This article was originally published on September 12, 2016.
Around this time last year, a short video depicting an angry confrontation between a Yale professor and student came to symbolize the nationwide debate over campus political correctness. Four days before Halloween, a university organ called the Intercultural Affairs Council released an email to the entire student body warning them not to wear costumes that “threaten our sense of community.” In the absence of any recent incidents on Yale’s campus involving racist or culturally insensitive Halloween outfits, however, the missive struck many students as patronizing, if not entirely misplaced. Indeed, the email was nearly identical to one Yale’s associate vice president of student life had written to students at Northwestern University five years earlier when he held a similar job at that school. As one Yale professor would later tell me about the message, it “had no applicability to the culture and the actual history here at Yale.”
Sensing this incongruity between their own lived experiences and the prophylactic admonishments of a glorified residential adviser, some students brought their concerns to Erika Christakis, a professor of child developmental psychology and the associate master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s 12 residential houses. In a rejoinder email sent only to Silliman students, Christakis took umbrage with what she portrayed as a cosseting administration, asking, “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?”
That’s when all hell broke loose. To many Yale students, Christakis’ email was not an affirmation of their maturity and independence, a gentle riposte to the hypermanagement of young adult lives. It signified nothing less than a naked endorsement of white supremacy. “In your email, you ask students to ‘look away’ if costumes are offensive, as if the degradation of our cultures and people, and the violence that grows out of it is something that we can ignore,” over 700 students, faculty, and alumni declared in an open letter, which, like every argument attacking Christakis’ email, operated under the false supposition that racist Halloween costumes were a perennial problem on the New Haven campus. (Adding fuel to the fire around this time were dubious accusations, later found to be wholly without evidence, that a fraternity had turned away African-American women from a “white girls only” party.) When Christakis’ husband, Nicholas, the master of Silliman, encountered a group of about 100 mostly ethnic-minority students in the residential college quad, an impromptu debate erupted over the merits of his wife’s email. After demanding that he apologize on her behalf, Nicholas responded, “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.” In the now-infamous 81-second video that captured the zenith of the roughly hourlong encounter, a female student is seen calling Christakis “disgusting” and shouting, “Who the fuck hired you?” before storming off in tears.
A few days later, 1,000 Yale students participated in a “March of Resilience” against what one undergraduate described as an “inhospitable climate for people of color on campus.” This was followed by a group of 200 students descending upon Yale University President Peter Salovey’s house, where they delivered a list of “demands” including, inter alia, requiring all undergraduates to fulfill coursework in ethnic studies; that “mental health professionals” be seconded to the university’s four cultural centers (whose individual budgets must each be increased $2 million per annum); that the title of “master” be abolished; and that Nicholas and Erika Christakis be removed from their positions as master and associate master, respectively, of Silliman College.
As these events transpired, I wrote an essay for Tablet magazine concluding that the university, my alma mater, would do a disservice to its students if it lent the impression that their behavior—interrogating professors as if they were murder suspects, issuing “demands” on account of unfounded accusations that Yale is an inherently “racist” institution—was in any way acceptable. “If the administration is truly committed to equipping young people for the real world and not a chimerical fantasyland where they never have to hear something disagreeable,” I wrote then, “the best thing it could do, both for their sake and Yale’s sacred mission, is tell them to grow up.” Unfortunately, over the past year, Yale has failed to fulfill that mission.
Despite endless opportunities to do so, Yale has gone out of its way to avoid addressing the nub of the matter: how so many of its charges have been conditioned into thinking that a retort to administrative busybodies constitutes racism. In an email to undergraduates the very day after a student mob berated Nicholas Christakis for defending his wife, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway expressed his “unambiguous” support for the Intercultural Affairs Committee Halloween costume guidelines, which, while perhaps “off-putting or even pedantic,” were nonetheless and at the same time “exactly right.” Two weeks after the campuswide protest, the university largely acceded to student demands, announcing a doubling in funding for the cultural-center budgets and racial-sensitivity training for administrators and faculty. Come April, Salovey announced Yale would do away with the title “master” because it “carries a painful and unwelcome connotation,” presumably not unlike Jewish students being forced to address someone as oberführer. This, in spite of the term’s Latin origins, legacy in the Oxbridge system on which Yale’s own was founded, and having absolutely nothing at all to do with American slavery. As for the Christakises? While President Salovey offered perfunctory statements of support for them, by December, Erika had decided to resign her future teaching obligations and Nicholas announced his decision to take a sabbatical for the upcoming spring semester. In May, the two resigned their posts at Silliman College.
