though there may be occasional discoveries, both the most important answers and the questions most worth asking in the first instance remain fundamentally hidden. As a great teacher of political philosophy Leo Strauss wrote, “As long as there is no wisdom but only the quest for wisdom, the evidence of all solutions is necessarily smaller than the evidence of the problems.”

If this is true, then the proper attitude toward one’s opinions is a good deal of doubt. And therefore the proper attitude toward the marketplace of opinions is an open and tolerant one.

For as long as we think this, we should welcome disagreement. Not merely permit it in the public square, but seek it. We should, as Strauss writes, have the “boldness implied in the resolve to regard … the average opinions as extreme opinions which are at least as likely to be wrong as the most strange.”

Many have claimed that the debate at Yale is not fundamentally about “free speech.” Strictly speaking, they are correct. None of Next Yale’s demands would censor anyone. No speech would be disallowed that is currently permitted.

But the demands, if implemented, would narrow, not widen, our discourse. The demands also evince on the part of those making them an attitude hostile toward rigorous debate. Take the request for a “bias-reporting system.” For fear of formal reprimand, students and faculty would likely self-censor. While everyone should support a university culture that abhors outright bigotry — “white girls only” parties and the like — there’s a good deal of controversy about what qualifies as bigotry. Any “bias” guidelines given would probably be construed widely to encompass views without which any discussion would be impoverished. Imagine, for instance, that a professor argued that the breakdown of the black family has exacerbated poverty in the black community. Such a person might make the argument with total sympathy toward the black community. But, like former Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he made this very argument in 1965, such a person might be accused of bias or racism instead of presenting respectable arguments in good faith. Accusations and name-calling would replace evidence and logic as the way to win a debate.

Similarly, removing the Christakises from their positions in Silliman would send the message that challenging unpopular views is to be discouraged. Many have said their job is, to borrow a phrase, not about creating an intellectual space — it’s about creating a home here.

But a home, especially at a university, shouldn’t be sanitized from difficult conversations. Those calling for the Christakises’ removal are claiming the opposite. They are upset about or offended by — that is, they vehemently disagree with — what Erika Christakis wrote in her email. (Of course, if Christakis had expressed equally controversial views agreeing with theirs, we would be hearing nothing about the “role of the master,” but never mind.) The University should encourage such disagreement. Christakis is simply adding her views to the debate. Let others support or oppose her.

A university is a community of those who want to reason together toward knowledge. Subjugating this process to subjective definitions of “bias,” and emotions more generally, will necessarily vitiate it. In order to pursue truth all the way, all must sacrifice their intellectual and emotional “safety” — euphemisms for complacency. If in the next Yale fewer make the sacrifice — and, therefore, engage in the process — it will be a far worse Yale.

Fight for the Yale we love

by Cole Aronson, staff columnist, Yale Daily News

November 30, 2015

I think President Peter Salovey’s recent email announcing changes aimed at “a more inclusive Yale” has bought only a pause in unrest on campus.

Rewarding any behavior encourages more of it. The Next Yale movement protested and demanded, and the Yale administration gave lots of money to its causes and intellectual ground to its views.

The movement says racism is bad, as if that’s controversial. It claims on the basis of uncheckable “lived experiences” that racism not only exists at Yale — a reasonable assumption for any large institution — but is everywhere at Yale. The movement then pushes solutions that it, as the self-appointed arbiter of racism on campus, knows are necessary to correct the problem.

As others have written on these pages recently, it is difficult for many people with a sense that something is wrong with this movement to speak up. Being against those who are against racism — and who claim it pervades Yale’s culture — makes one, of course, a bedfellow of racists.

But agreeing, as everyone does, that racism is wrong is different from agreeing with the worldview and goals of those who now claim a monopoly on opposition to and knowledge about racism. And that worldview and those goals, if they become Yale’s, will harm our school.

This movement has lauded a student who screamed at a teacher that she wanted not an intellectual space, but a “home.” The movement has demanded that its subjectivist definition of racism be conditioned into students and faculty. Some of its members have cursed at students of color who disagree with its message. And the movement has asked that students be required to take classes — normally forums for rigorous debate — that it seems eerily sure will cure them of their troglodytic views.

Yale administrators have been able to avoid certain ill-advised changes to University policy because they have administrative power. But it does not matter how many times administrators tout Yale’s unshakeable commitment to free speech if debate at Yale becomes intolerant, uncivil, and emotional. Yale can remain technically tolerant and still lose the sort of discourse it ought to encourage.

Yale needs a campaign of administrators, faculty, and students against the aspects of the movement which, if it advances, will harm the University’s intellectual life. A few points need making:

First, the University’s mission of pursuing truth through debate means that “emotional and intellectual safety” are secondary concerns. The right of people to speak their minds and the charity afforded to arguments made in good faith are paramount. Further, using emotions instead of reason for argument is shoddy. This does not mean telling students who feel hurt to simply stop feeling hurt. It means that personal feelings ought not be permitted to prevent discussion of difficult issues. Students asking to be kept safe from discomforting ideas are making requests opposed, as such, to the University’s ideals.

Second, even if yelling at faculty is permitted by Yale’s free-speech policy, it is disgusting. Our teachers at Yale are venerable scholars. We are here to learn from them and with them. To treat them with disrespect is to demonstrate contempt for the University’s mission.

