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‘This Is Not a Debate’

by Eliana Johnson

Yale’s fight for free speech

Bill Buckley was one of the first to suggest there was trouble brewing on campus when he published God and Man at Yale in 1951. He argued that Yale University was doing more to strengthen students’ belief in godlessness and Communism than in Christianity and capitalism. It was an early warning.

That became clear in the 1960s and 1970s, when universities were the churning center of the anti-war movement, with students rioting against campus police and occupying administrative buildings. Those struggles, which focused in part on accusations of American oppression in the Third World, fed directly into the conflicts of the ’80s and ’90s over the proper role of the Western canon in undergraduate education. It was in 1987 that Jesse Jackson led Stanford students in a protest of a then-required course in the literature and philosophy of the West, chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go.”

Throughout these battles, Yale has been both the breeding ground for and the adjudicator of higher education’s challenges — from the Buckley-instigated debate over whether universities should hire Communists to Yale’s heavy-handed attempts to maintain order in the Vietnam era to the debate in the ’90s over a $20 million donation for a course in the study of Western civilization that was ultimately rejected by the university. All these episodes were subjects of national headlines — and all reflected larger national struggles.

In the debates over free speech that raged in the 1960s and 1970s, however, Yale bucked the national trend, issuing a report that stated unequivocally the centrality of free expression to the purpose of the university. The Woodward report — as it was called after C. Vann Woodward, the eminent historian who chaired the committee that wrote it — came in response to a series of events in which speech had been stifled. The report concluded that while certain speech might cause “shock, hurt, and anger” — consequences not to be dismissed — the right to free expression was more important. If the university was to serve its central purpose — to foster “free access of knowledge” — nothing could supersede that right.

With campus activism warming up once more, events at Yale are again providing a window onto the national scene. Last fall, the school was engulfed in a months-long scandal over an e-mail about Halloween costumes that ended with the resignation of two liberal professors, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, from their administrative posts. At root was the collision between the Christakises’ deeply held belief in free speech — for which they have a long record of advocacy — and the university’s devotion to cultural diversity, particularly when student protesters are armed with their emotions.

Yale might seem to be a deeply conservative place — the breeding ground not only of Bill Buckley but of the two Bush presidents, and for many decades a prime recruiting ground for the CIA. Over the past half century, the school has made attempts, some more grudging than others, to set itself apart from its peer institutions by preserving principle and order.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, a series of events spurred charges that the university’s attempts to keep the peace were stifling free speech. Shortly after the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing in 1963, Yale provost Kingman Brewster asked the Yale Political Union to rescind an invitation to Alabama governor George Wallace. The students agreed. In making his request, Brewster cited “the damage which Governor Wallace’s appearance would do to the confidence of the New Haven community in Yale and the feelings of the New Haven Negro population.”

In the years that followed, invitations from student groups to Army chief of staff William Westmoreland, Secretary of State William Rogers, and Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein also stirred controversy. But the invitation to campus of the Stanford physicist William Shockley in the spring of 1974 sparked a conflagration. Shockley was a believer in the voluntary sterilization of low-IQ individuals, and the student chapter of Young Americans for Freedom had invited him to debate National Review publisher William Rusher on the topic. The proposition to be debated was “Resolved: That society has a moral obligation to diagnose and treat tragic racial IQ inferiority.”

According to the Woodward report, the campus chairman of the Progressive Labor Party told the Yale Daily News that freedom of speech was “a nice abstract idea to enable people like Shockley to spread racism,” and members of the Asian American Student Association said the event “must not be tolerated.”

When Shockley and Rusher eventually took the stage, they were drowned out by jeers and obscenities, in violation of university policy. Protesters covered Rusher in spit as he left the auditorium, even though he opposed Shockley.

Yale was charitable to the protesters. The disciplinary committee suspended eleven of them for a term and withheld a degree from a graduating senior, but it also acknowledged the “insulting” and “provocative” subject of the debate. Brewster, by then Yale’s president, cast blame both on the insensitivity of those who had issued the invitation and on the intolerance of the protesters.

Donald Kagan, an emeritus professor of classics and history at Yale, says, “Over the summer after the Shockley affair, I was so angry that I spent the whole summer researching what had happened, and I wrote a speech saying essentially that [Brewster] had failed in his responsibility to protect freedom of speech.” In the fall of 1974, Kagan delivered his speech to the Yale Political Union. The Yale Daily News carried the headline “Classics Prof Damns Speech Repression” and reported that “Kagan came to the auditorium with a complete array of facts and well-ordered logic, striving to destroy any basis for the Shockley protest of last spring and the acts of the administration.” The disciplinary action taken against the protesters was the same as that given to campus streakers, Kagan noted, decrying the sentence as a “mockery of justice.”

After the speech, Kagan says, he and the historian Henry Turner suggested that the administration conduct an investigation into the condition of free speech on campus; Brewster instead proposed a committee to be chaired by Woodward. The following year, it produced the Woodward report, which became the model for free-speech policies at schools across the country. At Yale, Kagan says, “We really didn’t have any issues of freedom of speech until the latest thing.”

