Yale Professors Sign Open Letter Defending Professors in Name of Free Speech

Yale Professors Sign Open Letter Defending Professors in Name of Free Speech
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

The culture wars at Yale are showing no signs of letting up, with dozens of professors rallying to defend two of their colleagues who have been pressured by activists to resign for their stance on student self-expression. 

The controversy stems from a public email sent by Erika Christakis, a lecturer on childhood development who serves as master of a residential college at Yale University. Before Halloween, Christakis cautioned the administration against counseling students on socially acceptable costumes. Christakis and her husband, also a professor and a master at the same residential college, faced severe criticism from a significant swath of the Yale community, including a letter of concern signed by hundreds of students and faculty members and a public confrontation that involved some spirited yelling from a student.

Eventually the email, which came at a time during which racism and inclusivity at Yale are being debated vigorously, became grounds for calls for resignation. According to Yale Daily News, Next Yale, a new coalition of students of color on campus, have demanded Christakis and her husband "apologize and resign from their posts," a demand that the college dean and university president refused to back the week before Thanksgiving recess. 

Now over 50 faculty members have signed a public letter expressing solidarity with the Christakises, saying those calling for their resignations are unfairly assuming the couple was acting in bad faith in the midst of a necessary conversation about student speech and culture.

The letter: "The email that Erika Christakis sent to the Silliman community did not express support for racist expressions, but rather focused primarily on the question of whether monitoring and criticizing such expression should be done in a top-down manner, when in fact the community involved is a group of college students," the letter said. "One can differ with her suggestion that administrative bodies should not play such an oversight role at Yale, but the suggestion itself clearly does not constitute support for racist expressions."

Source: Google Drive

The authors describe how the original email has been "misinterpreted, and in some cases recklessly distorted, as support for racist speech" when in fact it was a "modest attempt to ask people to consider the issue of self-monitoring vs. bureaucratic supervision." That misinterpretation has led to a reaction whose tone and implications threaten robust debate, they said.

"A crucial component of free expression is the possibility of open and civil discussions, without vilifying those who disagree with one's own viewpoint," the letter said.  

The professors quote the 1974 Woodward report, a university report that outlines values surrounding free speech at Yale. The report posited that academia requires special protections for free speech: "Because no other institution combines the discovery and dissemination of basic knowledge with teaching, few need assign such high priority to [freedom of expression]."

The letter argues that this commitment to free speech isn't at odds with a commitment to antiracism.

"All of us, together with the Christakises, condemn any racist elements on campus and strongly support efforts to further diversify Yale's faculty, staff, administration and student body," read the letter.

Who signed it: One striking pattern among the letter's signees is that an overwhelming majority of them seem to come from natural science departments. Professors in social sciences and humanities are far and few between.

One explanation for the discrepancy could be that the social sciences and humanities are intertwined with the issues of race and power that are being pushed to the fore by student activists, and signing the letter would force academics in these disciplines to take a side on issues that often defy simply binaries. One such professor, who teaches economics and African-American studies and did not sign the letter, told the Yale Daily News he doesn't believe Christakis' email was racist, but the entire debate is a distraction from enacting needed reforms like faculty diversity initiatives.

In the campus wars over racial discrimination and fostering inclusivity in academic life, that concern seems to be gaining more traction. Fighting social oppression and fostering dynamic debate aren't mutually exclusive, but calls for ousting professors for saying unpleasant things suggests that some on campus believe they are.

Complicating things further is the difference between professors acting as intellectuals and acting as administrators. In the first instance, there is a significant amount of legal precedent suggesting that in an academic forum, they're operating in First Amendment-protected territory. But as administrators, professors are performing non-academic services. In typical workplaces, workers have virtually no free speech rights and can be fired without any kind of special legal justification.

The Christakis email blurs that line. On one hand, her email originally went out to the body of students she oversees in her capacity as an administrator, not a teacher. On the other hand, her note deliberately sought to promote debate among students, who are ostensibly attending Yale for that very purpose. 

Rather than trying to be overly litigious about the academic-administrative distinction, the question could be broader: What's the most effective route for building a society that is more equipped to handle unjust social hierarchies? 

At the moment it's clear that student movements are both winning administrative victories for their proponents — Yale's president has recently promised huge changes and investments in response to student pressure — while alienating many liberal sympathizers who oppose making certain realms of speech taboo. 

But these days, the politics of polarization seem to be as American as apple pie.