Tensions at Yale University hit a boiling point yesterday after an email about Halloween costumes created a week-long controversy on campus.
Students called for the resignation of Associate Master of Silliman College Erika Christakis after she responded to an email from the school’s Intercultural Affairs Council asking students to be thoughtful about the cultural implications of their Halloween costumes. According to The Washington Post, students are also calling for the resignation of her husband, Master of Silliman College, Nicholas Christakis, who defended her statement.
FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff recorded video of students confronting Nicholas Christakis yesterday in the courtyard of the Silliman College dormitory complex at Yale. Lukianoff was on Yale’s campus to speak at a conference on issues related to free speech in higher education.
As FIRE’s Alex Morey wrote just last week, we see campus controversies over Halloween costumes every year. But these developments at Yale show just how intense those controversies have become.
Yale students have every right to express their anger and frustration with Yale faculty. But FIRE is concerned by yet another unfortunate example of students who demand upsetting opinions be entirely eradicated from the university in the name of fostering “safe spaces” where students are protected from hurt feelings. Practicing free speech does not merely entail the right to protest opinions you object to—it also means acknowledging people’s right to hold those opinions in the first place.
Recall that Yale is the source of one of the most glowing statements in support of free expression in higher education. The statement, based on the university’s 1975 Woodward Report, demonstrates the need to be free to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” It even goes so far as to inform Yale students that “when you agree to matriculate, you join a community where ‘the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox’ must be tolerated. When you encounter people who think differently than you do, you will be expected to honor their free expression, even when what they have to say seems wrong or offensive to you.”
The Intercultural Affairs Committee’s Halloween Email
On Wednesday, October 28, Yale Dean Burgwell Howard sent an email to Yale’s entire undergraduate student body from the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee, a 13-member group of administrators from the Chaplain’s Office, campus cultural centers, and other campus organizations. The email, titled “Halloween and the Yale Community,” implored students to be thoughtful about the cultural implications of their Halloween costumes and how they might offend or degrade others, pointing to costumes such as feathered headdresses, turbans, “war paint,” and blackface as examples of inappropriate “cultural appropriation and/or misrepresentation.” Howard sent a similar email to the Northwestern University community in 2010 when he was the dean of students there.
While the committee’s email acknowledged that students “definitely have a right to express themselves,” the committee hoped they would “actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.”
The committee then provided a list of questions students should ask themselves before deciding upon a costume, as well as links to websites educating students about common racial stereotypes. The committee even linked to several Pinterest boards curated by Yale’s Community & Consent Educators—one with a collection of acceptable, school-sanctioned costume ideas and the other with a collection of “costumes to avoid.”
Erika Christakis’ Response
Just after midnight on Friday, October 30, Erika Christakis sent an email to the Silliman community in response to the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s Halloween email. Christakis explained that she and her husband Nicholas had heard from a number of students who were frustrated by the committee’s email. Although the email was allegedly supposed to serve as a recommendation rather than a formal policy, to some, its length, tone, content, and the list of 13 signatories seemed to indicate otherwise.
Christakis drew on her experiences as a child development specialist to question whether a university should dictate what students should and shouldn’t wear on Halloween:
I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if 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.
In addition to expressing concerns about how policing students’ costumes can limit the exercise of imagination, free speech, and free expression, Christakis asked:
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? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.
The response to Christakis’ email was explosive. More than 740 Yale undergraduates, graduate students, alumni, faculty, and even students from other universities signed on to an open letter telling Christakis that her “offensive” email invalidates the voices of minority students on campus.
Christakis and her husband have since invited all Silliman signatories of the open letter, as well as any other Silliman students who might disagree with her email, to a lunch this Sunday. The invitation was sharply rejected by some, including one student who, in a Yale Herald piece published today, criticized the invitation and argued that Nicholas Christakis “needs to stop instigating more debate.”