On the afternoon of November 5, 2015, students surrounded Nicholas Christakis in the sprawling courtyard of Yale’s Silliman College to tell him he’d made the place unlivable. Christakis, a prominent physician and sociologist, also served as the master of Silliman, a loosely defined administrative post that put him in a father-like position toward the students living there.

Students were up in arms about an e-mail sent the day before Halloween by his wife, Erika, the associate master of Silliman. She had criticized guidelines sent by the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee warning students against “culturally insensitive” Halloween costumes. It specifically mentioned “wearing feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface.” Erika Christakis wondered whether students might not be better off deciding for themselves what constitutes an appropriate costume. “Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people?” she asked. “Not mine, I know that.”

The backlash was immediate. Christakis’s e-mail was cited by hundreds of protesting students as proof of Yale’s institutional racism. Yale president Peter Salovey convened a four-hour meeting with more than 40 minority students in his office and reportedly told them, “We failed you.” Salovey says that his remark was taken out of context and that it was directed at a single student who had spoken of “experiencing prejudice on our campus.” In mid November, a group of minority students appeared in front of Salovey’s home and delivered a list of demands, including the removal of the Christakises from their administrative posts.

In the courtyard confrontation, the students seemed determined not to be satisfied with anything Nicholas Christakis said to them. Their complaints were caught on video and widely viewed on social media.

“We’re sitting here telling you that you are being racist, you are being offensive, you admitted that you hurt us,” one said. “Why can’t you say sorry and move past this?”

Another: “Do you understand the concept of ‘gaslighting’? Because that is what you are doing. You are stripping people of their humanity.”

A third accused Christakis of creating “space for violence to happen.” When Christakis said he disagreed, she declared, “This is not a debate.”

Talking to students one by one, looking them in the eye, he offended some by not addressing the group. “Could you speak up? We can’t hear you,” several complained. Standing in the middle of the circle and raising his voice for all to hear, he offended others by addressing everyone. “You don’t need to maintain the power in this situation,” somebody shouted. The author of the costume guidelines, Burgwell Howard, the dean of student engagement, was present and looked on as students heaped verbal abuse on Christakis for more than two hours.

“I understand, to the extent that I can, some of the struggles that many of you may have had,” Christakis told the students.

“No you don’t!” somebody shouted from the back. From another corner came a cry: “That’s a lie!”

Christakis continued, “I have a vision of us as human beings that actually privileges our common humanity, that is interested not in what is different among us, but what is the same. Okay? And so we all have the capacity, I believe . . . I believe that even though I have a different life experience than you, even though I have a different skin color and gender than you, I believe there are parts of your experience that I can understand as a human being. . . . If you deny that, then what is the reason that you ask to be heard — by me or by anyone else?”

Ultimately, Christakis told the crowd, “I apologize for causing pain, but . . . I stand behind free speech. I defend the right for people to speak their minds.” Both Nicholas and Erika Christakis declined to comment for this article.

His remarks proved explosive: They struck at the heart of the controversies that convulsed Yale for the better part of the academic year.

When about four dozen faculty members signed an open letter defending the Christakises, the president of the student chapter of the NAACP, Brea Baker, was quoted in the Yale Daily News as saying: “If the Christakises are more tied to the idea of free speech and positive intent than they are to the impact of their words on the students they are charged with protecting, . . . the roles of master and associate master are not for them.” Baker declined an interview request, saying only, “I don’t agree with the content of National Review and don’t see a place for my voice in such a space.” A half dozen other campus protesters either didn’t respond to requests for comment or declined to comment.

The administration’s response to the controversy gave equal weight to the values of diversity and of free speech. A November 10 e-mail from President Salovey and Yale College dean Jonathan Holloway said, “We cannot overstate the importance we put on our community’s diversity, and the need to increase it, support it, and respect it.” A paragraph later, they wrote, “We also affirm Yale’s bedrock principle of the freedom to speak and be heard, without fear of intimidation, threats, or harm.” The message made no mention of the Christakises, though a November 17 message to Silliman students from both men expressed their “desire to have [Nicholas Christakis] lead Silliman College, making it a stimulating and inclusive place.” Salovey told National Review that he “expressed many times, both in public and to Nicholas and Erika Christakis in person, unequivocal and unconditional support.”

President Salovey also reassured alumni at a November 20 meeting that “expression of all kinds is tolerated on this campus even when it offends us, even when it disgusts us, even when we disagree with it strongly.”

Dean Holloway has sent something of a different message, dismissing concerns about free speech in several public forums. He told Time magazine that while he was disappointed that some of the rhetoric on campus “could have been civil and it wasn’t,” he didn’t “see it as an assault on free expression.” While dozens of students were calling for Salovey to dismiss the Christakises from their posts at Silliman, Holloway told The New Yorker that the protesting students were not “questioning the rights of free speech.”

