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Yale Faculty Resign From Residential College Roles; Concerns about Free Speech Remain

Late yesterday, master of Yale University’s Silliman College Nicholas Christakis and his wife, associate master Erika Christakis, resigned from their Silliman College duties to pursue academic work full time.

In a statement posted to Twitter, Nicholas wrote:

My wife, Erika, and I have devoted our professional lives to advocating for the well being of all young people. While we cherish the years we have spent living among undergraduates, both at Harvard and at Yale, and while we remain faithful to our confidence in Yale students, we have decided that it is time to return full-time to our respective fields of public health and early childhood education.

The resignations follow a controversy that began in October 2015 when Erika sent an email to Silliman students weighing in on a campus debate surrounding Halloween. Her email questioned whether an earlier statement from Yale administrators about Halloween costumes represented an intrusion into students’ autonomy and their ability to govern their own expressive activity, free from implied administrative control.

Erika’s email sparked a contentious on-campus discussion about free speech rights and norms, culminating when students confronted Nicholas in the Silliman courtyard and called for his and his wife’s resignation. The confrontation was captured on video by FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff, who happened to be on campus for two previously arranged speaking engagements.

The video soon went viral, sparking a national discussion.

Despite public support from the president of Yale University and the dean of Yale College, Erika quit teaching at Yale in December and Nicholas announced that he would take a sabbatical for the spring semester.

Yale’s Principles, Free Speech, and the “Strong Student” Model

In a November 2015 op-ed for The Washington Post published just after the controversy began, Lukianoff wrote that “if either professor steps down now or in the coming months, it must be understood to represent Yale’s glaring failure to live up to its own glowing promises to protect and honor freedom of speech on campus.”

Now both professors have stepped down. The “glowing promises” to which Lukianoff referred are found in Yale’s famed Woodward Report, which assures students and faculty members that they are free to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable” and states that “[a]mong the College’s most cherished principles is its commitment to freedom of expression.”

With the Christakises’ resignation, it’s clear that Yale’s ability to live up to its public promise to provide an environment that fosters free and robust debate has been called into sharp question. Students were certainly free to call for the Christakises’ resignations, as FIRE pointed out at the time. However, FIRE will not shy away from explaining why such calls are misguided, myopic, and contrary to Yale’s—and our nation’s—commitment to free expression. It’s hard to imagine that free inquiry at Yale is better off today than it was at the beginning of the school year.

It is important to note that the university’s leadership did publicly express support for the Christakises—support reiterated in a statement yesterday. However, the Yale students’ demands for the resignations and punishment of faculty for plainly protected expression point to a larger, worrying campus trend that administrators at Yale and elsewhere have done little to stop, and sometimes even encouraged. Increasingly, some students—though not all—are demanding freedom from speech rather than freedom of speech by campaigning for resignations, speech codes, disinvitations of campus speakers, and other illiberal responses to speech they dislike.  

FIRE has always argued that students are strong enough to live with freedom of expression. We believe that efforts to silence protected speech because it may offend some, many, or even all listeners are paternalistic, arrogant, condescending, and ultimately ineffective. We believe that students should be presumed to be strong enough to handle contentious or even uncomfortable debate.

Students do not need administrators to step in and protect them from ideas with which they disagree. The parents and grandparents of today’s students did away with the idea of in loco parentis when they were in college in the 1960s. We don’t need it brought back.

Although the argument hasn’t been widely or accurately represented in the media, this respect for student autonomy and individual strength is exactly what Erika Christakis championed in her email. She wondered whether “we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.”

Erika asked her students: “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity — in your capacity — to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?” She ended her email by posing another important question: “What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?”

FIRE believes that for the health of our democracy, the answer must be made clear: Students are strong enough to live with freedom of expression, and those who would either take that freedom away or convince students that they are too weak to live with it are doing them no service. We hope the illiberal student response to Erika’s email was an aberration, not a glimpse of the new norm. To that end, we hope that in the aftermath of this regrettable series of events, Yale’s promises of free expression endure as vital obligations to be kept.

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