The Eternally Radical Idea

Yale’s treatment of psych lecturer another step in continuing retreat from academic freedom 

Trouble brewing after ‘dehumanizing’ artisanal coffee remark prompts students to grind for filter

December 6, 2021


All semester, the attention on Yale University’s speech infringements has centered on two words: “trap house.” The case of law student Trent Colbert being pushed to apologize for a phrase youth culture appropriated from hip hop culture has earned a great deal of mainstream media attention. And so it should, especially since Yale’s effort to recover from the mess it created has included a promise to create a committee to review the “norms surrounding secretly recorded conversations,” an indication it’s only sorry that it got caught on tape suggesting that his attempts to become a lawyer might go badly for him if he didn’t agree to apologize. (See Aaron Sibarium’s excellent coverage here, and our interview with Colbert here.) 

A student being pressured to sign a prewritten confession of bigotry he didn’t engage in may shock much of the country, but at FIRE it’s just another Thursday. We see hundreds of cases every year, including many that are worse than the institutional bullying Colbert experienced. 

Last week, my colleague Komi German walked us through some of them at MIT. Now, a new case involving Dr. Sally Satel, a lecturer at the Yale School of Medicine, invites the opportunity to review the institution’s consistent retreat, since 2015, from its advertised promises of free expression. In Quillette, Satel wrote about an online lecture she gave early this year, and the pushback that ensued, including the accusation that she “dehumanized” rural Ohioans by being surprised by their enthusiasm for artisanal coffee.  

Like the “trap house” case, Satel’s experience alone is not the gravest violation of intellectual freedom we see in a given week; and yet, both are symptoms of a worsening disease. Through its graduates, Yale exerts an outsized influence on the daily lives of most Americans — for example, Yale educated three of the last six U.S. presidents, and eight sitting Supreme Court Justices attended either Harvard or Yale at some point. If Yale has abandoned its commitment to free speech culture, we should either encourage it to reconsider or encourage our business and political leaders to reconsider their connection to Yale. 

Satel’s lecture and Yale’s anti-racism efforts

On Jan. 8, Satel gave a Grand Rounds lecture to the Yale Department of Psychiatry about the year she spent working in a clinic in Ironton, Ohio, treating people fighting drug addictions. In her lecture, she examined internal and external influences that can lead to substance abuse, addressed what she sees as misconceptions about the opioid crisis, and argued that misconceptions and mistakes by policymakers and medical providers may have exacerbated the crisis. 

The letter condemns Satel for having “the audacity to challenge Reverend Al Sharpton, an exemplary individual and activist.”

Satel frankly discussed the devastation wrought on the community by poverty, despair, and addiction, while also affectionately recalling her interactions with community members and the relationships formed in her work. (Satel also discussed her work in Ohio at length with Reason’s Nick Gillespie in an interview for the April edition of Reason magazine.) Satel is a medical practitioner looking to better understand a towering public health problem, but her empathy and compassion are evident as well. You probably don’t choose to work in the environments Satel does (she’s also worked at a methadone clinic in Washington, D.C.) if you don’t have deep reserves of both qualities.

After the talk, however, an unidentified and unenumerated group of “Concerned Yale Psychiatry Residents” sent a letter of complaint to John H. Krystal, chair of the department of psychiatry, objecting not only to the content of Satel’s lecture, but to the idea that Satel, a former assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale who remains a lecturer on the faculty, would be invited to give the address at all:

We, a concerned group of Yale Psychiatry residents, are writing this letter to express our disappointment with the Grand Rounds presentation given on January 8th, 2021 by Dr. Sally Satel. This presentation was given two days after the white supremacist insurrection that occurred at the Capitol and was further traumatizing to us and many of our colleagues.

The language Dr. Satel used in her presentation was dehumanizing, demeaning, and classist toward individuals living in rural Ohio and for rural populations in general. Dr. Satel is known for her highly problematic and racist canon that explicitly blames individuals facing structural inequities for their own health outcomes.

The “dehumanizing, demeaning, and classist” language in question? The letter gives two examples. First, the title: “My Year Abroad: Ironton, Ohio and Lessons from the Opioid Crisis.” Second, the letter mentions a brief, affectionate aside Satel made toward the end of her lecture, highlighting the owner of what she referred to as an “artisanal coffee shop, one I would not expect to find here.” This “dehumanization,” they write, “should never be given a platform in Yale Department of Psychiatry.”