Third, Yale’s pluralism — the same pluralism without which some of the members of Next Yale might by now have received expulsion notices — is anchored in specific virtues: the courage of people to speak up, honesty in thought and debate, reverence for a common intellectual project, and a belief in the American ideal of a society based on philosophical claims, rather than a tribe or ethnicity.

I imagine that many members of Yale’s faculty do not think it their role to simply impart their opinions to students. But this admirable restraint is self-undermining if applied to all matters. To wit: if professors do not enter the battle for Yale’s intellectual culture against the recent protesters, they may someday be unable to teach students what they want to teach. They will be shouted down in class, accused of “bias,” will come under pressure to drop controversial parts of their curricula, etc. The professors I know are brave people who would never cave to such demands. But that won’t matter if students lack the integrity or curiosity to take their classes in the first place.

Yale’s leaders should fight to save it from the cheap authoritarianism of “intellectual and emotional safety.” Otherwise the storms of “progress” will conquer our beloved school, leaving copies of the Woodward Report fluttering in the wind.

What should Yalies know?

by Cole Aronson, staff columnist, Yale Daily News

December 7, 2015

President Salovey’s email listing changes aimed “toward a better Yale” was silent on Next Yale’s demand for an ethnic-studies requirement. But the demand deserves a response, if only because it raises a good question: What should a Yale education be for, if it is for anything in particular?

Well, some kind of knowledge. What kind? Yale students are a diverse group. We come from many cultures and climes, and have numerous interests. It seems with all of this diversity, the only thing Yale can hope to do is to provide us with knowledge of what we share: our humanity. A Yale education ought to provide, at the very least, humanistic knowledge.

What is humanistic knowledge? Or rather, what are the questions that all humans should ask?

Some will reply immediately that the search for the “human” questions is hopeless. Instead, all thought, and therefore all opinion about human questions, is nothing more than the product of circumstance. The Socratic inquiry into virtue and knowledge is just the quaint musing of an aristocratic, heterosexual male, who founded a discourse that has for centuries oppressed the non-aristocratic portion of humanity.

If that is so, not only should we scotch the “great books,” we should ignore most of the ideas and perspectives they offer. More crucial are the questions of our own circumstances, and the question of ethnicity is surely one of them. An ethnic-studies class is therefore as properly a part of a Yalie’s education today as classical philosophy was of the educations of Yalies past.

As others before me have shown, an argument that a thought or work is merely a “product of its time” — and therefore important only historically, not philosophically — is self-defeating. How is that thought itself not a product of its time? We would have to stand outside history — outside time and circumstance — to answer that question.

So all thought is a product of its time — an assertion that, “as a product of its time,” would deserve not a whit of attention, except as an interesting historical artifact — or we stand outside history (a pretty arrogant assumption). Or, perhaps, we are starting from basically the same perspective as people of other cultures and times, and can therefore learn from other cultures and times about things that concern us.

And a fundamentally common perspective is required if we are to learn from one another. There cannot be dialogue unless others can understand our ideas as we understand and wish to convey them. Otherwise we are not really having a discussion: all are simply donning their critical lenses to see through what others say to grasp merely whatever circumstance caused them to say it.

Which brings us to ethnic studies. It seems that ethnicity is not inherently a part of the human experience, the way politics, friendship, and beauty are. We invented it as a category to divide human beings. It is not an issue for humans qua humans, but an issue for certain people depending on where they find themselves. Surely not all communities have dealt with questions of ethnicity, and surely many people even today go through their lives without having it concern them. But the same is not true of the political questions raised by “The Republic.” We have yet to find the community without politics.

None of this is to say that ethnicity isn’t worth studying. Rather, ethnicity is just one of many matters our leaders will have to address. It properly belongs on the list of subjects in which one might specialize, but not on the list of matters which a humanistic education must by its very nature address.

Some will reply that an education that does not address an issue as urgent as ethnicity is inherently lacking. But we can only address ethnicity as, say, a political issue if we first know how to address political questions as such. That is, before we inquire into the peculiarities of ethnicity in America, we should ask the general questions about the proper role for politics and law in human life.

And our answers will help us address not only ethnicity but also other matters. Our problems are not so unique. It is in discovering their eternity, and their similarity with the problems of “other” times and places, that a liberal education begins.


The email from Erika Christakis, wife of the Silliman master

October 30, 2015

Dear Sillimanders:

Nicholas and I have heard from a number of students who were frustrated by the mass email sent to the student body about appropriate Halloween-wear. I’ve always found Halloween an interesting embodiment of more general adult worries about young people. As some of you may be aware, I teach a class on “The Concept of the Problem Child,” and I was speaking with some of my students yesterday about the ways in which Halloween — traditionally a day of subversion for children and young people — is also an occasion for adults to exert their control.

When I was young, adults were freaked out by the specter of Halloween candy poisoned by lunatics, or spiked with razor blades (despite the absence of a single recorded case of such an event). Now, we’ve grown to fear the sugary candy itself. And this year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween.

I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.

It seems to me that we can have this discussion of costumes on many levels: we can talk about complex issues of identify, free speech, cultural appropriation, and virtue “signaling.” But I wanted to share my thoughts with you from a totally different angle, as an educator concerned with the developmental stages of childhood and young adulthood.

As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it. I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.

Which is my point. I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours. Why do we dress up on Halloween, anyway? Should we start explaining that too? I’ve always been a good mimic and I enjoy accents. I love to travel, too, and have been to every continent but Antarctica. When I lived in Bangladesh, I bought a sari because it was beautiful, even though I looked stupid in it and never wore it once. Am I fetishizing and appropriating others’ cultural experiences? Probably. But I really, really like them too.