This was a sharp contrast to the Woodward report, which in the ’70s faulted Brewster for his failure to “assert the primacy of free expression over competing values” and the administration more broadly for “mixed and contradictory” statements — it had erred in not assigning greater value to free expression than to “the sensitivity of those who feel threatened or offended.”

“Do I think Yale has stood up for the Woodward report and its tenets? No, I don’t,” says Geoffrey Kabaservice, an assistant professor of history. “It shouldn’t be the case that students have more freedom of speech outside the university than inside the university, and that increasingly seems to be the case.”

David Bromwich, a professor of English and scholar of Edmund Burke, referred me to his 1992 book Politics by Other Means, in which he asks whether the standards of speech on campus are stricter or looser than those of society at large. He argues that “the academic mind has grown unused to anything approaching democratic give and take” and that “the place of something central in education has been usurped by a lot of special interests.”

Undoubtedly that “something central” includes open debate and free inquiry. “When students are yelling at people about Halloween costumes, I would expect the president to use this opportunity to explain clearly to the students what the value is of open discourse as a mechanism to the discovery of truth,” says Steven Benner, who, as an undergraduate at Yale, helped write the Woodward report. “I would expect that statement to have been made rapidly, and clearly it was not.”

For Benner, it’s a case of tragedy being followed by farce. “In the 1960s and 1970s, Kingman Brewster actually did attempt to suppress free speech, the Black Panthers were murdering policemen, and people were dying in Vietnam,” he says. Less is needed to catalyze outrage at Yale today. “For us to now have this discussion be about Halloween costumes,” Benner says, “gives this a level of absurdity that I don’t know how to handle.”

Few would deny the controversial nature of Shockley’s advocacy for the voluntary sterilization of low-IQ individuals, and few did at the time. Erika Christakis’s thoughts about free expression and Halloween costumes are remarkably anodyne by comparison. The Christakises are self-professed liberals — Erika is a maxed-out donor to Hillary Clinton, and Nicholas’s work has focused in part on how race affects health-care delivery — but they also happen to be firm believers in free and unfettered speech.

As students become more easily outraged, they seem to live — at Yale and elsewhere — in a perpetual state of being offended. And that has become a powerful protest tool, or at least a way of shutting down open debate, whether they are aware of it or not.

“Look, if somebody says, ‘I’m in pain,’ then for all practical purposes they have a kind of privileged position with regard to their own pain and suffering,” says Shelly Kagan, a professor of philosophy at Yale. “The people who felt there was a problem here did a better job of vocalizing their pain and their suffering than they did of spelling out the precise nature of the behaviors that caused” that pain and suffering. And in spelling it out, they would have ceded the “privileged position” of simply reporting their pain.

Kabaservice offers a similar thought: “How do you argue with trauma? It’s very difficult, and administrators just don’t want to go there.”

The protesters finally got the outcome they wanted. Nicholas and Erika Christakis voluntarily resigned their posts at Silliman College at the end of the academic year following a graduation ceremony during which several students refused to take their diplomas from Nicholas’s hand.

The day after Nicholas Christakis was surrounded in the Silliman courtyard, Yale’s conservative student group, the William F. Buckley Jr. Program, hosted a long-planned conference on free speech.

One of the speakers, Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told attendees that, judging from the reaction to Erika Christakis’s e-mail, “you would have thought someone wiped out an Indian village.”

The remark fueled protests already under way outside the event. As attendees streamed out of the building, protesters spat on at least two conference-goers, according to Zach Young and Josh Altman, two members of the Buckley group. One of the protest leaders, Mitchell Rose Bear Don’t Walk, told the Yale Daily News, “The spitting happened,” adding that she considered it “disgraceful.”

Dean Burgwell Howard, of the Halloween-costume guidance, was charged with investigating the incident, according to e-mails obtained by National Review. Dean Holloway announced the results of Howard’s investigation in an e-mail on December 9. “No one provided direct accounts that anyone spat on attendees,” he wrote. Young, who was then the president of the Buckley Program, says neither he nor any other leaders of the group were contacted for an investigation and that he was unaware that any investigation was taking place. A subsequent e-mail from Dean Holloway thanked the Buckley Program for bringing “to my attention an incident of spitting” but said that his office had been unable to identify the perpetrator. Through a university spokesman, Howard and Holloway declined to comment for this article. Though he responded to other questions, President Salovey declined to comment on the investigation.

The last reported incident of Yale students’ donning offensive Halloween costumes took place in 2007, when the appearance of students in blackface sparked an outcry — and was followed by a “rally for tolerance.” The administration now sends peremptory e-mails to prevent such incidents. But faced with a documented incident of harassment of a conservative student group, its approach has been more lax.

Is there any way back from this state of affairs?

Donald Kagan, who left Cornell University for Yale in 1969 over the former’s fecklessness in response to student protesters, says he is pessimistic.

“It’s very hard to recover from this kind of surrender — surrender to fear, to the prospect of violence and obloquy, to people who are just afraid of not standing with the noisiest and most aggressive element,” he says. “And that’s what happens when you allow bullies to bully you.” Kagan gives a wry smile and says, with a shrug, “It’s progress.”

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