What about that “highly problematic and racist canon?”  The students focus their ire on two of Satel’s prior published works in particular. In her 2006 book “The Health Disparities Myth,” Satel and her co-author argue that socioeconomic status and geography factor far more than racial bias in explaining racial disparities in healthcare outcomes, which she does not deny exist. Satel makes a similar argument in another book cited by the residents, “PC, M.D.,” in which she argues that chalking up racial disparities in healthcare to racial bias oversimplifies the problem. 

The letter condemns Satel for having “the audacity to challenge Reverend Al Sharpton, an exemplary individual and activist.” Sharpton is mentioned briefly in Satel’s work as one of many influential figures in the early 2000s attributing racially disparate health care to the bias of providers. The notion that Sharpton or anyone else should be immune from challenge aside, Satel’s work isn’t directed at Sharpton; she’s merely arguing that the evidence is not aligned with his activism.

Satel’s conclusions are, of course, fair game for examination and critique. The residents are flatly uninterested, however, in anything of the sort. They write: “we find her canon to be beyond a ‘difference of opinion’ worth debate.” More to the point, they view allowing opinions like Satel’s on campus as wholly incompatible with the Yale School of Medicine’s commitment to anti-racism and call on Yale to terminate Satel’s status as a lecturer.  

Fortunately, Satel writes, Yale has not done so. But Yale has also not used this as a “teachable moment” for its residents either, at least not in any public-facing way, and the chilling effect will no doubt disincentivize many potential lecturers from volunteering to be the next punching bag. But what does it say about the culture of free expression at Yale that these are the terms of the discussion?

Yale’s record on free expression

Yale’s historical commitment to free expression is best encapsulated by the 1975 “Woodward Report,” which states, in part:

By voluntarily taking up membership in a university and thereby asserting a claim to its rights and privileges, members also acknowledge the existence of certain obligations upon themselves and their fellows. Above all, every member of the university has an obligation to permit free expression in the university. No member has a right to prevent such expression. Every official of the university, moreover, has a special obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed.

Yale President Peter Salovey has described the university’s speech polices as being based on the Woodward Report, and has said that academic freedom is “sacrosanct” at Yale (though as we’ll see later, its lawyers don’t necessarily agree).

That was not Satel’s experience, or the experience of many others in recent years. Yale’s history as an unreliable defender of expression did not begin in 2015 — FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff’s 2012 book, “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” includes an entire chapter focusing on just Harvard and Yale, and includes Yale’s 2009 decision to censor cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed in a book about the violent reactions to those cartoons. Yet, since 2015, Yale as a community seems to have become even less reliable on speech questions.

Video captured by FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff on November 5, 2015. Lukianoff was at Yale University for a speaking engagement.
  • In 2015, a conflict over an email about whether students should have the freedom to choose “inappropriate” Halloween costumes led to students calling for, and eventually receiving, the resignation of Erika and Nicholas Christakis from their positions as associate master and master, respectively, of Silliman college. 
  • In 2019, a program titled “Dissent and Resistance in Singapore” was canceled at Yale-NUS College, an institution that is a joint venture between Yale and the National University of Singapore, because the program would infringe on their “commitment not to advance partisan political interests in our campus.”
  • In 2020, Yale declined to renew the contract of untenured department of psychiatry professor Bandy Lee after Lee commented in a thread about Alan Dershowitz that Trump followers showed signs of “shared psychosis”; Dershowitz complained to administrators that Lee “diagnosed” him as “psychotic” without examining him. Lee has since sued.
  • In September, Beverly Gage resigned from her position as director of the Grand Strategy program when Yale created a board to advise on appointments. Gage perceived the board as an attempt to influence the content of the program; Yale said the goal was to meet donor requirements.
  • In October, the news of the “trap house” case broke. (By the way, don’t miss the excellent apology letter we pre-wrote for Yale to sign. Still waiting to hear back on that.)

These cases — which seem to be getting more frequent — suggest an unwillingness to adhere to the institution’s own published worldview, abandoning it when a mob of students, a prominent alumnus, or a wealthy donor complains loudly enough. 

How Yale students see its promises

Overall, Yale ranks 33 out of 154 campuses in the largest survey of student free expression ever performed, FIRE’s 2021 College Free Speech Rankings — but on administrative support for free speech, it plummets to No. 139. Yale students have less faith in their administration’s support for free expression than the students at Fordham, Syracuse, the University of Tennessee, New York University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Four of those schools were named in FIRE’s 10 Worst Schools; one (Syracuse) got a Lifetime Censorship Award; and the other schools on that list weren’t in the rankings.