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? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity — in your capacity — to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you? We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (“liberal” in the American, not European sense of the word).

Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.

But — again, speaking as a child-development specialist — I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?

In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.

Happy Halloween.


Yale Lecturer Resigns After Email on Halloween Costumes

The New York Times

December 7, 2015

A lecturer who came under attack for challenging students to stand up for their right to decide what Halloween costumes to wear, even to the point of being offensive, has resigned from teaching at the college, the university said Monday.

The lecturer, Erika Christakis, an expert in early childhood education, wrote an email in October suggesting that there could be negative consequences to students ceding “implied control” over Halloween costumes to institutional forces. “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,” she wrote, “a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”

She wrote the email in response to a directive from the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale that warned students that it would be insensitive to wear costumes that symbolized cultural appropriation or misrepresentation, or both, like feathered headdresses, turbans, war paint, blackface or redface, or costumes that made fun of people.

Ms. Christakis has made a “voluntary decision not to teach in the future,” according to a statement from the university on Monday. Her husband, Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician and a professor of sociology at Yale, will take a one-semester sabbatical, the university said. The statement said the administration hoped Ms. Christakis would reconsider.

“Erika Christakis is a well-regarded instructor, and the university’s leadership is disappointed that she has chosen not to continue teaching in the spring semester,” the statement said. “Her teaching is highly valued and she is welcome to resume teaching anytime at Yale, where freedom of expression and academic inquiry are the paramount principle and practice.”

Ms. Christakis’s email, combined with an overheard “white girls only” remark at a fraternity party, helped touch off protests over racial insensitivity at Yale, as well as a debate over whether the protests and efforts to legislate forms of expression like Halloween costumes were making students and faculty afraid to speak out if they disagreed.

After the email, a group of students confronted Dr. Christakis. One student was shown in a video posted on YouTube confronting Dr. Christakis as he clasped his hands. “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not!” the student was heard yelling. “Do you understand that? It is about creating a home here!”

Dr. Christakis is the master of Silliman College, an undergraduate residence at Yale, and his wife is associate master. They will continue in those posts, the university said. The Christakises did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment.


The Trouble at Yale

David Cole

The New York Review of Books

January 14, 2016


After weeks of student protest about racial inequality on campus, Yale President Peter Salovey announced on November 17 that the university would be making significant changes to address “longstanding inequities.” The announcement came just five days after a group of Yale students delivered a list of demands to Salovey, and it marked a significant victory for the students, and for racial justice. At the same time, however, the Yale controversy offers a vital lesson both in the power of free speech and in the dangers of seeking its curtailment in the name of equality.

The Yale dispute deserves attention all the more because it is part of a growing national student movement. A website that has been set up to collect student group demands to end “systemic and structural racism on campus” includes more than seventy colleges across the country, from Puget Sound to Eastern Michigan to Georgia Southern to Claremont McKenna. The list grows almost daily.

The demands vary in their particulars, but most seek some mixture of more faculty of color, greater resources for cultural centers focused on minority groups, expanded curricular offerings dedicated to issues of race and ethnicity, training in identifying racial bias, and increased aid for low-income students. Universities have responded in a variety of ways. Most notably, Brown University announced on November 20 a $100 million initiative aimed at increasing racial inclusivity on campus. (Some Brown students of color have dismissed even that as insufficient, and have sought still more reforms.)

Some of the students’ demands, however, also seek to limit speech, by the college itself and by fellow students. Students at the University of Missouri sought and obtained the resignation of their college president and chancellor for what they considered insufficient responses to racist speech on or near the campus, including epithets directed at black students and faculty. At Princeton, students of color have contended that, because of Woodrow Wilson’s racist views, the school should remove his name from a residential college and from the university’s school of public policy. That request remains under consideration but in recent weeks Princeton and Harvard both abolished the title of “master” for residential college heads, a change that Yale students have also urged.

At Amherst, students demanded, among other things, that the president condemn the posting of a sign reading “All Lives Matter,” deemed offensive to the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement; that the school’s unofficial mascot, Lord Jeff, played by a student in disguise, be abandoned because its namesake allegedly advocated spreading smallpox among Native Americans; and that the school’s honor code be revised to reflect “zero tolerance” of “racially insensitive” remarks. Students at Wesleyan sought to deny funding to the student newspaper because it published an Op-Ed critical of Black Lives Matter. And Georgetown University has announced that it will rename two buildings because the individuals whose names they bear profited from slavery.

The emergence of a nationwide movement for racial justice, in which students have been inspired to voice their grievances and challenge the status quo, is a welcome change from the much-bemoaned apathy of previous generations. But as the examples above illustrate, the students have sometimes sought to suppress or compel the expressions of others, a fundamentally illiberal tactic that is almost certain to backfire, and that risks substituting symbol for substance in the struggle for justice.


The Yale protests came to national attention when a short video of one particular confrontation in early November went viral. In it a black woman, a Yale senior, curses Professor Nicholas Christakis, a white residential college master, as he converses with a circle of students about racial tensions on campus. In the conversation, students speak of the need for “safe spaces” and demand an on-the-spot apology from the master for an e-mail that his wife, who is associate master, sent to students of their college, defending the freedom of students to wear “provocative” Halloween costumes.

