The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Two Yale administrators at the center of a recent controversy over free expression and tolerance for contrasting viewpoints announced that they will not be teaching any courses in the spring. As Business Insider reported last week, Erika Christakis, whose email suggesting college students need not be told what sorts of Halloween costumes are or are not appropriate prompted angry protests from students, has decided not to teach at Yale any longer. Her husband, Nicholas Christakis, who also serves as the master of one of Yale's residential colleges, will be taking a sabbatical next semester instead of teaching his usual course.
In an email to The Post's Grade Point blog, Erika Christakis explained her decision: "I have great respect and affection for my students, but I worry that the current climate at Yale is not, in my view, conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems." Erika Christakis was a very popular teacher with overwhelmingly positive teaching reviews from students.
The Christakises' decisions are understandable but disappointing. President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway issued a general statement supporting the Christakises and free expression on campus, but it was apparently not enough. It is nonetheless reassuring that Yale issued an official statement reaffirming that the Christakises are "deeply valued members of the university community, and Yale looks forward to their ongoing contributions as scholars, educators, and citizens." It also expressly reaffirmed that Erika Christakis is "welcome to resume teaching anytime at Yale—where freedom of expression and academic inquiry are the paramount principle and practice—and has the encouragement of the university administration to do so."
Several dozen faculty had signed an open letter supporting the Christakises in stronger terms and reaffirming the importance of free expression and open inquiry on campus. This prompted an angry response from some students. As the Yale Daily News reported:
[S]tudents who disagree with this message have raised concerns that the 63 professors who signed the letter do not understand conversations taking place on campus. Many were especially concerned that the majority of those professors focus on STEM disciplines, arguing that faculty in those fields were especially unsympathetic to the plight of minority students on campus. Still, STEM professors interviewed largely expressed views similar to those reported by professors in other fields.
American studies major Olivier van Donselaar '17 wrote in a social media post that the signers of the open letter were out-of-touch with campus dialogue.
"The fact that the large majority of the faculty that signed this letter in support of the Christakises are in STEM just shows how far-removed from reality these people are," van Donselaar wrote. "Maybe we should require faculty to take an ethnic studies class too?"
I may have thought political correctness was bad when I was at Yale 25 years ago. It's hard to believe how much worse things appear to have become. Recall that students recently protested a forum on free speech. Some of the protesters even spit on event organizers, and the university took no disciplinary action.
University officials may claim to support free speech, but it's not entirely sure that message has been heard throughout the campus.
UPDATE: Stanley Kurtz has a plan to restore a culture of free expression within universities(as defined by Yale's own Woodward Report). Like Ashe Schow, I have misgivings about point four, but it's a good start and represents the sort of discussions that should now be occurring at liberal institutions of higher education.