By Ed Stannard at New Haven Register
NEW HAVEN >> The central issue that has caused such an uproar atYale University, say many students, is racism and working to erase it and other forms of discrimination from campus life.
While there have been episodes in the last two weeks that have put the focus on free speech and whether it’s being suppressed, those are minor compared to the real problems of race relations at the Ivy League school, those students say.
Complaints by columnists and national media outlets that students have tried to suppress free speech are a “toxic diversion,” in the words of Brett Davidson, a senior.
“At least in my community of friends, the free-speech arguments are missing the point,” he said last week. “No one is being censored.”
That point is disputed by those at a conference on free speech held Nov. 6, where a protester was forcibly removed by police and where demonstrators chanted loudly in the hallway when a speaker made a joke they perceived as racist toward Native Americans.
There also may be disagreement from professor Nicholas Christakis, master of Silliman College, who was screamed at by one of his college’s residents and told to resign over an email sent by his wife that suggested students need not be told what is appropriate to wear on Halloween.
But the larger point, students say, is that conditions on campus foster an undercurrent of racism and sexism that must be addressed by the administration.
They say the hundreds that turned out for last Monday’s “march of resilience” and for a teach-in on race Wednesday evening show that the issues are much broader than a racist comment allegedly made at a fraternity Halloween party, or the email from Silliman Associate Master Erika Christakis, which challenged a message from the Intercultural Affairs Council advising students to be sensitive in their choice of Halloween costumes. Neither of the Christakises responded to a request for comment from the Register.
The administrator who sent out the initial email advising against costumes that make fun of groups of people, told the Register that it was not meant to censor free expression.
“Yale has a long documented history of defending free speech and the open interchange of ideas,” said Yale Associate Vice President Burgwell Howard, dean of student engagement. “The message from the Intercultural Affairs Council in no way placed limits on students’ opportunity for free expression. The message simply asked students to be thoughtful in their choices and think about the potential impact of any choices they might make within the context of what it means to be a community.”
Simone Policano, a senior, said, the emails and frat party “should be viewed as more catalysts (to) what this movement is about,” said. Those incidents, she said, were like “two matches that were lit in a room that was already filled with gasoline.”
She pointed out that the movement does not exist just at Yale, but is alive at other universities across the country, such as the University of Missouri, where the president and chancellor were forced to resign. “They are having meetings and committees on how to address these issues at Brown (University),” she added.
Late Thursday night, a new group called Next Yale brought the issues to the home of Yale President Peter Salovey, demanding, among other things, that the Christakises be removed from their posts at Silliman, thatCalhoun College (named for avowed racist Vice President John C. Calhoun) be renamed, that money for four cultural centers — for African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans — be increased by $2 million each and that mental health services be expanded, including adding staff members of color. They also demanded that the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program, now a major, be made a full department.
Salovey answered that he would respond to each demand, saying, “I feel incredibly strongly that there is no place for racism at Yale,” according to a video by the New Haven Independent. Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway have previously said they would make tangible responses to the protests by Thanksgiving.
Another issue that has been central to the protests is the drain of faculty of color. One professor, Ann Nakamura, chairwoman of LGBT studies and an East Asian and anthropology professor, announced last week she would be leaving for the University of California at Berkeley.
In an email to the Register, she said, “Yes, part of the pain for students is that this has been a particularly bad year for faculty of color retention. We lost quite a few all at the same time. For sure, everyone left because we got great offers elsewhere (including in my case) but it’s also the case that we all tend to feel that Yale didn’t try very hard to retain us. This has been a continuing problem at Yale, which has led to lack of a sense of community or stability in the programs that house us.”
This month, the administration announced it would spend $50 million over five years to diversify the faculty.
Policano, who said she has one-quarter Puerto Rican blood, said she is “very lucky and privileged” because she is light-skinned, but has seen black students treated badly. “I think people close doors and gates in black students’ faces because they assume they’re not Yale students,” she said. She said police were called on a group of black students who were part of a theater group retrieving scenery out of storage.
She blasted “this notion that a group of students could be going about their day-to-day life and have to convince (police) that they’re students and not doing anything bad.”
The student movement on campus “is people fighting for change and fighting for good,” Policano said. “The feeling on campus right now is the air is really alive. … That march was just the beginning.”