Yale seems to be reacting to speech in a way that de-prioritizes its advertised commitments in favor of capitulating to the angriest voice in the room.

Schools that receive a warning rating in our Spotlight database because they don’t promise freedom of expression at all don’t get a numerical ranking in our survey. But Yale students are less confident in their administration’s protection of free speech than 4 of the 5 universities in our survey that don’t even promise to protect free speech (Hillsdale, Brigham Young University, Pepperdine University, and Saint Louis University). 

How did Yale rank so highly overall when its students have so little confidence in its speech promises? In general, Yale is an ideologically homogeneous environment, so students are generally comfortable speaking within the constraints of the prevailing political orientation. 

According to the demographic info from this year’s College Free Speech Rankings, 66% of students identify as liberal and 15% identify as conservative, a fair bit further left than the national averages of 53% and 20% respectively. And we can’t ignore the faculty when studying the climate at Yale, because there are more faculty members than undergrads at Yale, and more faculty and administrators than students overall. Among Yale faculty, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is 16:1 in some disciplines, and over 31:1 in English, math, and the social sciences. 

As you might expect in such an environment, Yale students exhibit much greater tolerance than average for speakers who want to express left-leaning views, such as that white people are responsible for structural racism (20% of Yale students oppose allowing that speaker, versus 34% nationally) or that religious liberty is used as an excuse to oppose gay rights (24% opposed at Yale, 36% nationally). 

The responses to open-ended questions include anecdotes from Yale students consistent with the numbers (presented here unedited, so please excuse the students who entered these on their phones):

  • “I was discussing Trump’s election in a dining hall and got shouted down from across the hall by an adjacent table. They yelled at me repeatedly and even threatened to ‘cut me’”
  • “When the tragic shootings in Atlanta happened I wanted to know whether or not the incidence was really a hate crime against Asians. However I felt like I couldn’t even ask where people were getting their information because it would make me seem unsympathetic to my own people (I am Asian) when really I am just trying to understand the nature of such horrible crimes and what we can do to stop them (rather than just calling everyone a racist).”
  • “In the wake of the most recent election I saw an instagram post advocating for cutting off all ties with Trump supporters because at this point they are nothing but blatant racists beyond reason. I wanted to disagree but I felt like the general populace at my college would condemn my objection.”

Yale seems to be reacting to speech in a way that de-prioritizes its advertised commitments in favor of capitulating to the angriest voice in the room. It’s likely that current Yale students have little faith in their administration’s commitment to free expression because their administration has shown little commitment to free expression in the years they’ve attended.

This problem impacts all of us

Yale has already demonstrated its willingness to treat its expressive statements as nothing more than prayers when it becomes convenient. In the Bandy Lee lawsuit, mentioned above, Lee invoked the Woodward Report. Yale’s response was that the report was “a statement of principles, not a set of contractual promises.” 

Aren’t our principles supposed to govern our promises? Isn’t that part of the “special obligation” that Yale used to believe it had? 

If this were the picture at any of hundreds of other institutions, it would be depressing, but have limited impact beyond those walls. But Yale disproportionately educates our CEOs (six in the Fortune 500), politicians (in 2019, 17 members of Congress; five presidents), and our judges (four current Supreme Court justices; since 2010, 91 Supreme Court clerkships). A failure to live up to the free expression principles it outlines is far more likely to result in a world where those principles are either ignored or treated as aspirational and not operative. 

Yale must do better

One clear takeaway from the College Free Speech Rankings is that a healthy campus speech climate starts with action from the top. Addressing the five things university presidents can do to improve their commitment to free speech should be Yale’s first step. 

But Yale’s leadership doesn’t have the sole responsibility for encouraging change. Yale alumni can join FIRE’s Alumni Network to receive breaking news curated specifically for their alma mater, including FIRE’s latest legal developments, strategies for activism, and connections with other Yale graduates that wish to see the university return to its former glory. Yale donors can target programs and groups on campus that live up to their commitments to free expression, or direct their generosity elsewhere. Businesses should advertise their commitments to intellectual diversity in the workplace before bringing on any Yale graduates. 

It may be cynical, and we would much rather see Yale live up to the values it celebrates, but Yale may only live up to its aspirational goals after seeing the cost of abandoning them.