Yale Couple Flees Classroom Amid Free Speech Chill

8 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Campus political correctness is no threat, it’s a wish for a better future.

Students at Princeton, the University of Oregon, the University of Maryland and more have demanded the names of racists and slaveholders be wiped from campus buildings and programs. A Yale University faculty member who sparked protests when she said students should be free to push boundaries with Halloween costumes, even to the point of offense, resigned from her teaching position, the school announced Monday. “Her teaching is highly valued and she is welcome to resume teaching anytime at Yale, where freedom of expression and academic inquiry are the paramount principle and practice,” the school said.

A Yale professor who argued for students’ right to wear culturally insensitive Halloween costumes and triggered outcry on campus has announced her intentions to resign from teaching at the university.Anti-free speech demonstrators at one of America’s most vaunted universities have claimed a pair of scalps – a husband-wife duo who say teaching is too much trouble in a campus climate “not conducive to civil dialogue.” Yale University professors Nicholas and Erika Christakis, who both have always gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews from students, said they have had enough, after an email she sent sparked a campus-wide controversy that soon pulled him in. “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,” she said in an email to The Washington Post. “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.” The affair began in October, when Erika Christakis, a psychology professor and associate master at the school’s Silliman College, one of a dozen residential communities, sent out an email defending the right of students to wear costumes which may be “culturally appropriating.” That spurred outrage and led to one student confronting Nicholas Christakis on the campus quad and berating him in a shocking episode that was caught on video that soon went viral.

In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, Yale University students and faculty rally to demand that Yale University become more inclusive to all students on Cross Campus in New Haven, Conn. Christakis came under attack in October for her response to a request from the Intercultural Affairs Committee that students avoid wearing racially insensitive costumes, such as Native American headgear, turbans or blackface.

Erika Christakis made a “voluntary decision not to teach in the future,” according to a statement from the university obtained by The New York Times on Monday. The video showed Nicholas Christakis, a physician and professor of social and natural science, calmly trying to reason with a student who was screaming at him for not keeping students “safe,” as others snapped their fingers in a trendy sign of approval. At schools including Michigan and Yale, students say the protests that led to the resignation of Missouri President Tim Wolfe are emboldening them to take a harder line. Nicholas Christakis, her husband and a professor of sociology who defended her argument, also announced that he will go on sabbatical for one semester.

The school also has been dealing with criticism over a residential hall named after John Calhoun, a prominent slave-owning politician, questions about how minorities are treated on campus and allegations that a woman was turned away from a fraternity party because she was not white. The zeal with which students have called for these changes—and their surprising success—is reminiscent of the debate over the Confederate flag in the wake of the Charleston shootings this summer. Hundreds of members of the Yale community called for her resignation after her email, in which she wrote, “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience. Initial calls to ban the flag were met with resistance, but were quickly overcome by a swelling tide of voices both online and in real life demanding the flag be outlawed and removed.

Increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.” Recently, more than 60 Yale faculty members issued an open letter defending Christakis, saying that of all the university’s values, “none is more central than the value of free expression of ideas.” The university’s President Peter Salovey also defended her, and said last month that he and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway “fully support” both Christakises commitment to serving the college. It read in part: “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?…Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.” Christakis’ email (as well as a reportedly racially charged incident at a frat party on campus) sparked protests and outcry over racial insensitivity at the school. Many of the students at schools where protesters are now calling for equality spend the majority of every day teasing ideas out of texts assigned by professors who have devoted their lives to chasing abstractions. By generating a conception of what our world could be, we believe, we might defy the status quo, buck the momentum of centuries of flawed civilization and move in a different direction.

But in the case of the events at Yale, for example, it was a seemingly well-intentioned letter to a college of students that precipitated the eruption of what has turned into a bitter argument over cultural sensitivity and exclusion. It argues that by sheltering students from “dissenting” views (lately, code for racism), universities are inhibiting students from developing critical thinking skills, making them into “illiberal” ideologues. A line from a recent open letter to Cornell University illustrates this anxiety to a tee: “We are now raising a generation of coddled, narcissistic, self-absorbed, thin-skinned young people, permanent ‘victims,’ who will be ill-equipped to function effectively in the real world outside the shelter of the academy,” Cornell alum Lee Bender wrote. It reduces the students to selfish automatons, devoid of perspective and the ability to think freely, when there is no proof that these students are any less prepared to go out into the world and thrive as they fight for what they believe in.

Additionally, in its paternalistic concern, the argument dismisses the symbolic statement students are making by refusing “free speech” as a justification for disrespectful behavior and inequality. Trigger warnings, which arose on feminist blogs in the 2000s as a way to forewarn readers of potentially upsetting content, have been the target of this argument in the past. A trigger warning “not only indicates that the content that follows is about rape, but signals that the narrator is asserting her narrative into a feminist space.” This operates as a signal of respect for others in the space and an acknowledgement of the effects and reality of trauma. Finally, Friedersdorf notes that “what happens at Yale does not stay there,” referencing the fact that Yale students go on to become world leaders and guide research in their fields.

That’s why it’s important, contrary to the prescription that Yale stop coddling these students, that Yale support their ability to imagine the world as it should be by encouraging them to be socially responsible in addition to thinking freely.

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