Racism and Academic Freedom at Yale

Yesterday’s stunning events at the University of Missouri must be viewed in the context of a much broader movement, led by minority students, to confront persistent racism at many college and university campuses. Even as the movement at Missouri was gathering steam, a similar conflict was brewing at one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious institutions, Yale University.

Things came to a head after Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee, which is comprised of many of Yale’s religious and cultural group leaders, sent an email October 28 to Yale students urging them to be culturally sensitive in choosing Halloween costumes. The email, however, threatened no disciplinary measures for insensitivity. Erika Christakis, a faculty member and Associate Master of Yale’s Silliman College (more shortly on the role of “masters” at Yale), responded with an email to students in that college questioning the need to exercise “implied control” over students’ choice of dress:

Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense — and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes — I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?

Hundreds of Yale students soon signed an open letter to Christakis taking issue with her analysis. “The contents of your email were jarring and disheartening,” the open letter said,

Your email equates old traditions of using harmful stereotypes and tropes to further degrade marginalized people, to preschoolers playing make-believe. This both trivializes the harm done by these tropes and infantilizes the student body to which the request was made. You fail to distinguish the difference between playing fictional characters and misrepresenting actual groups of people. 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. We were told to meet the offensive parties head-on, without suggesting any modes or means to facilitate these discussions to promote understanding. Giving ‘room’ for students to be ‘obnoxious’ or ‘offensive,’ as you suggest, is only inviting ridicule and violence onto ourselves and our communities, and ultimately comes at the expense of room in which marginalized students can feel safe.

One group of angry students confronted the Silliman Master, Nicholas Christakis, Erika’s husband, and demanded a retraction. Instead, Christakis stood his ground and defended his wife’s message. The exchange grew heated and was captured on video by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) head Greg Lukianoff, who happened to be on campus. The video went viral and soon accusations of “political correctness” and censorship spread like wildfire and the issue in the eyes of many became not one of cultural sensitivity but of free speech. A blog post by FIRE commented:

Yale students have every right to express their anger and frustration with Yale faculty. But FIRE is concerned by yet another unfortunate example of students who demand upsetting opinions be entirely eradicated from the university in the name of fostering ‘safe spaces’ where students are protected from hurt feelings. Practicing free speech does not merely entail the right to protest opinions you object to — it also means acknowledging people’s right to hold those opinions in the first place.

But was this really a question of free speech? As we’ll see, there are serious concerns to be raised about the extent of academic freedom at Yale, but it seems to me that this incident was not mainly about free expression. Indeed, in many ways a focus on free speech may distract us from more profound issues of racial insensitivity and bias — but also from more ominous threats to academic freedom — at Yale.

This might have been a different matter had Erika Christakis written an op-ed piece or, as both she and her husband later did, simply sent out personal messages via Facebook or Twitter. But Erika’s email was sent in her official capacity as Associate Master to an email list to which only she and her husband, and not the college’s students, had access. Here it is important to understand the peculiar role played by masters in Yale’s system of residential colleges. The editor of the Yale Herald explains:

The role of master is distinct from that of professor. While each residential college has a dean, who functions as the college’s chief academic advisor, the master’s role is one of community leader. The Yale College website reads, “[The master] is responsible for the physical well being and safety of students in the residential college, as well as for fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college.” The University touts the communal environment enabled by masters as a major draw for prospective students.

Masters are individuals, and as such have a right to voice their opinions. But Associate Master Christakis’ message is tainted by her decision to email it directly to all Silliman students—an email list to which she has access through her administrative role in the college. She could have published these thoughts on a personal blog or in a publication. She chose not to.

Hence, the editor concludes:

Nicholas and Erika Christakis have an undisputed right to free speech. No one has argued that they, as individuals, should not. But students have exercised their own free speech in speaking against the way Master and Associate Master Christakis have treated their office. This incident is not analogous to a professor offering an unpopular view, or a controversial speaker coming to campus.

This seems about right to me, but there is a wrinkle to the story that does indeed involve academic freedom. Some of the students confronting Nicholas Christakis demanded — in strident terms — that he and his wife be fired. Now, since as Masters the two serve as administrators it is not inconceivable that they could face some sort of disciplinary action related to that status, although I suspect this may be unlikely. But there is good reason to fear that calls for their dismissal could extend to their faculty status as well. After all, it would not be the first time that a beleaguered administration sought to deflect criticism by singling out a faculty scapegoat or two.

And that’s where things might get dicey. Earlier this year Yale adopted a new policy on Standards of Faculty Conduct. These standards are divided into three sets: those regarding teaching and training, scholarship and professional conduct, and colleagues and the university. Each set poses underlying ethical principles and derivative examples of conduct “inconsistent” with those principles. The teaching and training section stresses the “integrity of the teacher-student relationship,” and says that professors should treat students with respect and evaluate them by their intellectual merits and work alone. Professors maintain “proper professional boundaries and never exploit the unequal institutional power inherent in the relationship” between them and their students and trainees, it adds.

