In November, an email about Halloween costumes touched off a student uprising at Yale over racial bias and insensitivity, echoed at colleges across the country. The Yale lecturer who authored the e-mail has decided to leave her teaching post, the latest chapter in an ongoing debate over racism, cultural offense, and freedom of speech.
Isaac Stanley-Becker, a senior at Yale, writes about the fallout.
By Isaac Stanley-Becker
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The Yale lecturer whose email about Halloween costumes exposed long-simmering racial tensions on this Ivy League campus has decided to stop teaching at the university.
Before Erika Christakis found herself at the center of a national debate about free speech and racial sensitivity, she was known primarily as an early childhood educator who taught courses on child development and psychology. But it is her role as the associate master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s 12 undergraduate communities, that became a focus of intense scrutiny after she sent an email to Silliman students critiquing a college-wide request that they think twice before wearing Halloween costumes that might be seen as culturally insensitive.
“American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience,” she wrote Oct. 30. “Increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”
The email, combined with allegations leveled the same weekend that a Yale fraternity had barred black women from a party, provoked outrage among students of color, who confronted top administrators and demanded they take action to improve the university’s racial climate.
Through a set of initiatives unveiled last month, including faculty growth in fields dealing with race and ethnicity, Peter Salovey, Yale’s president, took a major step in quelling these tensions.
At the same time, Salovey said Christakis and her husband, Silliman Master Nicholas Christakis, would remain at the helm of the college. And an open letter that circulated recently, and was signed by nearly 70 faculty members, expressed “strong support of the right of Erika and Nicholas Christakis to free speech and freedom of intellectual expression.”
That figure is dwarfed by the number of faculty signatories on an open letter expressing solidarity with students’ concerns about “racism and devaluation,” though it did not specifically refer to the Christakises.
While many student protesters called for the Christakises’ dismissal from Silliman, few mentioned their presence in the classroom.
Christakis said she has resigned her teaching role to return to her work with young children and families. The decision was first reported by Business Insider.
“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.
Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociologist who runs his own lab at the university, said Friday 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.
This fall, Erika Christakis was teaching two seminars: The Growing Child in Global Context and Concept of the Problem Child.
A course evaluation for Concept of the Problem Child states: “This seminar is phenomenal and Professor Christakis is, hands down, my favorite professor that I’ve had while I’ve been here.”
An African American junior who was enrolled in the seminar this spring but asked not to be identified to speak freely about a former instructor praised the course, as well as Christakis’s care for students. Still, he said the week spent discussing children of color left him uncomfortable, as he felt compelled to speak from personal experience about his own black childhood to fill in for gaps in the syllabus and in class discussion.
The student said he understood Christakis’s rationale for leaving the classroom, but said he was disappointed by her decision.
“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,” he said. “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.”
A Yale spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.