Policano said the calls for Nicholas and Erika Christakis to step down are not an attack on free speech but a response to their not fulfilling their duties as faculty leaders of Silliman College. “Her job is to make all students feel welcome, safe and supported,” Policano said, and Erika Christakis’ advice to look away if offended by a Halloween costume “undermines her obligation” while threatening students’ “cultural well-being and their social and mental health.”
Policano said she gets angry when the issues are put into a context of “this conversation of what is offensive and what is just people overreacting.” Referring to white people, she said, “That is not their call to make because they’re not the ones offended by it.”
Sebastian Medina-Tayac, a senior and managing editor of Down Magazine, a campus publication for students of color, is a member of thePiscataway Indian Nation from Maryland. He said the magazine has compiled an archive of some of the “countless stories of racism,” especially toward black and Native American students.
“There’s been a lot of outwardly expressed pain on campus,” he said, alleging that much of the media coverage has been “very misinformed” by focusing too much on issues such as Erika Christakis’ email.
The real problem, he said, is “a structure of power. Offensive language is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Medina-Tayac said people are missing the point “If you think Yale students would roll out 1,200 strong just from an email” or a fraternity party. There are “deeper and older problems we’ve all been experiencing since we’ve gotten here. The racism on campus goes much deeper than just ignorance or a sense of language.”
He said that besides overt racism, minority students such as himself feel pressure to speak for their ethnic group. “My contribution is important … but it’s also exhausting to be the only one speaking when an issue of Native Americans comes up.” Students of color are “expected to be the representative or the voice of their people,” he said.
He agreed with other students that free speech is not the main issue. “The media has set up this sort of ‘people of color vs. free speech,’” he said, posing the question, “Do you have the right to offend me on this campus?”
Medina-Tayac defended the students who disrupted the free speech conference at the William F. Buckley Jr. Program. “This is how progress is made,” he said. Noting how Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, he said, “How could any social progress be made without disruption? … We’re disrupting the status quo of the campus.
“The free speech vs. anti-racism thing has been set up by people who are actively interested in the end to these disruptions and protests,” he said.
To Zachary Young, a junior at Yale and president of the Buckley program, the protests were more than progressive disruptions; they were people trying to limit the speech of the invited guests in a conference planned for six months.
“In a sense the protesters made our point by showing they want to get their ideas out,” he said, but went too far in believing “they should be able to set the agenda, to disrupt.”
To Young, “you combat speech with more speech,” but do it respectfully, by writing a column or holding a counter-event.
What seemed to spark the demonstration outside the room at Linsly-Chittenden Hall was a joke speaker Greg Lukianoff, president of theFoundation for Individual Rights in Education, made, sarcastically comparing the Christakis episode with burning down an Indian village.
“What he’s really saying is the response to an email … does not deserve the vicious attacks directed toward” the two administrators, Young said.
“You have to be willing to listen to those people you vehemently disagree with. … His joke suggests that would be a terrible thing to burn down an Indian village.”
“It does seem to me that there are big problems in this world that we should be dealing with, and I’m not sure that Halloween costume attire is one … but I welcome free speech and I encourage those who disagree to say so and explain why.” Young said he’s been attending the forums on campus to educate himself about the issues.
Jack Fowler, publisher of the National Review, which was founded by Buckley, harshly criticized protesting students, especially those at the free-speech program, which he attended, as “cowards who find courage in numbers. It was very discouraging in many ways because these brats are the 1 percent of the 1 percent of all human history.”
The protests are “manufactured … They’re in college to get an education. They are kids.” He said, comparing them to “the Cultural Revolution Red Guard in China.”
He also criticized the administration for agreeing with students’ grievances, saying, “The administrators are there to impart education on the students and they’ve totally failed in their duty. What we’re seeing in academia is not even liberal,” but is radical, Fowler said. “It’s a Marxist effort about power.”
Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy for FIRE, the Philadelphia organization headed by Lukianoff, said it appears that the conversation on campus has progressed from a focus on firing Nicholas and Erika Christakis to one with a more constructive tone.
“I think that the protests that we’ve seen this week at Yale are absolutely an example of the rights of students to exercise free expression,” Creeley said. “The concerns that free-speech advocates had stem from their call for illiberal responses to speech we don’t like.”
While FIRE wants Salovey to support the Christakises explicitly, Creeley said, “It seems to me that the tenor of the protests have changed somewhat and (are) now sparking a larger conversation on race relations at Yale, and that’s certainly freedom of expression at work.”