When the master says that “other people have rights, too,” the student responds, “Why the fuck did you accept the position? Who the fuck hired you? You should step down.” Moments later, she concludes, “you should not sleep at night…you are disgusting,” and walks away. Her words are highly inappropriate, to say the least. But the overall impression is not so much that she is rude as that she is angry and frustrated; it looks not unlike the rage that many teenagers occasionally vent at their parents.

Critics seized on the one-minute-twenty-second video, condemning the students for their intolerance and incivility. But because it captures only a single inflammatory exchange, the video has distorted perceptions about the issue at Yale and elsewhere. For some time, Yale students of color have maintained that the school does not sufficiently welcome them. As of the fall of 2013, only 2.9 percent of Yale faculty were Latino and only 3.5 percent were black. Students of color are more likely than white students to be stopped by campus police, mistaken for service staff, and stereotyped and slighted by students and faculty alike. Students across the country have expressed similar complaints. Racial bias, these students remind us, is not limited to police encounters in high-crime, inner-city neighborhoods, but permeates American life, including the hallowed halls of our nation’s best universities.

The fact that so many of the recent controversies have arisen on college campuses is in some sense paradoxical. Because universities can select their student bodies and are committed to diversity, they are some of the most integrated sites in an otherwise still largely segregated nation. Despite the myth of the “melting pot,” most of us live, work, worship, and socialize in segregated circles. We watch different movies, listen to different music, wear different clothes, go to different bars and nightclubs. But the academy can be an experiment in integration, where students from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences study and live together. Elite institutions such as Yale are not as integrated as they should be, of course, and remain disproportionately the preserve of the privileged. But as of fall 2014, Yale College’s student body was 49 percent of minority descent, including 11 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic, 23 percent Asian, and 3 percent American Indian or Alaska native. Such integration is not without friction, however, and students of color bear the brunt of the friction.

The immediate catalyst for the confrontation in the Yale video was an e-mail Erika Christakis sent on October 30 to the students of Silliman College, one of Yale’s twelve residential colleges, questioning whether an earlier Intercultural Affairs Committee e-mail urging students to avoid offensive Halloween costumes was too heavy-handed. The committee’s e-mail, itself prompted by an incident several years earlier in which some students had gone out in blackface, was not, in fact, especially heavy-handed.

The committee’s e-mail acknowledged that students “definitely have a right to express themselves,” and merely said the administration hoped

that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.

Ms. Christakis’s e-mail, which begins by noting that it was prompted by conversations with Silliman students who had objected to the committee’s message, expresses concern that colleges are becoming places of “censure and prohibition.” “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?” she asks.

Some students, including those demanding an apology in the video, viewed Ms. Christakis’s letter as a tone-deaf invitation to wear racist costumes. Rumors, as yet unverified, that a student at a fraternity Halloween party turned away a black woman claiming that the party was “for white girls only” stirred passions further. (Yale announced in early December that its investigation found that there were black students present at the party, that the alleged incident was supported only by second-hand hearsay, and that there was “no evidence of systematic discrimination against people of color.”) Shortly thereafter, a group of students naming themselves Next Yale called for Mr. and Ms. Christakis to be dismissed from their positions as master and associate master of Silliman College. Among other things, they also demanded that Yale eliminate the term “master” and rename another residential college, now named after John Calhoun, an outspoken defender of slavery in the antebellum era.

In part because of the video, and in part because of these demands, the Yale controversy has been portrayed as pitting racial equality against free speech. But that diagnosis misses the broader picture. Most of what has taken place at Yale and other colleges reflects the best traditions of free speech: students of color and others have been organizing politically, holding rallies, and speaking out. They are using their speech rights to communicate their experiences and demand equal justice. That’s exactly how the freedom of expression should work.

And the core of what they are fighting for is critically important, indeed necessary: an inclusive community that treats them as equals. The students have focused in particular on faculty hiring. A school with so few black and Latino faculty sends a powerful even if unintended message to its students of color: that they may be good enough to attend, but not to teach there. It also denies minority students the opportunities for mentorship that their white fellow students take for granted. Of course, faculty can and do mentor across races, but it is crucial that students of color have teachers who share their experiences in our still racially divided world.

According to a poster on campus, Yale’s African-American faculty has grown at the glacial pace of 1 percent each century since its founding (rising from 0 percent in 1701 to 3 percent in 2015). Twenty-five years ago, Yale Law School had three black faculty members; today, it still has only three. In over two hundred years, the law school has hired only one black female professor, one Latina female, and no Latino males. (The law faculty does, however, have two East Asian professors, four South Asians, and one Arab-American.) The underrepresentation of African-American and Latino faculty is not unique to Yale, but a nationwide phenomenon, and a central focus of the campus protests.

The Yale students also sought greater attention to ethnic studies in the curriculum, increased financial aid, and more resources for the school’s four cultural centers (Afro-American, La Casa, Native American, and Asian American). These centers, which have been given designated space in university buildings, offer a haven for students who feel disrespected, misunderstood, or harmed as they navigate life at an institution built on white privilege. They can be a site for the kind of collective action that is apparently necessary to push the administration to address minority students’ concerns. And their very existence says to the community at large that the school values the experiences of all who attend, not just of those who match Yale’s historical pedigree.