The fault for this outcome lies squarely with the Yale administration, which over the past year has attempted to maintain two mutually exclusive positions: coddling its students while half-heartedly defending the Christakises. Ultimately, however, either the protesting students were behaving inappropriately and venting illegitimate expectations, or the Christakises were indeed the heartless racists they were made out to be. Because Yale was never willing to treat its students like adults and read them the riot act, it sent the message that their alleged grievances against the university and the Christakises were valid, thus making the couple’s position untenable.
No doubt rendered anxious by the generally perturbed reaction from bewildered and outraged alumni, the Yale administration has tried to sweep this entire sorry state of affairs under the rug, claiming that the infamous video and other examples of censorious student behavior were “taken out of context” and did not accurately portray the real tenor of campus protest. In an interview last fall with The New Yorker, Dean Holloway asserted that students angry over the Christakis email were not “questioning the rights of free speech” but rather voicing displeasure at “this incredible pain and frustration related to the issue of being constantly marginalized.” When I returned to New Haven this past summer for my 10th reunion, I heard President Salovey say much the same, telling alumni that a sensationalist media had distorted what happened the previous fall in order to fit a predetermined storyline of politically correct students waging war on free speech. Last month, The New York Times reported that “there are plenty at Yale who believe the video narrowly and unfairly depicted the event to fit a narrative of so-called crybullies whining to be protected at the expense of others’ rights.” Matthew Frye Jacobson, a professor of American studies, history, and African-American studies, insisted to the paper that the resulting media storm was “a complete misconstruction of what happened.” He described the series of events thusly: “The cultural-affairs committee made its statement about Halloween costumes. The Christakises critiqued that; the students critiqued them. Then everyone in the world criticized the students. From beginning to end, it was never a matter of free speech.” Among other things, this retelling conveniently leaves out the last part of the saga, namely, the students who “demanded” the “immediate removal” of the Christakises from their positions.
This historical revisionism was promoted again this month in a thoroughly dishonest Times op-ed by Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science. Sleeper is a former columnist for the New York Daily News who used to write interesting things about race, but for the past two decades has mostly penned diatribes for obscure online outlets wherein he invariably reproaches his adversaries for traducing a set of never-defined “civic republican” values (a Google search of his name and this phrase turns up more than 2,700 results). I should know, having been termed a “fedayeen Uncle Sam” and purveyor of “neo-Stalinism” by Sleeper my freshman year. For some reason, the Times’ op-ed editors allowed Sleeper to accuse the man who recorded the video in the Silliman quad, Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), of being part of a right-wing conspiracy to destroy liberal education. “If anything,” Sleeper accuses, “the real threat to free inquiry isn’t students, but that same market imperative that First Amendment defenders claim to hold dear.” Sleeper never seriously addresses the behavior of the students, preferring instead to attack FIRE for serving unnamed “mercenary and ideological agendas.” More grievously, he falsely asserted that Lukianoff identified the screaming girl in the video, who was later subjected to death threats, when, in fact, it had been the conservative Daily Caller that had done so. (As Lukianoff pointed out in a response to Sleeper’s slander, “few have done more to spread the identity of the young woman in the Yale video than Jim Sleeper, who has repeatedly linked to reports that include her name.”)
Lest there be any doubt that the one-minute, 21-second video made famous last fall did not accurately convey the confrontation between a Yale professor and his students, consider the following 25-minute-long recording of the events that transpired immediately beforehand. To my knowledge, these videos—revealed to me by a source on the Yale campus—have not been publicized by any media outlet.
What these videos show is that, far from being some sort of outlier among the protesting Yalies, the childish hysteria displayed by the shrieking student in the original video was only slightly more intemperate than the behavior of her peers; indeed, another student (at around 3:00 in Part IV) can be seen calling Christakis “disgusting” to his face just moments before the young woman who became infamous across the country and around the world screamed the same thing.
Nor are Yalies outliers among college students nationally. A recent Knight Foundation survey on campus attitudes to free speech finds that the kids are anything but all right: 27 percent of college students believe administrations should restrict “offensive” political speech, 63 percent favor schools banning costumes, and half believe that news reporting on campus protests should be prohibited. Another poll conducted last year, meanwhile, found that more than half of all students nationwide support campus speech codes.
In June, the Times asked Nicholas Christakis to write a piece on the subject of “teaching inclusion in a divided world.” What he wrote was a simple endorsement of Yale’s mission to bring “light and truth” unto the world. “We must demonstrate that we cannot be a community of searchers and learners if we do not share the same principles at the core of our universities,” Christakis wrote. “And so the faculty must cut at the root of a set of ideas that are wholly illiberal. Disagreement is not oppression. Argument is not assault. Words—even provocative or repugnant ones—are not violence. The answer to speech we do not like is more speech.” Reading these words now, it’s impossible not feel a sense of shame at how my alma mater betrayed not only Erika and Nicholas Christakis, but itself.