The Professor Who Provoked a Major Free Speech Debate at Yale Has Resigned

The Professor Who Provoked a Major Free Speech Debate at Yale Has Resigned

The provocateur behind one of the most contentious free speech battles on college campuses nationwide has decided to step down from her teaching responsibilities at Yale University.

Erika Christakis, a lecturer on early childhood development and associate master of the Yale residential community Silliman College, wrote in an email to the Washington Post that she's decided to refrain from teaching her spring course after becoming disillusioned with the college's commitment to free inquiry. 

"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 wrote.

It's a sentiment that has been colored by the enormous blowback Christakis encountered on campus after writing an email contending that students, not university administrators, should be setting norms for personal expression on potentially controversial occasions like Halloween. She wrote the note in response to an email sent out by the university's Intercultural Affairs Committee cautioning students against wearing offensive costumes. While lauding the goal of antiracism, she argued that being transgressive and offensive are integral to student maturation, and that it is students themselves who should play the central role in determining what is appropriate.

"Are we all okay [sic] with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people's capacity — in your capacity — to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?" Christakis wrote in the email.

The response: The email turned out to be a lightning rod. Over 700 students, alumni, staffers and faculty members signed a letter slamming Christakis' missive as "offensive" and said her reference to an Atlantic article entitled "The Coddling of the American Mind" in response to criticism was misguided.

"The real coddling is telling the privileged majority on campus that they do not have to engage with the brutal pasts that are a part of the costumes they seek to wear," reads the open letter. "We, however, simply ask that our existences not be invalidated on campus. This is us asking for basic respect of our cultures and our livelihoods."

According to the Yale Daily News, a student coalition called Next Yale called for Christakis and her husband, who also serves as master at Silliman College and publicly supported his wife's note, to "apologize for the email and resign from their posts." Dozens of professors on campus subsequently rallied in their defense. The university declined to heed calls for sanctions against the Christakises.  

This all took place against the backdrop of a wider discussion about race and exclusion on campus, prompted by allegations that black students were turned away from a frat party based on their race, a lack of diversity among faculty and a heated discussion over the fact that one of the residential colleges on campus is named after a famous supporter of slavery. 

Student protests over these issues paid off, as evidenced by an announcement by Yale's president in November outlining a substantial plan to invest in a host of initiatives to increase inclusivity on campus, ranging from increased faculty diversity to a new multidisciplinary center on "race, ethnicity and other aspects of social identity."

But on the matter of dialogue, Christakis' resignation suggests there have been costs to the ways some students pursued a defense of inclusivity. While there's no evidence that Christakis faced any pressure from the administration to resign, it's clear that student and faculty criticisms took their toll.

Christakis is a lecturer, not a tenured professor, so her decision to not teach isn't quite as significant as a full-time faculty member resigning. It seems possible that she will teach at Yale again. But refusing to carry on with the class is a clear expression of resistance. For better or worse, she's chosen to illustrate her concern that today's culture wars are sometimes going astray by doing exactly what they sometimes demand: exiting.