Yale lecturer resigns over Halloween costume email controversy

An email in October said that students should be allowed to push limits on costumes, even those that were culturally insensitive.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
A student walks by a college noticeboard on campus at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut November 12, 2015. More than 1,000 students, professors and staff at Yale University gathered on Wednesday to discuss race and diversity at the elite Ivy League school, amid a wave of demonstrations at U.S. colleges over the treatment of minority students. A Yale professor recently resigned over an email about Halloween costumes that students saw as culturally insensitive.

A white Ivy League lecturer has resigned following an uproar over an email she sent in October suggesting students should have the freedom to wear whatever Halloween costumes they like, including those that may be culturally insensitive.

Yale University announced on Monday the lecturer, Erika Christakis, would not be working at the school during the spring semester.

Ms. Christakis’s email was sent in response to statement made by Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee, which suggested students should not don costumes depicting Native Americans, Asians, and African Americans that could offend fellow students.

But Christakis, who specializes in early childhood education, said that efforts to restrict the costumes allowed on campus would violate Yale's policy of freedom of expression.

"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 wrote. "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."

Student groups chastised Christakis over the email, which led to campus protests, while hundreds of students signed an open letter in response.

“Your email equates old traditions of using harmful stereotypes and tropes to further degrade marginalized people to preschoolers playing make believe,” a portion of the letter read. “This both trivializes the harm done by these tropes and infantilizes the student body to which the request was made.”

Christakis however defended her statement on social media as a matter of free speech, an issue she broached again during a campus forum held last week, prior to her her resignation.

“I worry that the current climate at Yale is not, in my view, conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems,” she told The Washington Post shortly after her resignation.

Almost 70 Yale faculty members have signed a petition showing support for Christakis and her right to “free speech and intellectual expression” the Washington Post reported.

Yale this week lauded Christakis as an educator and left an open invitation for her return to the university.

"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," the school said.

Others weren’t so fast to praise her take on Halloween costumes, including former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.

“Free speech is good. Respecting others is better,” he wrote on Twitter.

About 75 percent of college teachers are non-tenured, according to National Public Radio, which may make them nervous about introducing provocative ideas, participating in campus protests, and having a voice at faculty meetings due to fears they may lose their jobs. 

A book by George Washington University Professor Catherine Ross called “Lessons In Censorship: How Schools and Courts Subvert Students’ First Amendment Rights” denotes how self-censorship in American public schools can go too far, examining how “well intentioned efforts to combat bullying and hate speech can violate students’ constitutional rights.”

Some have described Christakis’s email as a moderate backing of free speech, but many students at Yale contend that after years of segregation universities continue to look at things from a Eurocentric perspective.

 “To be a student of color on Yale’s campus is to exist in a space that was not created for you,” they said, in the open letter. 

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