Yale lecturer resigns over campus climate of 'censure and prohibition'

Erika Christakis wrote an email suggesting students should be allowed to wear what they want, even if it is deemed offensive, but the email sparked protests. Some critics are concerned cultural sensitivities may have gone too far on campus.

Ryan Flynn/New Haven Register/AP
Yale University students and supporters participate in a march across campus to demonstrate against what they see as racial insensitivity at the Ivy League school on Nov. 9, in New Haven, Conn.

A Yale professor who argued for students’ right to wear culturally insensitive Halloween costumes and triggered outcry on campus has announced her intentions to resign from teaching at the university.

The issue began last October, when the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent out an email to students instructing them to avoid wearing racially insensitive costumes for Halloween such as Native American headdresses, turbans, or blackface.

In response, Erika Christakis wrote an email to students living in the Silliman College residence where she was an administrator, arguing that students should be allowed and even encouraged to wear costumes, even if it is offensive.

"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."

The e-mail triggered an outcry among some minority students and others, and many demanded Ms. Christakis, also a lecturer on early childhood development and her husband, fellow Silliman master Nicholas Christakis, step down.

On Nov. 9 dozens of students marched in protest against what they see as racial insensitivity at the Ivy League school.

The protests came amid a backdrop of unrest on campuses across the country, political correctness, and handling of racial complaints.

Some critics have expressed concerns that cultural sensitivities may have gone too far on campus, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last month:

But many of the student’s expressions also shifted the conversation to another debate: whether college campuses are becoming “places of censure and prohibition.”

As Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic wrote: “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…”

The fundamental issue is plotting that point at which offense becomes unacceptably invasive to others, and that is a target that moves as society changes.

In July, Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, who writes about gender identity and sexual politics, was investigated after a sexual discrimination complaint was filed against her following an article she wrote about student-professor relationships.

The Monitor reported in July, 

But “free and unfettered” speech is increasingly coming up against a new generation of students, some of whom have an expectation that they have a right not to read or hear ideas that differ from their worldview or make them uncomfortable.

What began in the 1990s as political correctness – a desire not to offend others – has now morphed into what one academic observer calls “empathetic correctness” – a desire never to be offended. Even celebrities have weighed in on the debate, with comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher saying the environment at college makes it almost impossible to do their routines without someone becoming upset.

On its website, the university said Christakis decided not to continue teaching in the spring semester.

"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. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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