Yale professor resigns: Can 'civil dialogue' share space with student rage?

A Yale professor resigned after a student uproar over her e-mail about offensive Halloween costumes. While critics have called students coddled and naive, observers say there's more going on than political correctness run amok.

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.

When Erika Christakis resigned her teaching post at Yale on Monday, she gently expressed her frustration with the current state of “civil dialogue and open inquiry” at one of the most esteemed institutions of higher learning in the nation.

This past October, Ms. Christakis, a traditional “master” at one of Yale’s residential colleges and a part-time instructor of early childhood psychology, had written a civil counterpoint to the Yale administration’s suggestion that students refrain from dressing in Halloween costumes that might be deemed culturally insensitive.

Her words, however, and in many ways the very idea of “civil dialogue and open inquiry” on campus, have been swept into the vortex of an angry student protest movement. Minority students and others, joined by faculty members as well, have not only aggressively challenged campus expressions they see as glib, demeaning, and sometimes downright racist, they have also demanded the removal of the honored names of slaveholders and racists on campus buildings.

And in the case of Christakis and her husband, demanded their dismissals.

The depth of these students’ anger and frustration has stunned many administrators and professors. And in public reactions, these students often have been characterized as “coddled,” naive, and perhaps even dangerous “social justice warriors” bent on bringing down the hallowed traditions of open debate, a bedrock principle in the European West.

Yet while such student demands have been dismissed as a banal “political correctness” run amok, the current cultural clashes on campus have actually brought a more nuanced and even “open” discussion of the experiences of black Americans throughout history – including their pain and anger at forgotten, or glossed over, horrors that reverberate to the present day.

“The rage has always been there,” says Randal Jelks, professor of African American studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “Let’s call it what it is. In America, it’s always been there – it’s lied under the surface, and students are pulling the covers back, that’s all.”

Emboldened by the larger Black Lives Matter movement and its success in bringing attention to what they see as gross inequities in the nation’s law enforcement system, student protesters have turned their attention to campus symbols – and even those demands that they express their grievances civilly, or discuss these issues within the safety of abstraction and theory.

“Academia is built on the expectation – the hope – that by applying these abstractions to reality, mankind can evolve,” wrote recent grad Kate Groetzinger in Quartz. “By generating a conception of what our world could be, we believe, we might defy the status quo, buck the momentum of centuries of flawed civilization and move in a different direction.

“The rhetoric of student protesters across the country this fall has taken on the life or death tenor befitting such an endeavor,” she adds.

At Princeton last month, protesters set upon the important, and perhaps even essential, legacy of Woodrow Wilson at the Ivy League bastion. The nation’s 28th president and one of the critical architects of modern liberalism, was not simply a genteel racist of his day, they and many historians argue, but in many ways a vicious white supremacist, an ardent eugenicist, and a president who dismantled many of the economic gains of the growing black middle class at the time.

At Yale, students are demanding the renaming of the resident college honoring John Calhoun, the eloquent, slave-owning politician from South Carolina whose state’s-rights political theories undergird secessionist ideas and informed the politics of white supremacy.

Georgetown changed the names of two buildings after students made similar demands, and Princeton and Harvard stopped using the title of “master,” an old shortened form of schoolmaster, to refer to the heads of resident colleges. Each of these expressions, the students have argued, ignore the effects of history on minority lives today – and are themselves uncivil.

“We think people making complaints are just being unnecessarily sensitive, and I think that’s sometimes wrong,” says Professor Jelks. “In discussions about what is ‘PC,’ oftentimes, as a minority person, I feel like that’s a hidden way of saying, ‘I get to say what I want about you, but your complaints are just ‘PC.’”

Caught in the crossfire, however, have been administrators and scholars like Christakis.

Traditionally reasoned and expressed with both caveats and a recognition of the points the Yale administration’s suggestions about Halloween costumes were trying to make, Christakis worried about the social control these suggestions implied.

“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?” she wrote in October.

In a video that went viral, one student unleashed a torrent of profanity at her husband, Nicholas Christakis, who was trying to defend the idea of free expression after his wife’s e-mail to students. “It is not about creating an intellectual space!” the student said. “It is not! Do you understand that? It is about creating a home here!”

Afterward, Mr. Christakis defended the student, tweeting, “No one, especially no students exercising right to speech, should be judged just on basis of short video clip.”

Neither Christakis will be teaching during the spring semester – Nicholas Christakis is taking a sabbatical.

"I have great respect and affection for my students, but I worry that the current climate at Yale is not, in my view, conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems," Erika Christakis said, according to The Washington Post.

In a statement, Yale said that Christakis's decision was voluntary and she was welcome to teach again in the future.

“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.”

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