Over the past week, Yale University has been embroiled in some intense debates about race on campus. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Sarah Brown offers some succinct backstory:
At the heart of the controversy are two emails and a Facebook post. On October 28, Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Council sent a message that urged students to reconsider wearing cultural costumes on Halloween that might offend some students.
Erika Christakis, a Yale lecturer who serves as an associate master at one of the university’s 12 residential colleges, wrote a response questioning the need to exercise “implied control” over students’ choice of garb: “Is there no room anymore for a child to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”
Her email generated significant backlash. And a Facebook post on an unrelated matter soon added fuel to the fire. The post accused members of a Yale fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, of turning away black and Latina women from a party, saying, “White girls only.” The chapter’s leaders have denied the allegations, but the post went viral. Yale is investigating the fraternity, which had already been suspended until next fall after a campus committee found it had violated the university’s sexual-misconduct policy.
The rest of the world became aware of it over the weekend, when a video captured by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) head Greg Lukianoff showed a rather disturbing exchange on the Yale campus between an administrator and a student:
Today, when a group of us, organized originally by the Black Student Alliance at Yale, spoke with [Silliman Master Nicholas] Christakis in the Silliman Courtyard, his response once again disappointed many of us. When students tried to tell him about their painful personal experiences as students of color on campus, he responded by making more arguments for free speech. It’s unacceptable when the Master of your college is dismissive of your experiences. The Silliman Master’s role is not only to provide intellectual stimulation, but also to make Silliman a safe space that all students can come home to. His responsibility is to make it a place where your experiences are a valid concern to the administration and where you can feel free to talk with them about your pain without worrying that the conversation will turn into an argument every single time. We are supposed to feel encouraged to go to our Master and Associate Master with our concerns and feel that our opinions will be respected and heard.
But, in his ten weeks as a leader of the college, Master Christakis has not fostered this sense of community. He seems to lack the ability, quite frankly, to put aside his opinions long enough to listen to the very real hurt that the community feels. He doesn’t get it. And I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain (emphasis added).
Viewed from the outside world, both the video and the op-ed can be distilled into that last sentence. It feeds into a narrative of free speech under assault on college campuses. And to put it gently, it’s a sentiment that did not instill much sympathy among most observers:
A Christakis accuser writes one of the more astonishing documents of our times. https://t.co/RjQ5kK0CPp
— judith shulevitz (@JudithShulevitz) November 6, 2015
— Catherine Rampell (@crampell) November 6, 2015
— Rachael Larimore (@RachaelBL) November 7, 2015
One very serious problem with the younger millennials is their dependence on the approval of authority. https://t.co/xDYvjqffWr
— Heidi N Moore (@moorehn) November 7, 2015
Complete reversal of 60s activism: College left of today actually wants college admins to be their parents https://t.co/e002ze8H7O
— Robby Soave (@robbysoave) November 7, 2015
— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahNRO) November 7, 2015
"I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain" is… not a compelling argument. https://t.co/slRFOM1wun
— Daniel Drezner (@dandrezner) November 7, 2015
As you can see, I was one of the people who found the op-ed problematic. Indeed, it’s problematic in many of the ways that Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt chronicled in an Atlantic cover story a few months ago.
That said, I also find the outsize reaction to this campus contretemps — including my own tweet — to be troubling as well.
The problem is local knowledge. As Friedrich von Hayek observed 70 years ago, there is an awful lot of knowledge that is local in character, that cannot be culled from abstract principles or detached observers. What looks like free speech infringement at first glance can turn out to be something different the more one drills down. For one thing, the events of late last week were part of a larger chain of events at Yale beyond the e-mails that suggest a few obvious sources of frustration for minority students there in particular.
For another thing, part of the dispute is over the unique role that house masters play at Yale. In a Facebook post, Yale Herald Editor in Chief David Rossler tried to elaborate on this point:
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. . . .
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. “Hurt at home” addresses a failure to perform the duties of a defined role: nurturing the Silliman community.
The problem is that for those of us not at Yale, it is all too easy for the most absurd, theatrical and controversial elements of this dispute to blow up on our social media, and to have those aspects of the incident frame how we perceive the current state of play. The larger context does not mean that outside observers should say that students have every right to scream at administrators. Nor does it mean that free speech issues shouldn’t be of paramount concern on college campuses. But it is just too easy to take the most extreme incidents, caricature them even further and then conclude that today’s college students “just don’t get it” — when, in point of fact, there is probably a lot more that external observers aren’t getting.
An additional problem that affects the current generation of college students even more is that it is so easy for these contretemps to balloon so quickly into national debates. That’s extremely unfortunate. One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant. As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.
The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent. As Rossler noted in his Facebook post, “I recognize that we published the article with only a Yale audience in mind and that many readers outside of Yale took issue with the article’s perspective.” If you are older than 22 and reading this, imagine for a second how you would feel if professional pundits pored over your undergraduate musings in real time. So even though I still find parts of that op-ed objectionable, I also think that all of the external piling on is truly unfortunate.
Yale’s president “apologized to a large group of minority students for the school’s failure to make them feel safe on campus,” said Isaac Stanley-Becker, and that has simply outraged external observers even more. Nor is this the only college debate that is generating headlines. So these contretemps ain’t going away anytime soon. This means that college students must be aware that the world is watching when they scream at an administrator. But I hope that outside observers become aware that in each of these instances, a little local knowledge would go a long way.