In October of last year, Erika Christakis, child development expert and associate master of the Silliman residential college at Yale University, sent an email to students in response to a dean’s email about a big fracas involving “inappropriate” Halloween costumes. Christakis discussed the difficulties of determining whether costumes were potentially offensive and warned about the dangers of impeding free speech. It was a pretty innocuous letter (read my post about it here), but it ignited a huge reaction among students, an explosion whose fuse—black students’ feelings of University oppression—had been smoldering for a long while. As I wrote at the time:
Unfortunately, this rather tame letter set off an explosion. 740 Yale students, alumni, faculty and staff signed an open letter to Christakis, accusing her of “invalidating the existences” of marginalized students and disrespecting their cultures and livelihoods. Her husband, the college’s master, met with the protestors, who demanded that he apologize for the email (he wouldn’t). As the Washington Post reports, some Silliman students say they can’t bear to live in the college any more, and others are drafting a letter calling for the resignation of both Nicholas and Erika Christakis.
And her husband Nicholas, a professor of Medicine and of Sociology, as well as co-Master of Silliman, was horribly beleaguered by students holding him accountable for his wife’s email, cursing and shouting at him (see the video here). That was the beginning of a huge round of protests by students at Yale, with the University by and large capitulating to the now-familiar list of non-negotiable student “demands.”
There was a petition by faculty supporting Nicholas and Erika Christkis, but only 49 faculty signed it. That’s a pathetically low number! And the students called for the Christakises to resign, saying that they had created an “unsafe space” at Silliman, and ruined their “home. As the Yale Daily News reported, at graduation this year some students refused to accept their diplomas from Nicholas Christakis’s hands.
The students won. In December, Erika decided to withdraw from her teaching post at Yale, and Nicholas Christakis took a one-semester sabbatical. There’s little doubt that they did this to avoid further student harassment.
Now, according to a new article by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic, as of Wednesday both Nicholas and Erika have resigned their residential positions at Silliman College. As the article notes, “Nicholas Christakis will continue on as a tenured Yale faculty member. Erika Christakis, who gave up teaching at Yale last semester, recently published a book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups.”
Now I can understand, and find it admirable, that the Christakises would step down if they felt they could no longer be effective residential heads. Many students really disliked them, as the diploma incident above notes. But the problem is this: the immature and bullying students should not have reacted that way. By all accounts Erika and Nicholas were great housemasters and excellent teachers, and now their skills are lost to Yale because of bullying students. As far as I can see, Yale itself has done little to support them. As for the faculty petition, The Atlantic notes this:
Some activists nevertheless cast the couple as symbols of what was wrong with Yale, an injustice noted by a group of faculty members who came to their defense. “In the case of the Christakises, their work has been more directly oriented toward the social justice than the work of many other members of the Yale faculty,” they wrote. “For example, Nicholas Christakis worked for many years as a hospice doctor, making house visits to underserved populations in Chicago. Progressive values and social justice are not advanced by scapegoating those who share those values.”
With regard to Erika Christakis’s email, the faculty members declared themselves “deeply troubled that this modest attempt to ask people to consider the issue of self-monitoring vs. bureaucratic supervision has been misinterpreted, and in some cases recklessly distorted, as support for racist speech; and hence as justification for demanding the resignation of our colleagues from their posts at Silliman.”
But relatively few humanities professors signed that letter of support. [JAC: As is often the case, scientists are more willing to sign such petitions. Don’t ask me why.]
And when drafting the letter, the physics professor Douglas Stone found himself warned by faculty colleagues that he was putting himself at risk of being protested.
At Yale, I encountered students and faculty members who supported the Christakises but refused to say so on the record, and others who criticized them, but only anonymously. On both sides, people with perfectly mainstream opinions shared them with a journalist but declined to put their name behind them due to a campus climate where anyone could conceivably be the next object of ire and public shaming. Insufficient tolerance for disagreement is undermining campus discourse.
So we have a campus where people are publicly afraid to speak their minds, terrified of student reaction. Yale has indeed allowed a climate of intolerance to grow: a culture of hatred and public shaming.
And so, two great resources for Yale students, and two dedicated teachers, give up a lot of their duties in light of the bullying they faced by students. Shame on the Yale students for their immaturity and Authoritarian Leftist ideology, and shame on the Yale administration for not supporting the Christakises. I urge you to go back and read Erika’s letter to the “Sillimanders”, and see if you find anything in it that would justify such a student response, or anything that would brand the couple as racists. As author Friedersdorf says at the end of his piece, “. . . the couple’s ultimate resignation does nothing to improve campus climate. What a waste.”