On Wednesday, more than 350 Yale undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty gathered in the Afro-American Cultural Center to attend an open forum on allegations of institutional racism on campus. The forum, which lasted more than two hours, addressed the daily experiences of Yale’s minority students and centered around two controversies: Christakis’ email, and allegations that members of Yale’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity had turned away black women from a fraternity party on Friday night.
The next day, shortly after a three-hour-long impromptu confrontation on Cross Campus with Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway about the lack of administrative response to the week’s events, around 100 students gathered in the courtyard of Silliman College to protest Christakis’ email. Nicholas Christakis, who decided to meet with the student protesters, was soon encircled and accused of racism and insensitivity, with many demanding an apology for his wife’s email.
Christakis engaged with the students and listened to their concerns for several hours. Finally, Christakis told the crowd, “I apologize for causing pain, but I am not sorry for the statement. I stand behind free speech. I defend the right for people to speak their minds.”
This was not the “apology” the students were demanding. As you can see from the footage below, which was taken by Lukianoff while on campus, the confrontation quickly escalated into a shouting match.
We encourage you to watch the footage in full, along with the other videos taken by Lukianoff while observing the protests.
In the above video, a student demands an apology for Christakis’ e-mail, saying she feels like Yale was no longer a “safe space” for her and other students, especially incoming freshmen.
“[I]t’s not a home. It is no longer a safe space for me. And I find that incredibly depressing,” she says. “This was once a space that I was proud to be a part of because of the loving community.”
According to the Yale Daily News, nearly half of the students left when they realized Christakis was not going to give them what they considered an “appropriate” apology.
One student pressed Christakis on whether he was going to give an apology.
“So, my question is: are you going to say that? Or not?” she asked. “Cause then, I could just leave if you’re not gonna say that.”
In another video, below, a student in the crowd tells other students to just “walk away” because “He [Christakis] doesn’t deserve to be listened to.”
One of the stronger accusations the students make is that Christakis’ refusal to apologize for his wife’s email makes him unfit to be master of Silliman.
“As your position as master, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman,” one student says. “You have not done that. By sending out that email, that goes against your position as master. Do you understand that?”
When Christakis disagreed, the student proceeded to yell at him.
“Who the fuck hired you?” she asked, arguing that Christakis should “step down” because being master is “not about creating an intellectual space,” but rather “creating a home.”
This student is not alone. Many other students are going so far as to demand that Christakis and his wife resign from their roles as master and associate master. According to the Washington Post, students were drafting a formal letter Thursday evening, calling for the removal of Christakis and her husband from their roles in Silliman.
At the gathering with Dean Holloway earlier that day, Silliman students expressed similar concerns and voiced their unwillingness to receive their diplomas from Christakis at graduation.
The Implications for Freedom of Expression and the Marketplace of Ideas
Are the students’ protests against the Christakises protected speech? Of course.
But the students’ demand that the Christakises lose their jobs for their dissident opinions represents another strong example of the phenomenon Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt talked about in their September cover story for The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” In their article, Lukianoff and Haidt argue that students are increasingly engaging in a culture of “vindictive protectiveness” that seeks to control campus speech in a way that not only limits free expression and chills candor, but that can also promote distorted ways of thinking.
This morning, Dean Holloway wrote an email to all Yale students addressing the week’s controversies. In that email, he wrote that he “will enforce the community standards that safeguard you as members of this community.”
Among those standards FIRE hopes Dean Holloway will enforce is the university’s standard for freedom of expression, which demands that when student and faculty members “encounter people who think differently than you do, you will be expected to honor their free expression, even when what they have to say seems wrong or offensive to you.”
As always, the best response to speech one disagrees with is more speech, not censorship.
FIRE, the nation’s leading student rights organization will continue to monitor the situation as it unfolds.
UPDATE 11/8/15 – FIRE has heard secondhand reports that one or more people in these videos have received threats of violence or death. We do not know whether these reports are valid or whether the alleged threats are credible. Regardless, FIRE condemns any such threats in the strongest terms, and reminds viewers that true threats of violence are not protected speech and that credible threats of violence against any person can and should be investigated by law enforcement.