To a considerable degree, the Yale students’ protests have been heard. Some four hundred professors signed a letter in support of the students for challenging “institutionalized inequalities” on campus (although the letter did not specify what these inequalities consisted of). The university has launched a multimillion-dollar effort to increase the diversity of the faculty. And in his November 17 statement, Yale President Salovey announced four initiatives designed to “make significant changes so that all members of our community truly feel welcome and can participate equally in the activities of the university.” They include creating an interdisciplinary center for the study of race, ethnicity, and identity; hiring additional faculty to teach these subjects; doubling funding for the university’s cultural centers; training its staff to detect and address racial and ethnic bias; and improved financial aid. These are important victories for the protesting students, and for the student body as a whole.

None of the measures Salovey announced is without challenges. Hiring more faculty of color is easier said than done, as there is a relative dearth of African-American and Latino candidates with doctorates in many fields. Schools like Yale and Brown may be able to hire away such scholars from other schools, but at least in the short term that only redistributes the problem. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012, African-Americans received only about 7 percent of all doctoral degrees, and that figure includes law degrees, medical degrees, and education degrees, most of whose recipients do not seek to teach in universities. In 2012–2013, African-Americans made up only 5 percent of doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Increasing support for cultural centers and racial and ethnic studies also has potential downsides. While such initiatives are invaluable for many students, there is at least some danger that they may further divide university life along racial and ethnic lines, and thereby increase the sense of alienation that many minority students report. As Kwame Anthony Appiah warned in these pages nearly twenty years ago, identity politics can lead to a kind of “illiberal multiculturalism,” emphasizing separate spheres, rather than “liberal multiculturalism,” which celebrates mutual tolerance and respect.

Other schools have responded to student complaints by urging faculty to be more sensitive to the fact that their classrooms are much more diverse than when they were students themselves. This need not come at a cost to intellectual exchange about difficult subjects. As NYU Law School, guided by its students of color, recently advised its faculty, there are fairly simple measures faculty can take to create a more inclusive classroom. They include encouraging participation from all, not shying away from issues of race and class, underscoring the importance of both respect and a robust exchange of ideas, and providing anonymous channels for student feedback while a course proceeds. As long as attentiveness to difference does not stifle intellectual exchange, it can go a long way toward creating a learning environment that welcomes all.

So rather than condemning students at Yale and other colleges for trampling on free speech, we should commend them for using their speech rights to push their institutions to take more seriously their obligation to all their students.


Significantly, President Salovey did not dismiss the Christakises from their residential college positions, banish the term “master,” or rename Calhoun College. Those were the right calls. In calling for the dismissal of the master and his wife, the students lost sight of the very free-speech principles that they otherwise used to their advantage. Ms. Christakis’s e-mail casts no aspersions on any minority group. Nor does it recommend the donning of racist costumes. It is a plea for free expression. As the letter says, “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

It is understandable that some students found Ms. Christakis’s letter offensive. But there is no evidence that any offense was intended. Moreover, the fact that speech offends is not a reason to punish the speaker. The Supreme Court defended this principle most recently in 2011 when it overturned a jury verdict against the Westboro Baptist Church for offensive and homophobic protests near the funeral of an American soldier:

Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.

The First Amendment governs only official state action, and therefore does not limit Yale, a private institution. But the same principles of free expression animate the doctrine of academic freedom, which Yale, like other universities, has fully endorsed. And while the educational mission entails requiring a certain level of decorum in classroom discussions, in order to make possible civil discourse among people who hold different views, it does not countenance punishing a professor (or student) for questioning administration policy, much less for espousing bedrock principles of free expression. That Ms. Christakis is an associate master of the college, in charge of a residential community, does not negate her right to express such opinions, especially in a university setting, and punishing the Christakises by removing them from their positions would have sent an unacceptable message of intolerance.

In 1974, Yale’s president Kingman Brewster commissioned a study of free speech after a series of incidents in which controversial speakers, including General William Westmoreland and Stanford physicist William Shockley, either had their invitations rescinded or were disrupted by hecklers. The report, written by one of the nation’s greatest historians of race relations, C. Vann Woodward, remains an apt guide for today. It argues that intellectual growth requires “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” And it insists that where the values of community and intellectual rigor conflict, the latter must prevail. In a passage that speaks directly to current demands at Yale and elsewhere for “safe spaces,” it maintains:

A university … is not primarily a fellowship, a club, a circle of friends … Without sacrificing its central purpose, it cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect. To be sure, these are important values … and a good university will seek and may in some significant measure attain these ends. But it will never let these values, important as they are, override its central purpose. We value freedom of expression precisely because it provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox.

Yale wisely adopted the Woodward Commission’s approach, and to this day informs all incoming freshmen that by coming to Yale, “you join a community where ‘the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox’ must be tolerated.”

Wholly apart from the values of academic inquiry, it is a mistake to seek to suppress speech in the name of equality. Free speech and association are rights of special importance to the minority — as the Yale students themselves have demonstrated. The freedom of speech empowers them to express their views, to dissent from majority policies, and to organize politically to advance their interests, just as, before them, it lent protection to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and other civil-rights activists. The last thing a minority group should seek is the suppression of nonviolent free expression.

Focusing on offensive speech also distracts from the more significant issues of racial injustice that persist more than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation unconstitutional. African-Americans are disproportionately the victims of violence, both from the police and from their fellow citizens. They have far fewer economic and educational opportunities. Virtually the only American institutions in which they are over- rather than underrepresented are prisons and the military. They have considerably less wealth and shorter life expectancy than whites. And countless studies have shown that they are the victims of the implicit, often unconscious, biases of doctors, employers, teachers, police, and probably everyone else they encounter. These are the pressing racial problems of our time — not Erika Christakis’s e-mail or the fact that her title is “associate master.” As media reactions illustrate, there is a real risk that by going after the Christakises the students’ very legitimate complaints about much more serious problems will be drowned out.

