Anti-speech activists drive Yale administrators to resign

Nicholas and Erika Christakis, whose defense of free expression sparked protests at Yale University last fall, have resigned from their administrative roles at Silliman College amid reports of students refusing to accept diplomas from Nicholas.

According to The Yale Daily News, the Christakises tendered their joint resignation to university President Peter Salovey last week, and Nicholas subsequently informed the campus community by email Wednesday afternoon that he will be stepping down in July to return to his research and teaching duties.

“We have great respect for every member of our community, friend and critic alike,” he wrote. “We remain hopeful that students at Yale can express themselves and engage complex ideas within an intellectually plural community. But we feel it is time to return full-time to our respective fields of public health and early childhood education.”

Although the announcement tactfully downplayed the reasons for their resignation, the references to critics and free expression made clear that it was directly related to a long-simmering controversy that began when Erika, the associate head of Silliman College, sent an email to students last Halloween.

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Christakis was responding to an earlier email from the school’s Intercultural Affairs Committee urging students to avoid potentially offensive Halloween costumes, countering that free expression entails acceptance of a certain degree of offensiveness and asking, “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?”

For many students, the answer was evidently “no,” and they communicated their displeasure with a short-lived petition calling for both Erika and her husband Nicholas, the head of Silliman College, to resign their positions as a show of contrition—a demand that was later incorporated into a 19-point ultimatum issued via protest.

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At one point, Nicholas was even surrounded by a mob of disgruntled students demanding that he apologize on his wife’s behalf. He declined to apologize, instead making an impassioned argument for free speech, “even when I don’t agree with the content” and “especially when it’s offensive.”

Eventually, though, the continuing hostility from students succeeded in wearing the Christakises down, prompting them to announce in December that they had cancelled their course offerings for the spring semester, but would retain their administrative positions at Silliman College.

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Even that was not enough to mollify their detractors, and at the Silliman College graduation ceremony Monday, several students pointedly refused to accept their diplomas from Nicholas.

Yale Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor told the Daily News that President Salovey “didn’t encourage their resignation,” asserting that “Salovey has expressed his support throughout the year for Nicholas and Erika and that continues to be the case.”

Dozens of faculty members had also publicly defended the Christakises in an online petition, but Erika indicated in February that the hostility shown toward them by students had even then begun to outweigh the support of their colleagues, joking that she was considering a return to her previous work in early childhood education because preschool students “don’t try to get you fired.”

UPDATE: Yale Press Secretary Tom Conroy provided a statement to Campus Reform clarifying that Nicholas Christakis is not resigning from the university, merely returning to his full-time research and teaching roles.

"Nicholas and Erika Christakis are deeply valued members of the university community," he noted. "We thank them for their extraordinary service to Yale College and look forward to Professor Christakis' ongoing contributions as an exceptional scholar and educator."

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