Yale’s Nakanishi Prize is awarded every spring to “two graduating seniors who, while maintaining high academic achievement, have provided exemplary leadership in enhancing race and/or ethnic relations at Yale College.” Normally, the bestowal of an undergraduate award, even at an august institution like Yale, is of interest to no one beyond the recipients, their classmates, and their families. This year’s prize, however, should trouble anyone concerned with the imperiled fate of free inquiry and rational dialogue at our nation’s institutions of higher learning: on May 21, Yale recognized—out of a graduating class of some 1,300—two individuals who did more than most of their peers to worsen race relations on campus.
Our story begins in the fall of 2015, when a mob of students surrounded professor Nicholas Christakis in the courtyard of Silliman, the residential college of which he used to be Master, a term used to describe head faculty members who oversee undergraduate life (more on this later). Christakis, a world-renowned sociologist and scientist, was there to answer complaints about an email sent by his wife, Erika, in response to a campus-wide message distributed by a Yale College dean of “student engagement,” Burgwell Howard, warning students away from wearing Halloween costumes that “threaten our sense of community.” For her mere suggestion that Yale undergraduates—adults who can legally vote and fight and die in the nation’s wars—be entrusted with the responsibility to choose their own Halloween costumes (and, furthermore, be entrusted to share whatever discomfort they may have about potentially “offensive” costumes with their peers, rather than encouraged to whine to overpaid, utterly superfluous, administrative busybodies), Erika Christakis was denounced by hundreds of Yale students, faculty, alumni, and countless off-campus agitators as an incorrigible bigot and “white supremacist” whose job should be taken from her.
But Nicholas Christakis was doing more than just defending the honor of his wife that afternoon in the Silliman courtyard. As video of the several hours-long ordeal revealed, Christakis was defending the most fundamental principle of higher education: that the university should serve as a place of free inquiry where individuals can respectfully engage with one another in the pursuit of knowledge.
At least, that’s what places like Yale claim to stand for. Not anymore.
Of the 100 or so students who confronted Christakis that day, a young woman who called him “disgusting” and shouted “who the fuck hired you?” before storming off in tears became the most infamous, thanks to an 81-second YouTube clip that went viral. (The video also—thanks to its promotion by various right-wing websites—brought this student a torrent of anonymous harassment). The videos that Tablet exclusively posted last year, which showed a further 25 minutes of what was ultimately an hours-long confrontation, depicted a procession of students berating Christakis. In one clip, a male student strides up to Christakis and, standing mere inches from his face, orders the professor to “look at me.” Assuming this position of physical intimidation, the student then proceeds to declare that Christakis is incapable of understanding what he and his classmates are feeling because Christakis is white, and, ipso facto, cannot be a victim of racism. In another clip, a female student accuses Christakis of “strip[ping] people of their humanity” and “creat[ing] a space for violence to happen,” a line later mocked in an episode of The Simpsons. In the videos, Howard, the dean who wrote the costume provisions, can be seen lurking along the periphery of the mob.
Of Yale’s graduating class, it was these two students whom the Nakanishi Prize selection committee deemed most deserving of a prize for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” on campus. Hectoring bullies quick to throw baseless accusations of racism or worse; cosseted brats unscrupulous in their determination to smear the reputations of good people, these individuals in actuality represent the antithesis of everything this award is intended to honor. Yet, in the citation that was read to all the graduating seniors and their families on Class Day, Yale praised the latter student as “a fierce truthteller.”
This, for a hysterical liar who accused one of the university’s most distinguished academic minds of inciting “violence” upon his own students. And the chair of the selection committee? Burgwell Howard.
The Orwellian veneration of racial agitators as racial conciliators is the logical conclusion of Yale’s craven capitulation to the hard left forces of identitarian groupthink. From the very beginning of this ordeal, the Yale administration refused to state some simple but necessary truths: that the missive Erika Christakis wrote was entirely appropriate; that the “demands” issued by protesting students (such as an “ethnic studies distributional requirement”) were ridiculous; and, most important of all, that the rude and insubordinate treatment to which Nicholas Christakis was subjected rose to the level of a disciplinary offense. (It was not so long ago that mobbing a professor, physically threatening him, and screaming in his face, for hours, would result in expulsion).
But Yale’s spineless leaders were never willing to say these things. The reason is not just due to the fact that they have themselves imbibed so many of the shibboleths about “intersectionality” and “structural racism” spouted like dogma by their students. It’s also because the relationship between the university and its charges is no longer that of a Master-student one (and not only because the title of “Master” has been eliminated on the spurious grounds that it is offensive to African Americans). Instead, as revealed in a devastating documentary about the Christakis imbroglio produced by Rob Montz, the relationship is better defined as employee-client, with the main function of a place like Yale no longer being the provision of a liberal education but rather a comfortable, indeed, luxurious four-year “experience” that prepares paying customers for admission into the professional upper-middle-class managerial elite. Indeed, the real root of the Halloween costume controversy can be traced back to before the Christakises even entered the picture, with the original, entirely unnecessary, prophylactic email sent by Howard, which, in its patronizing admonition to students against donning racist Halloween costumes—something that had never caused any sort of controversy at Yale—treated the entire student body as if it were the freshman pledge class of an historically racist fraternity at some deep south state university.
What Yale ought to have done, as I wrote back when the original conflagration surfaced in November 2015, was instruct its students to “grow up.” Because the university failed to do this, thereby offering its implicit endorsement of the scurrilous charges hurled against two well-regarded members of its faculty, Nicholas Christakis eventually resigned as Master of Silliman College and his wife quit teaching at Yale altogether. And now, to add insult to injury, Yale has decided to award their tormentors as paragons of communal healing. It is a fittingly disgraceful coda to one of the most disgusting chapters in Yale’s recent history.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.