The demands to remove the names of ancestors with racist views from college buildings is similarly misguided (though admittedly less directly threatening to values of free expression). Changing the name of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton or of Calhoun College at Yale is a sideshow; it will do little or nothing to advance racial justice at either institution. It substitutes cheap symbolism for the concrete measures needed to achieve real progress. If symbolism is the issue, moreover, it would be far better to commission new monuments, and to use new naming opportunities to express a message of inclusion, than to airbrush disturbing facts about our past. John Calhoun was a racist, and students should confront the fact that he is part of Yale’s legacy (as of our nation’s), not have his name erased from public memory. That route has few stopping points. Should the Washington Monument be renamed because Washington owned slaves? Should the FDR Memorial be taken down because he interned over 100,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans? Or is it better to teach Americans why slavery and internment were wrong, and that even our national heroes did things that we now judge as immoral and unjust?

Yale students are right to complain that their critics have failed to look beyond the viral video involving Mr. and Ms. Christakis. If we want to understand the controversy at Yale, or at any of the many colleges that are experiencing similar protests, we must take seriously the deep and lasting wounds that continue to afflict the African-American community. We must demand, with the students, more diversity in faculty and staff, greater resources for minority students, and greater sensitivity to the challenges of building an integrated community of mutual respect and academic inquiry.

If President Salovey’s promises of significant change are realized, the students will have won — for the good of the whole university. But the struggle will not be over. Responding to the challenges of diversity in a racially divided world is a full-time job. And continued activism will be needed to keep administrations at Yale and elsewhere to their promises. Demands to punish Erika Christakis, rename buildings, and suppress “racially insensitive” remarks trivialize the cause. Students engaged in what is one of the most promising movements for racial justice in decades would do well to abandon such requests and focus their and our attention on the more systemic problems of equal justice that continue to plague us all.


Yale Educator Recounts ‘Painful Experience’ of Halloween Email Furor

The New York Times

February 6, 2016

NEW HAVEN — Dodging 5-year-olds at the Calvin Hill Day Care Center here, Erika Christakis admired how the teachers celebrated free play as a route to intellectual inquiry, listened to children rather than preaching and stood back to let them find their own way.

“I think we have a very fear-based way of approaching youth,” she said. “Maybe we need to have a lighter touch.”

In the fall, Ms. Christakis, a lecturer at Yale and an associate master at Silliman College, a student residence, became an unwitting target of campus protests here against racial insensitivity. After she sent out an email critical of a university committee’s urging students not to wear racially or culturally insensitive costumes for Halloween, hundreds of students signed a letter accusing her of insensitivity toward “marginalized” people. Some demanded her dismissal.

She ended up not teaching the spring semester.

“It was a painful experience,” Ms. Christakis said, swallowing hard before she spoke last month, in her first interview since those events.

Yet the mood on campuses may be shifting in her direction.

Increasingly, college administrators are pushing back against student demands perceived as doctrinaire on matters involving cultural sensitivity, and are asking for a spirit of negotiation rather than ultimatums, as Ms. Christakis urged in her email.

In late January, Marvin Krislov, the president of Oberlin College, wrote an open letter to students there, saying that while he sympathized with their concerns about racism and injustice, and agreed there was much to be done, “I will not respond directly to any document that explicitly rejects the notion of collaborative engagement.”

A few days after the Oberlin letter, Oriel College of Oxford University refused student demands to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, an imperialist benefactor seen by many as an architect of apartheid.

Ms. Christakis, a former preschool teacher and expert in early childhood education, can be warm and chatty. But when talking about the Halloween debacle, she froze and chose every word carefully.

Walking back to the college, she avoided eye contact with people who passed her on the campus. Yet perhaps one out of five shot her a sidelong glance of recognition, and sometimes a half-smile. She did not notice, she said, adding that she was fairly unobservant: “I couldn’t tell you the color of my neighbor’s house.”

At Silliman, she offered tea, pulling piles of boxes of different kinds from a drawer in the kitchen. Her dachshund, Rudy, was excited to see her, but no students were in sight. The drawing room exuded a sort of Victorian upper-class taste — Persian rugs, carved chairs, a gilt-framed portrait of a fair-skinned woman in a flouncy dress, holding a chubby baby. None of it, of course, had anything to do with whatever Ms. Christakis’s personal taste might or might not be.

In her role as associate master — an administrator and social and academic adviser — she became an almost generic target of student anger. Friends wondered why she had been rash enough to stick her neck out and take on a hot-button issue.

“I see myself as very anti-establishment, in a sort of old-school, lefty way,” she said. Besides, some of her students had asked her what she thought, and “I can’t accept the idea that we can only restrict ourselves to discussions of the weather.”

The thing that shocked her most about the Halloween furor, she said, was that students would cede control over matters like how they should dress to the Yale administration.

“Should we be talking more transparently about when it’s appropriate for administrations to insert themselves into issues that arise in students’ lives?” Ms. Christakis asked. “I think students are more capable than we give them credit for being to manage social norming.”

She said in her email: “Is there really no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious?”

After the uproar from students reacting to her email, dozens of Yale faculty members defended Ms. Christakis as an advocate of free expression.