The section also prohibits discrimination against students for their politics and a variety of protected identities, and “deliberate use of the position of powers of a faculty member to coerce, exploit, intimidate or harm” a student. The policy states that by “freely associating themselves with the university, members of the faculty affirm their commitment to a philosophy of mutual tolerance and respect,” and that faculty members have “the right and obligation to criticize their colleagues, staff members and the university, but they endeavor to do so without personal animus and without seeking to intimidate or coerce.”

When first proposed these standards raised some serious concerns about academic freedom. In an email to insidehighered.com, I called the standards “overly broad and vague, as well as largely unnecessary,” adding:

Certainly tolerance and respect are to be encouraged, but must signing a contract with Yale commit a faculty member to such a broad ‘philosophy’? This is similar to calls for ‘civility,’ a quality that no doubt is desirable and worthy of encouragement, but one that should not and cannot be mandated.

Many of the examples of negative behaviors noted in the policy are legitimate concerns, I acknowledged, but, because they’re offered as illustrations of much broader and imprecisely worded principles, they don’t offer much in the way of guidance and are too open to varied and even arbitrary interpretation. That’s underscored by the lack of reference to academic freedom, shared governance or due process for those accused of violating the principles anywhere in the conduct code.

Among several Yale faculty members who criticized the draft policy was Glenda Gilmore, the Peter V. & C. Vann Woodward Professor of History. “This document is one of the strangest disciplinary procedures I have ever seen,” she said. “I have seen documents from peer institutions that provide much more detail about faculty discipline codes, and documents that are about shared commitment to ethical standards. But this appears to be the administration’s attempt to draw lines without telling what will happen to us when we cross them.”

Now that the policy, largely unchanged from the initial draft, has been added to the faculty handbook, the Yale administration has begun to address Professor Gilmore’s concern. And she’s understandably not very happy with their approach. In an op-ed piece in the Yale Daily News, published just a day before the first Halloween email went out, she criticized a proposed draft of “Review Procedures for Complaints about Violations of the Standards of Faculty Conduct.” She wrote:

The new procedures outline the rules for hearings of faculty members who violate the Standards of Faculty Conduct recently incorporated in the Faculty Handbook. Those standards are capacious enough to invite complaints against faculty for failing to hold office hours as scheduled, being late with a letter of recommendation, breaking a departmental rule, intimidating a colleague, shirking committee responsibilities or publicly demonstrating or speaking in a way that disrupts the “orderly conduct of a University function or activity.” Anyone connected with Yale — student, staff member, administrator or post-doctoral trainee — is allowed to file a complaint.

Equally important, Gilmore faulted the proposed procedures for their failure to provide even the most elementary protections of due process:

The Procedures violate basic constitutional rights to due process, including the active role of counsel at hearings, the accused’s right to hear and question witnesses, timely hearings, fair appeals, double jeopardy, equal justice and a jury chosen by a process untainted by bias.

Under the current Procedures, deans across the University, untrained in evidentiary standards and judicial fairness, may both initiate trials and ultimately judge them. Deans may bring complaints themselves and then overturn the Faculty Review Panel’s findings. The same deans appoint the Faculty Review Panel, which acts as prosecutor, judge and jury. The dean chooses the Panel from a pool appointed by the provost. If the accused faculty member objects to anyone on the panel, the dean may overrule the accused’s objection. The accused may have an “adviser,” but the adviser has no guaranteed right to speak.

The Panel, but not the accused, has a right to procure and review confidential University documents concerning the accused. The Panel may call witnesses. The accused may propose witnesses, but the Panel does not have an obligation to call them. The Panel decides on “clear and convincing evidence,” but has no training in evidentiary standards.

The Panel has the explicit right to exclude the accused from its examination of witnesses against the accused, who has no right to hear or read their testimony. There is no right to or provision for a written transcript of the proceedings. The entire trial may last three months, or even six months, if summer intervenes.

Upon receipt of the Panel’s findings, the dean may ask for more evidence, which again, the accused has no right to review. The dean may then overturn the Panel’s findings and/or punishment recommendations. There is no mechanism by which the accused can introduce evidence on the comparative past discipline of others similarly accused, propagating unequal punishment across the faculty.

As an historian of the Soviet Union, I am reminded here of the Stalinist show trials, although thankfully with far less grave potential consequences for the accused.

But my question now is what will happen if an aggrieved student brings charges under the faculty Standards of Conduct against Erika or Nicholas Christakis in their capacities not as Master and Associate Master of Silliman College, that is, as administrators, but as members of the Yale faculty? Can anyone say?

