“The right to speak freely may be enshrined in some of our nation’s great universities, but the culture of listening needs repair.”
So begins Erika Christakis’ op-ed in The Washington Post today, in which—for the first time since she sent an email to Yale University students last fall asking them “to think critically about an official set of guidelines on costumes to avoid at Halloween”—the early childhood lecturer reveals shocking details about the fallout she and her husband faced for attempting to foster dialogue on the topic of student autonomy at Yale.
But it is Christakis’ moving and measured analysis of the “worrying trend of self-censorship on campuses” that makes the piece a must-read for anyone concerned about the cultural devaluation of freedom of speech in American society.
The article is especially timely in light of Yale President Peter Salovey’s recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal claiming that Yale unequivocally supports freedom of speech and asserting unblinkingly that no student or faculty member has ever been punished for speaking his or her mind at Yale. Christakis’ experience illustrates with painful clarity that a campus may indeed claim a commitment to open discourse, while quietly cultivating an atmosphere where students and faculty are expected to adhere to a single, authorized ideology—or else.
Christakis’ Halloween email of last year merely asked students, in a thoughtful manner, to consider whether it was the appropriate role of a university to police students’ Halloween costume choices. Her suggestion was met with accusations of racism and demands that she resign from both her post as a dormitory “co-master” and as a Yale lecturer. Ultimately, Christakis acceded, feeling she could not teach competently in such an atmosphere. Christakis writes:
Nearly a thousand students, faculty and deans called for my and my husband’s immediate removal from our jobs and campus home. Some demanded not only apologies for any unintended racial insensitivity (which we gladly offered) but also a complete disavowal of my ideas (which we did not) — as well as 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.
Not everyone bought this narrative, but few spoke up. And who can blame them? 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. Others who generously supported us publicly were admonished by colleagues for vouching for our characters. 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.
If “[c]ertain ideas are too dangerous to be heard” at elite universities like Yale, Christakis wonders, what does this mean for the future of discourse on our campuses and beyond?
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. Without more explicit commitment to this principle, students are denied an essential condition for intellectual and moral growth: the ability to practice, and sometimes fail at, the art of thinking out loud.
While FIRE often points you to pieces we think are worth a read, Erika Christakis’ op-ed is special. We urge you to read it, share it, and thoughtfully consider its important message.