A. Douglas Stone, a professor of applied physics who helped rally faculty support, said he was embarrassed that Ms. Christakis — who once worked in the public health field with subsistence farmers in Africa and with drug addicts — would be “a poster child for insensitivity.” The affair has had a chilling effect on faculty members who aspire to administrative positions, he said.

Ms. Christakis’s husband, Nicholas, a Yale professor who is the master at Silliman, was not spared. Standing in the Silliman courtyard, he was surrounded by students demanding that he apologize for his wife’s email. A student was videotaped yelling at Dr. Christakis, and the student in turn was vilified by people who watched the video on YouTube.

“We wish her the best,” Ms. Christakis says now. “No one should be held accountable for a moment in time when they’re 20 years old.”

But after the Halloween incident, her husband, a physician and sociologist known for his theory of “social contagion,” or how social networks spread behavior, announced that he was taking a sabbatical this term.

Since deciding not to teach this semester, Ms. Christakis has been preparing for publication on Tuesday of her first book, “The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups,” which she calls a road map for parents, teachers and policy makers, and which she says is a truer reflection of who she is than the Halloween incident. The book’s publication, by Viking, is the reason she decided to break her silence, she said.

It was still hard to believe that everyone had been so upset about “hypothetical” Halloween costumes, she said.

She may yet return to college lecturing. Or she might go back to her roots.

“I’m toying with going back into an early childhood classroom in some capacity,” she said. “It does keep you fresh — it’s really hard to be in a bad mood. I mean it can be done, but it’s hard to stay in a bad mood when you have kids just pouring out their heart to you. It is a joy.”

Besides, she said, “they don’t try to get you fired.” She burst out laughing before quickly adding: “Joke.”


Debate: Is free speech threatened on college campuses? An audience casts its vote.


March 2, 2016

In Jason Stanley’s classrooms at Yale, civil debates about controversial and contentious topics take place all the time, the philosophy professor said during the Intelligence2 (IQ2) debate that took place on campus on March 1.

Sometimes those class debates are emotional, and maybe even feel hurtful to some of the participants, Stanley remarked at the event, but they continue to happen and are learning experiences both for himself and his students.

Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy, was one of four speakers in the IQ2 debate that took place before a full audience at the Yale Repertory Theatre. The Oxford-style debate, hosted by the nonprofit Intelligence Squared U.S. Foundation, was recorded live as part of the IQ2 Debates series, which reaches millions of people through multiple platforms, including radio, television, live streaming, podcasts, and interactive digital content. The award-winning IQ2 Debates series is one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes.

The debate at Yale was moderated by ABC News correspondent John Donvan and featured — in addition to Stanley — writer and lawyer Wendy Kaminer, Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter, and Shaun Harper, executive director for the Study of Race & Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also teaches in the Graduate School of Education. The four debated the motion “Free Speech Is Threatened on Campus,” with Kaminer and McWhorter debating in favor of the motion and Stanley and Harper arguing against it.

Audience members also participated in the debate by asking questions following a first round of opening statements by the debaters, and by voting on the motion themselves both at the start of the debate and afterwards.

On the ‘yes’ side

Kaminer, a civil libertarian who has written about the intersections of law and culture, and McWhorter, whose articles on language and on race have been published in major American newspapers, cited examples of faculty members and administrators on college campuses across the nation who have been fired or forced to resign for saying something that is considered by others to be offensive. Both argued that while free speech is allowed on campus, the right to free speech is increasingly being diminished.

“It is practically axiomatic on many campuses that speech considered hateful to disadvantaged or vulnerable students is a form of discrimination or even violence,” said Kaminer in her opening statement. “Whenever people want to restrict speech, they call it ‘verbal conduct.’ Free speech is said to be an instrument of privilege used to silence the relatively powerless. This means that equality requires the unequal distribution of speech rights but also means that the right of listeners not to be offended can be elevated over the right to speak, which means that your right to speak may depend on the unpredictable subjective responses of your audience. But free speech can’t consist of what people don’t mind hearing said. Words are weapons, advocates of restricting hate speech like to say, and I agree: Words are weapons. That’s precisely why we protect them. Weaponized speech is the ideal form of nonviolent political combat.”

“Weaponized speech,” she said, has been part of every movement for social change or social justice in America, including the recent student protests about discrimination on college campuses throughout the nation.

“The trouble is, so many of these movements aim to punish and suppress other people’s speech by labeling them ‘micro aggressions,’ forms of discrimination … or even likening them to violence,” she contended.

She noted that on certain campuses, controversial speakers were disinvited in response to student protests, and she claimed that about half of the colleges and universities in this country have speech codes that “prohibit some form of oppressive speech.” She argued that students often attempt to enforce these speech codes.

“I strongly defend the right of students to protest anything they want to protest in however many uncivil terms they want to use. The problem is that a lot of these protests are aimed not at trying to convince others not to use certain kinds of language but to see them punished for using language, to try to get administrative sanctions,” Kaminer argued.

In her closing statement, she described how a speaker at Williams College who was invited to take part in a series called  “Uncomfortable Learning” had his invitation rescinded because of accusations he had made racist remarks. The student who organized the lecture series, Kaminer said, is an African American student who is proponent of free speech and invited controversial speakers to campus to “expose himself and others to dissenting and even obnoxious views.” She said the student was “vilified” and threatened on campus, and was spoken to in “slave dialect,” even by other African American students.

