I just learned this morning via a report on Inside Higher Ed that Erika Christakis, the associate master of one of Yale University’s residential colleges, has decided to stop teaching at the university, in part because of the continuing controversy over an email message she sent about Halloween costumes. Although some students have demanded her ouster from her position in the residential college as well as from teaching, she is not leaving the position at the residential college, where her husband is the master. (Yale is currently considering renaming these positions, which are similar to the position of residence hall adviser at other institutions.)
In a previous post on this blog I argued that the controversy over Christakis’s Halloween email “was not mainly about free expression.” My post noted that “[t]his 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.” And while I suggested that, given these facts, removal of the Christakises from their master positions might be justified, I thought it unlikely. (I also privately thought it probably unwise, but didn’t then and don’t now know enough about the case to formulate an informed view.)
However, I hastened to add that “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.” Beyond that I argued that a proposed draft of “Review Procedures for Complaints about Violations of the Standards of Faculty Conduct” raised serious concerns that such administrative actions might soon be much easier to take at Yale.
Now this fear may have become reality. And while I still believe that the Halloween controversy was more about concerns over racial insensitivity than free speech, I find news of Erika Christakis’s resignation deeply troubling. In an email to the Washington Post, she wrote: “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.” To be sure, Yale’s administration has publicly declared its support for the Christakises and pledged that it would take no disciplinary action against either of them, but Erika’s resignation from her teaching position (as a non-tenured lecturer) cannot help but raise concern that the administration’s behavior behind the scenes might have been less supportive than its public stance.
Douglas Stone, a professor of physics at Yale, told media that Christakis’s resignation from teaching was “a very disturbing development. Last year,” he wrote,
Erika Christakis’s classes were shopped by over 300 students and many who wished to take them were turned away. She has received truly exceptional teaching evaluations. This year she planned to teach additional sections to handle the demand. The attacks she has received, not just on her ideas, but on her character and integrity, have led to the decision not to teach …. Those who mounted the campaign against her have significantly reduced educational choice for all Yale undergrads.
“Several undergraduates have told me in conversation or by email that they feel scared to express their honest opinions relating to current events that have raised racial issues because of the likely negative and aggressive response of peers,” Stone added, suggesting that there may be “substantial barriers to free exchange of views on these issues at Yale in the current climate.”
I cannot, from a continent away (I live in California) and with no connection at all to the Yale campus judge the extent to which Stone’s concern is justified, but in any event Christakis’s resignation from teaching surely suggests a problematic situation. Corey Robin, a prominent political scientist at CUNY and blogger of decidedly left-wing views, shares this view and put it well in a statement he circulated on Twitter. After noting his own “ambivalence” about whether or not the Christakises should retain their master positions, Robin continues
I always drew a firm line, however, between being removed from the master position and being fired from the teaching position. But now Erika Christakis, who is a lecturer, has announced that she won’t be teaching come the spring. (Nicholas Christakis has tenure so he can’t be removed.) All the evidence suggests she is an excellent, popular teacher; the only reason she is stepping down is because of political views she has expressed in the public sphere. . . . Those views don’t compromise her teaching; we have no evidence of student complaints in that regard (indeed, she seems to be a popular teacher). I am not a free speech absolutist; I think there are grounds, highly circumscribed and carefully drawn, when someone’s speech may justify them being removed from a teaching position. I don’t think Christakis’s speech rises to that level. While I know that employment sanctions are used primarily against the left — and refuse to join the equivalence brigade that thinks that right and left are equally penalized by these sanctions or that offensive speech from the right is the same as provocative speech from the left, and that you can’t tell the difference between the two — I also know that there is no way that the left can escape unharmed from this kind of employment sanctions regime, that we will never be able to win free speech fights if we are perceived to be defenders only of speech from our side. Beyond these pragmatic concerns, I also believe strongly that a good society should not penalize people for their speech or beliefs by taking away their jobs (unless, as I said, their speech violates a fairly circumscribed set of norms), and while a left or good society will never be able to dispense with punishment, punishment is not our preferred approach to political problems. We’re nowhere near being a good society, but this may be one instance where we can nudge everyone a bit closer to that goal by insisting on that basic principle.
The principles of academic freedom as defined by the AAUP are also not founded on some sort of free speech absolutism. Teachers may be removed from the classroom for cause — in Robin’s terms, “highly circumscribed” criteria related to professional performance. But any such action should be taken only after a faculty member is provided with some sort of due process procedure and judged by a jury of her peers. (Of course, such protections are much stronger for those full-time faculty who have proven their professional qualifications through a probationary period of no more than seven years, whether or not this status is labeled tenure. However, even those with probationary or part-time status should, in most cases, be entitled to some sort of due process protection and must be judged solely on professional and disciplinary, not political or ideological, standards.)
Erika Christakis was teaching two seminars this fall: The Growing Child in Global Context and Concept of the Problem Child. An African-American junior enrolled in the latter class, told the Washington Post:
The concept of the problem child, and the global child, they’re very important topics, and Yale doesn’t have many classes on education and child development. To lose that is a very big detriment to students interested in these issues, and the class could have been getting better. And if she was learning from the events happening on campus, and if she went into it trying to make it better for all communities, that would have been better for her and better for the school in general.
It is not at all clear, of course, to what extent Erika Christakis’s resignation was truly voluntary. In principle, it was, of course, voluntary, and no one can force another to continue in a position they wish to resign. But sometimes formal dismissal procedures are unnecessary; an atmosphere of intolerance and fear may well be sufficient to remove someone who has become a lightning rod for criticism. Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociologist who runs his own lab at the university, said he will take a sabbatical in spring 2016 and thus not teach his popular lecture, Health of the Public. He said he is not teaching next semester so that he can focus on his laboratory research and on the needs of students in Silliman. Of course, as Robin notes parenthetically, Nicholas has tenure, Erika does not. This critical contrast further highlights what I have argued elsewhere is the principal challenge to academic freedom today, the erosion of tenure and the emergence of a two-tier faculty. As a lecturer, I suppose, Erika doesn’t have the luxury of taking a sabbatical. But one can only hope that after a semester off she will be willing and allowed to resume her teaching nevertheless.