Erika Christakis set off a furor a year ago by publicly questioning whether Yale students should try to stop their peers from wearing allegedly offensive Halloween costumes.
Student activists tried to get her and her husband Nicholas, both professors, removed as the masters of the Silliman residential college, and Erika canceled her spring classes because the campus climate was not “conducive to civil dialogue.” She never came back.
She reflects on that crazy time in The Washington Post today and her disappointment in Yale’s continuing failure to prepare students to discuss controversial issues:
Nearly a thousand students, faculty and deans called for my and my husband’s immediate removal from our jobs and campus home. Some demanded … advance warning of my appearances in the dining hall so that students accusing me of fostering violence wouldn’t be disturbed by the sight of me. …
Numerous professors, including those at Yale’s top-rated law school, contacted us personally to say that it was too risky to speak their minds. … Many students met with us confidentially to describe intimidation and accusations of being a “race traitor” when they deviated from the ascendant campus account that I had grievously injured the community. …
One professor I admire claimed my lone email was so threatening that it unraveled decades of her work supporting students of color. One email.
Christakis also assails the Yale Daily News for botched reporting on the “verbal and physical threats” against her husband when he was mobbed by angry students for two hours after her email blew up.
She fears for current students who have been coddled in a “culture of protection” at Yale, which may “ultimately harm” them when they leave a campus where 85 percent of liberals feel comfortable sharing their views:
I didn’t leave a rewarding job and campus home on a whim. But I lost confidence that I could continue to teach about vulnerable children in an environment where full discussion of certain topics — such as absent fathers — has become almost taboo. It’s never easy to foster dialogue about race, class, gender and culture, but it will only become more difficult for faculty in disciplines concerned with the human condition if universities won’t declare that ideas and feelings aren’t interchangeable. …
By affirming only the narrow right to air my views, rather than helping the community to grapple with its intense response, an unfortunate message was made plain: Certain ideas are too dangerous to be heard at Yale.
The collective denial of responsibility risks shortchanging students’ intellectual maturation and gradual assumption of autonomy. Moreover, the university’s careless conflation of talking (of which we had plenty) with listening (not so much) has the unintended effect of creating an inhospitable learning environment for the entire community, not just those who had no problem with my Halloween advice.