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Yale SOM Dean Wades Into Free Speech Fight

Yale SOM Dean Edward Snyder

Yale SOM Dean Edward Snyder

The dean of Yale’s School of Management has joined 49 faculty members at the university in signing an open letter defending the remarks of an administrator of one of the school’s residential colleges that sparked major protests on the campus.

Dean Edward Synder was only one of two deans at Yale to wade into the controversy over free speech and racial issues. The letter of support defends Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis who had written an email that questioned a now controversial message from the administration encourging students not to wear Halloween costumes considered by some to be culturally offensive.

The letter of support for both Erika Christakis and her husband, Nicholas, the master of Silliman College, argued that her email was a modest attempt to spur campus debate. It follows a demand by Next Yale, a newly formed coalition of students, that the couple apologize for the email and resign from their posts. That demand was recently rejected by Yale President Peter Salovey and Dean Jonathan Holloway, the first black dean of Yale College.

Salovey, however, agreed to create an academic center focused on race, ethnicity and social identity, to add new faculty appointments in those fields, to double resources for existing centers serving students of color and to undergo “training on recognizing and combating racism and other forms of discrimination in the academy” with other administrators.

HALLOWEEN COSTUME EMAIL WAS ‘MISINTERPRETED & RECKLESSLY DISTORTED’ 

The letter, written by physics professor Douglas Stone, said that the response to the Christakis email had been “misinterpreted, and in some cases, recklessly distorted, as support for racist speech. 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…”

The signatories on the letter of support frame the issue in “free speech” terms which have angered the relatively small group of students aligned with Next Yale. “As faculty colleagues we wish to express our strong support of the right of Erika and Nicholas Christakis to free speech and freedom of intelleciaul expression,” according to the letter. “Free speech of course includes the right to express opinions that are opposed to what may generally be termed liberal or progressive values…”

The racial tensions at Yale were sparked in October when Erika Christakis challenged an email sent by the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee. The committee had urged students to avoid wearing “culturally unaware and insensitive” Halloween costumes that might offend minority students, such as blackface, turbans or feathered headdresses.

UNREST OVER A CAMPUS CULTURE ACCUSED OF MAKING STUDENTS OF COLOR FEEL UNWELCOME

Noting that universities were increasingly becoming “places of censure and prohibition,” Christakis said that students should be allowed to wear some costumes that others might find inappropriate. She urged students who were offended by costumes to confront the wearer and engage in a discussion about it. The email, along with a Facebook post alleging that black female students were turned away from a frat party off campus, sparked a much broader debate over a campus culture that some black students believe is unwelcoming if not hostile to them.

The Next Yale supporters also complained about a shortage of black professors at Yale. Though African-Americans account for 11% of approximately 5,400 undergraduates at Yale, less than 4% of the tenured and tenure-track members of the faculty are black.

‘WHO THE FUCK HIRED YOU?’

The controversy has cast Yale in a highly unfavorable light, with critics portraying the Yale activists as spoiled and privileged children eager to discourage speech they consider offensive. Some conservatives, including Yale alumni, have attacked President Salovey for being “spineless” in dealing with the activist students.

The free speech vs. racism tension was heightened in a video that went viral in which one African-American student was seen shouting obsencities at Nicolas Christakis as he attempted to engage with a group of students. “Be quiet!,” the student screams.“[In] your position as headmaster, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman.”

When Christakis disagreed, the student went into an emotional tirade. “Then why the fuck did you accept the position? Who the fuck hired you?,” she shouted, preventing Christakis from explaining his position.

‘MICRO-AGGRESSIONS’ & ‘CRYBULLIES’

“You should step down! If that is what you think of being headmaster, you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not!”

The incident has even resulted in new vernacular to capture the essence of the new protest movement that has spread to several other colleges, including Amherst and the University of Missouri.  Students have coined the phrase “micro-aggressions” to describe such slights as professors and classmates who treat perspectives voiced in class by students of color with less respect than those of whites. Conservative critics, meantime, have branded the activists with the pejorative term “crybullies” to describe those who bully others while claiming to be victims.

Yale SOM Dean Snyder was one of only two deans to sign the letter of support, the other being Yale School of Music Dean Robert Blocker. The letter was also signed by Costas Meghir, a professor of economics, and Olav Sorenson, a professor of management and sociology.

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.