Yale honors prof who enraged students by defending free speech

Yale University has bestowed its highest faculty honor on a professor who just a few years ago was nearly driven to leave the school by students upset that he defended his wife’s free speech.

The July 23 announcement recounts Christakis’s scholarly work and accomplishments and mentions that the honor is bestowed by Yale’s president and Board of Trustees. According to The New York Times, Yale spokesperson Thomas Conroy stated that “the decision was made purely on academic grounds.”

This honor comes nearly three years after students aggressively protested Christakis and his wife, Erika, regarding an email sent by Erika just before Halloween in 2015, when the pair served as the co-heads of Silliman College, an undergraduate residential college at Yale. 

[RELATED: Yale student protesters allegedly spit on free speech advocates]

Mrs. Christakis’ email criticized guidelines sent out by the university warning students to avoid potentially offensive Halloween costumes, arguing that college students are adults who should be capable of handling such matters on their own.

“I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: 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?” she wrote. “American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”

“As some of you may be aware, I teach a class on ‘The Concept of the Problem Child,’ and I was speaking with some of my students yesterday about the ways in which Halloween—traditionally a day of subversion for children and young people—is also an occasion for adults to exert their control,” Christakis elaborated, adding that in contrast to past concerns about things like candy, “this year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween.”

She mentioned her husband’s opinion on the topic, as well, writing, “Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

[RELATED: Yale admin may leave to teach preschoolers who ‘don’t try to get you fired’]

Students responded angrily to the missive, holding protests and calling for the removal of the Christakises from their positions as heads of Silliman College. 

At one point, they even surrounded Nicholas Christakis in an outdoor area of campus and demanded that he apologize for his wife’s email, which he refused to do, patiently explaining to the students that supporting free expression means defending speech “even when I don’t agree with the content of the speech.”

Following continued protests, both Christakises cancelled their courses for the Spring 2016 semester and later stepped down from their positions at Silliman in May of 2016, and Erika Christakis stopped lecturing at Yale completely. 

Nicholas Christakis took a sabbatical to focus on his lab research, but continued his tenured professorship at the university, for which he has now been honored. 

[RELATED: Yale faculty sign letter defending controversial email]

Brea Baker, one of the students involved in the anti-Christakis protests, told The Yale Daily News that she was “shocked at the explicit cowardice” of announcing the honor during the summer, when most students are away from campus, calling it an example of the administration’s habit of “sneak decision making and going against the will of the student body.” 

“Yale sells a vision of intimate residential college system led by administrators tasked with our emotional and social health above anything,” Baker argued. “Based on the original email, administrative responses, and now this appointment, it seems that only students of color understand this. If Yale insists on selling this narrative, then those who don’t understand their obligations to the student body should be replaced.”

Notably, though, Yale was far from hostile to the students who protested Christakis, awarding two of them the “Nakashini Prize” in 2015 to recognize their “exemplary leadership in enhancing race and/or ethnic relations at Yale College.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @emh731