Which brings me back to the issue of “cultural insensitivity” and racism underlying the dispute. Now let me acknowledge that as something of an old fuddy-duddy I still think of Halloween as a holiday for children and look askance at the spreading custom of adults — and Yale students are adults — dressing in costume. But if they are to do so, I for one would urge that they dress as imaginary scary creatures and not as real humans whose life experiences may differ from theirs. Unfortunately, too many college students have a different view. Campus Halloween parties frequently ignite racial tensions, with some students using blackface or racially oriented costumes in ways that offend. Just this year white students at the University of Wisconsin at Stout dressed in blackface as members of the Jamaican bobsled team.

Moreover, the controversy over the Christakis email was not the only Halloween incident attracting attention at Yale. Allegations that members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity barred minority women from attending a Halloween party, telling them that “white girls only” were wanted there, also roiled the campus. Some SAE members have denied the charges, but they resonated with many because of the large number of racist incidents nationally involving SAE chapters.

Whatever happened at SAE, it is clear that minority students at Yale have been accumulating legitimate complaints for some time. Here is what one of them, Aaron Z. Lewis, wrote:

[T]he protests are not really about Halloween costumes or a frat party. They’re about a mismatch between the Yale we find in admissions brochures and the Yale we experience every day. They’re about real experiences with racism on this campus that have gone unacknowledged for far too long. The university sells itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it often isn’t. . . .

On Wednesday night, I sat in the Afro-American Cultural Center with several hundred students and listened to people of color share their stories. For three hours, my friends spoke out about the racial discrimination they’ve experienced at Yale — in and out of the classroom. Many people (especially women of color) said they feel physically and psychologically unsafe here. . . .

Last year, there were swastikas found outside a freshman dorm. The Yale College Dean, Jonathan Holloway, sent an email to the entire student body condemning this “shameful defacement” within one day.

It took almost a full week for Yale’s president to formally acknowledge students’ legitimate concerns about racism and the incident at SAE. Here’s what happened while we waited for a sign of support from the administration.

Monday: Students were forced to reschedule an open forum about “cultural appropriation and the power of language” due to threats. The president remained silent.

Tuesday: Holloway declined to comment on the SAE incident, but the Dean of Student Engagement began an investigation.

Wednesday: Students shared hours and hours worth of stories about discrimination they’ve experienced on this campus at the rescheduled open forum. The president remained silent.

Thursday: Hundreds of students gathered in the middle of campus to share their experiences with Holloway, who was eventually moved to tears.

Not even one hour after this huge gathering, Yale’s president sent an email to the entire student body announcing the launch of a completely unrelated initiative. He remained silent on the topic of race. At night, 50 students met with the administration in the president’s office to discuss the issue of systematic racism at Yale. The president remained silent.

On Friday, we finally received a letter from the administration.

Lewis continued:

Students should not have to become community organizers just to receive acknowledgement and respect from their administrators. It’s disheartening to feel like so few people in power have your back. Yes, we are angry. We are tired. We are emotionally drained. We feel like we have to yell in order to make our voices heard. While the stories in the press are about this one particular week at Yale, we’ve been working toward solutions for years.

I’ve heard a lot of people dismiss this situation out of hand because Yale is a “place of privilege.” But if racial discrimination of any kind can happen at a place like this, then it’s certainly happening elsewhere in this country.

Yale students and faculty certainly have their hands full. But if among the issues they confront is the right to free expression, it would seem that the main threat to that right comes not from protesting minority students but from an administration that would appear at best to be inattentive to both the rights of their own faculty to free expression and due process and to the pressing concerns of their often beleaguered minority students.

12 thoughts on “Racism and Academic Freedom at Yale

  1. Hank makes some very good points about Yale’s disturbing policies for faculty. However, I worry that he (and the AAUP in general) tends to ignore the concept of academic freedom for administrators. I think we should be concerned about calls for administrators to be punished for sending out opinions as part of their official duties, whether it’s the administrator who was worried about offensive Halloween costumes or (in this case) the administrator who worried about students feeling so fearful of offending others. Academic freedom should be a basic value of a university, and not the property only of the faculty.

  2. Sending out personal opinions is not part of most administrators’ official duties; it certainly isn’t part of the official duties of a college master at Yale. And urging students to ignore advice from university religious leaders about being insensitive actually contradicts the functions of such a master. Had Christakis sent her email from a personal account and had she not employed an administrative email list available only to her (and to her husband) but not to any student who might have disagreed with her sentiments that would be a different matter. Moreover, the claim that those angered by Christakis’s email and her husband’s comments defending her were, by voicing their own views (however stridently), denying their freedom of expression seems ludicrous. One’s right to speak does not immunize one from criticism of what is said.

    My point is that the main danger to free expression at Yale comes not from student activists — who, after all, as students are entitled to a certain amount of leeway with respect to the maturity of their expression — but from a tone-deaf administration, one not that dissimilar to the Wolfe-Loftin administration at Missouri.