“This is what happens when you demonize expression of unwelcome views,” Kaminer told the audience. “You create communities of frightened conformists.”

McWhorter, in supporting that view, emphasized that situations like the one Kaminer described at Williams College are not “outliers,” but are happening on college campuses with increasing frequency. He argued that the current tendency is to “shut down” others who do not share “leftist” positions on political and cultural issues.

“What we’re being told is that the leftist position is truth incarnate, and that on that position … there can be no further debate. And that’s problematic. It's problematic on a campus, for example, because it’s fundamentally anti-intellectual,” McWhorter stated.

He said that “justice is complicated” and not so “black and white,” and that students need to be careful about what they call “micro aggressions” or racism, as even those accusations are open to debate.

“Instead, I'm afraid what we’re seeing on one campus or another is an idea that shaming people and shutting them down by the ample use of buzzwords, slogans, and sonorous cadence is somehow okay when it comes to espousing a leftist agenda. It's as if we’re at the end of ideas,” McWhorter contended. He later added: “I love the left. It’s not that the left is wrong. The problem is when the idea seems to be that if you don’t agree with the leftist position, then you are ignorant at best and immoral at worst.

“I’m claiming that is the new environment,” he continued. “When someone is called a racist in America in 2016, it is practically equivalent to calling [him or her] a pedophile. Therefore, when you call someone racist, you effectively silence all but the bravest people who most enjoy an argument. That’s just the point. Call someone a racist, you shut them down. And it’s happening a lot.”

On the ‘no’ side

Stanley strongly disagreed with this view, saying, “Exercising free speech to urge someone not to say or do racist things is not the denial of the right to say or do racist things. … Many of us believe racist statements are false. So when we call a statement racist what we’re doing is [questioning] a perceived falsehood. And how could that be in tension with the mission of the university, which is the pursuit of truth?

“The act of protesting,” he continued, “is not the denial of free speech; it is the exercise of free speech. What is happening on campuses today is more speech, not less. Voices too often unheard or kept at the margins are finally being raised and heard. A central purpose of the university is to allow disputes that too often happen on the battlefield to occur in the classroom instead. I, for one, am glad robust discourse — sometimes difficult — is taking place on our campuses. When I hear that student protestors are silencing and intimidating people, I scratch my head. Students are advocating for open political discussions — sometimes heated — and justice for all.”

Stanley said that on the Yale campus, these discussions are taking place everywhere: in the dining halls, classrooms, and residential colleges, and he noted that the fact that the IQ2 debate was happening at all on campus is further proof that free speech is “alive and well.”

“What is truly special is that what we are doing [tonight] is what we are supposed to be doing on campus: thinking, arguing, speaking, listening, agreeing, and disagreeing. This is what happens in every imaginable way at campuses across Connecticut and our nation.”

In his closing statement, Stanley noted that issues about race and diversity are being raised at the Oscars, in public discussions about police brutality, and in various other settings, and that these conversations are not unique to college campuses.

“Free speech is not threatened by students voicing their positions about social justice, even in emotional tones,” he argued. “It is threatened by people calling those people bullies, representing them as authoritarians and really frightening, like North Korea. It is threatened by representing claims of injustice as psychiatric problems and weaknesses, and it is threatened by belittling the students’ ability to tolerate debate.”

Harper told the audience that at the Center for the Study of Race & Equity at UPenn, he has interviewed students who shared with him their pain and hurt about discrimination taking place on their campuses — that he hears students’ tales of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other kinds of discrimination every day on college campuses across the nation.

“When we have students talking about realities of race, or when we hear students of color unpack their painful stories of micro aggressions and stereotypes and other things that happen to them, we ask them: ‘What do you want the institution to do?’ Never once, not once, have I heard them say anything about speech codes. They want the curriculum to reflect their humanity. The want the consciousness of their professors and their peers to be raised so that people don’t do this to future generations of students on college campuses,” Harper said.

He agreed with Stanley that student protests are meant to open discussion and conversation, rather than to stifle it.

“When a person of color says what you just said sounded or felt racist, we’re not shutting down the conversation,” Harper said. “In fact, it’s just the opposite: We are inviting you to engage and learn. It’s a university after all. Shouldn’t this be the place where one learns that saying that all Muslims are terrorists and that all Mexicans are rapists is extremely problematic?”

In his closing statement Harper said: “Given the time and limitations of this debate format, I cannot give you crushing weight of evidence that I have heard from students, thousands of them, who have participated in my studies about the experiences they have on their campuses — not just encounters with racism, but also sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other forms of harassment in this respect that target and undermine their humanity and sense of belonging on the campus. ... They are standing up for themselves, and they are finally exercising their freedom of speech. For years and years, those people have sat silent and did not say anything ... No one is saying to people that you can’t say ridiculous things. What they are saying is that you are going to be held accountable for them. We’re going to engage you in a conversation about them, and it is your choice to withdraw from that conversation because you've never been held accountable for that perspective.”

At the end of the event, Donvan congratulated the debaters for their “respectful," "informative," "civil," and "gutsy” discussion and for “elevating the level of public discourse tonight.” He then announced that, based on audience votes, the winning team was Kaminer and McWhorter. Sixty-six percent of the audience agreed with their view that free speech is being threatened on campus, a 17% increase from the tally at the start of the debate, while 25% agreed with Stanley and Harper that free speech is not being undermined on campus, a number that was 2% lower than it was at the outset of the debate. Nine percent of the voters were undecided after hearing the debate.