The Slatest

Yale Students Erupt in Anger Over Administrators Caring More About Free Speech Than Safe Spaces

The Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut.

Photo by Christopher Capozziello/Getty Images

An email about offensive Halloween costumes has thrown Yale’s campus into tumult, sparking distressed debate around free speech, safe spaces, and the treatment of minority students. On Thursday, tensions boiled over in the confrontation below, in which a crowd of students encircles the Master of Silliman, one of Yale’s residential houses, and calls for his resignation. (According to the Washington Post, some Yalies are also demanding that the administrator’s wife step down from her position as Associate Master of Silliman.)

“It is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman … Do you understand that?” one student shouts at Master Nicholas Christakis, after yelling at him to “be quiet” when he tries to speak. “Why the fuck did you accept the position? Who the fuck hired you?” When Christakis begins to argue, she interrupts: “Then step down! If that is what you think about being a Master, then you should step down. It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here! You are not doing that. You’re going against that.”

How did this happen? On Wednesday, Oct. 28, Yale College Dean Burgwell Howard sent out an email to the entire student body asking Halloween-goers to be sensitive to the cultural implications of their costumes. Though Burgwell defended students’ “right to express themselves,” he encouraged them to “actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespect, alienate or ridicule segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.” The lengthy email—replete with suggestions for inoffensive costumes and links to information on various stereotypes—angered some Silliman students, who felt straightjacketed and condescended to and protested to both Nicholas Christakis and his wife Erika. Erika Christakis, a child development researcher, sent out a response shortly after midnight on Friday, Oct. 30.

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.

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.

A new group of students, who presumably welcomed Dean Howard’s note about Halloween sensitivity, interpreted Christakis’ message as evidence of a persistent racial blind spot on campus. It did not help that members of a Yale fraternity allegedly turned away black women at a party that Friday. (Nor that prominent black critic Elizabeth Alexander is decamping for Columbia, which has put the diversity of Yale’s faculty under heightened scrutiny.) More than 740 members of the Yale community—from undergrads to alumni to professors—penned an open letter “telling Christakis that her ‘offensive’ email invalidate[d] the voices of minority students on campus,” according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Torch blog. The following Thursday, several hundred students gathered outside Yale’s main library to illustrate their frustration with the university’s racial politics in chalk.

That’s when things started to get really heated. Jonathan Holloway, Yale’s first black dean, appeared at the protest and was quickly surrounded. In a three-hour confrontation, students demanded to know why he had not yet written an email condemning the allegedly racist fraternity. “As a black man, you know where we come from,” said student Ron Tricoche, according to the Washington Post. “You need to act, whether it’s with Yale or without Yale.”

Next, a group of roughly 100 students convened in the Silliman courtyard to hold Nicholas and Erika Christakis to account. When Nicholas emerged to listen to students’ views, but also to defend his wife’s email, he was engulfed in angry shouting. Realizing that Christakis would not apologize for his stance on free speech, one student urged the others to just “walk away” because “he doesn’t deserve to be listened to.”  

I was shocked to watch students treat their professors and administrators with such disrespect. But horrified emotional responses aside, it’s troubling to see the Christakises scapegoated for defending the crucial liberal tradition of free speech. That’s not to dismiss the pain of students of color; I’m sure Yale proves far less hospitable to them than to the wealthy white scions it was founded to serve. Nor should anyone mourn the days of good old college fun, when wearing a racist Halloween costume was considered a harmless bit of white wing-spreading. But in censuring the Christakises for wanting to create “an intellectual space,” students are vociferously exercising the very rights—to speak out against people and practices they find objectionable—that the Christakises seem to want to protect.