  3. Yale’s president took control of the entire process of faculty governance (not that the faculty appear to have minded much, cf. https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2014/01/15/yale-professors-move-create-faculty-senate) and it is thus no surprise that the administration would create its own kangaroo courts for the faculty as well. The committee that drafted the standards of conduct, like the committee which organized the faculty senate, was cherry-picked by the Yale administration. Somehow Yale faculty never learned that faculty governance requires faculty voting for their own representatives

    Until recently, Yale, like many of the other Ivies, had no tenure track for faculty appointments, either; assistant professors could expect a maximum of ten years of renewable appointments and then were expected to either compete with full professors at other institutions for a slot on the Yale faculty or to leave. Therefore, now that the university will be tenuring those whom it used to consider contingent faculty, in their eyes it makes sense to invent ways of “herding” those sheep.

    • An important addendum: Yale and other Ivies have violated the tenure standards of the AAUP’s 1940 Statement for decades, with AAUP leaders failing to initiate any censure, either for academic freedom or governance standards. So it is more than a little late for an AAUP Vice President to suddenly notice that there is no academic freedom at Yale.

      Faculty from Yale have been told by the AAUP national staff in the past that there is no recourse from the AAUP for violations of the tenure standards; the AAUP leadership simply accepts that the Ivies have a different path.

      Viewed from that angle, the Vice President’s voiced concerns are essential “baby steps” toward granting to Yale faculty the same rights in AAUP as faculty at the home institutions of the organization’s leadership. The history of AAUP censure bears out the observation that the organization has been less than equitable in the range of cases and institutions it formally chooses to investigate and censure.

      Faculty aggrieved at an institution where there are members of the AAUP administration on the faculty have an exponentially higher probability of being granted any serious review by the AAUP National Committee A — but only if the leadership of its AAUP-affiliated union has no objections. The AAUP national leadership has for decades respected a “noli me tangere” policy for affiliate unions in exchange for dues and agency fees. So much for academic freedom and good governance within the AAUP itself.

  4. I’m frustrated to see Aaron Lewis’s article cited as evidence of a pattern of systemic racism and administrative apathy at Yale. The only incident Lewis reports is the SAE “white girls only” claim, but he immediately goes on to say that what happened there is “not the point. For students of color, the incident is a symbol of the kind of racism that they deal with far too often on this campus.” No other examples of said racism are provided.

    I’m not really skeptical that such incidents have occurred at Yale; they are, sadly, a fairly typical feature of campus life at many U.S. universities. But without any particulars, it is impossible to judge the Christakises’ conduct, since a premise of their critics is that they failed to take into account the charged atmosphere created by such incidents.

    While the discovery of swastikas painted outside a dorm might seem to be another instance of a climate of racism at Yale, Lewis’s rhetoric actually suggests the opposite. When he notes that Dean Holloway “sent an email to the entire student body condemning this ‘shameful defacement’ within one day,” “one day” is italicized to emphasize the speed of this response in contrast to the lack of official response to the SAE incident: “It took almost a full week for Yale’s president to formally acknowledge students’ legitimate concerns about racism and the incident at SAE.” I’m not sure exactly what’s going on in Lewis’s mess of an article, but it sure seems like he’s drawing a distinction between Yale’s responses to anti-Semitism and to racism.

    • I did not cite the Lewis piece as evidence of a pattern of systemic racism; you are right, he does not demonstrate that. I quoted it instead as evidence of a weak administrative response to a series of complaints from minority students about their treatment at Yale. Whether that weakness stems from indifference, ineptitude, or ill will I cannot say. However, there can be little doubt that these complaints are far from rare and, whether justified or not (and like you I suspect many are justified), Yale administrators, faculty, and students need to address them. I’m confident that they can do so without suppressing the free exchange of ideas and opinions on campus.

      And it’s not really so hard to judge the conduct of the Chirkakises. Erika’s initial email was ill-advised, inappropriate for her position and the means (an official email list accessible only to administrators) by which she chose to distribute it, and not very helpful, which doesn’t necessarily mean she should be punished for it. Subsequent comments from her and her husband should, of course, be considered as protected free speech, but so too should the criticisms of them by students and others. And I, for one, am generally more willing to give inexperienced students a bit more leeway in their conduct than I am mature faculty members, especially those who accept specific responsibility for student welfare.

  5. People who paint swastikas on walls are anti-Semites, not racists. As a Jew, I am angered and disturbed by the cultural appropriation of a symbol used by people who hate me. This is a traumatizing misappropriation of the cultural legacy of hatred against my people. I demand a public apology from those who would claim to be vilified by those who vilify me, and I further demand that the administration commit that any non-Jewish person who claims to be traumatized by the use of such symbols be proceeded against and if need be fired.

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