Kristin Tyndall, associate editor
It started innocuously enough. On October 28, Yale University's Intercultural Affairs Council sent an email like so many that would be sent that week, asking students to reflect on their costume choices this Halloween and to pause before wearing one that might be offensive.
Erika Christakis, a Yale lecturer in early childhood education and residence hall administrator emailed a reply questioning the annual costume reminder.
The Atlantic: Students are hurting education—and themselves—by protesting speech
"Halloween—traditionally a day of subversion for children and young people—is also an occasion for adults to exert their control," she wrote. "Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?"
As an alternative, Christakis suggested allowing students to settle costume disputes amongst themselves.
Angry students confront professor, dean on campus
Christakis' email unleashed a storm of criticism from Yale students, hundreds of whom signed an open letter stating that her email minimized the concerns of marginalized groups.
A group of students surrounded Christakis' husband Nicholas Christakis on Thursday; Nicholas Christakis is an administrator in the same residence hall as Erika Christakis. Videos of the confrontation show students angrily demanding that he apologize—and cursing and yelling at him when he refuses to do so.
Also on Thursday, more than 300 students confronted Jonathan Holloway, an African-American studies professor who is also the first black dean of Yale College.
Yale President Peter Salovey and Holloway met with about four dozen students later on Thursday and reportedly told them the school had failed them. Salovey sent a letter to campus Friday saying the meeting left him "deeply troubled" and "caused [him] to realize that we must act to create at Yale greater inclusion, healing, mutual respect, and understanding."
Nicolas and Erika Christakis said that they "care deeply about students" and "have spent a lifetime caring for diverse, underprivileged populations, and serving as educators," in an email to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Why such a violent reaction?
Students say they reacted so strongly because the debate is about much more than one administrator's email or what people should be allowed to wear at Halloween. The incident touched on several long-standing issues nationally and on Yale's campus, including debates about the limits of free speech and what to do with the still-present legacy of racism.
Yale students have been petitioning for months to remove the name of John C. Calhoun, a 19th-century white supremacist and politician, from one of the residence halls. And about a week ago an undergraduate accused fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon of turning away women of color at the door of a party, saying "white girls only." The chapter leadership denied the allegations but Holloway says his office is investigating the incident.
The incident also taps into a national debate about the conflict between free speech and safe spaces. Students are demanding more sensitivity from administrators, professors, and even guest speakers invited to campus. They say these measures are necessary to protect mental health and combat the negative effects of racism—but professors say that their right to research and speak freely is being compromised (Brown, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/9; Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, 11/9; Stack, New York Times, 11/8; Stanley-Becker, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 11/5; Nelson, Vox, 11/7).
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