Two married Yale professors who were recently caught up in a fierce debate over free speech have announced they are resigning from a leadership position they shared, giving into the demands of student detractors who aggressively attacked them last fall.
Nicholas and Erika Christakis were the head and associate head, respectively, of Silliman College, one of Yale’s undergraduate residential colleges. Both were also Yale faculty members — Nicholas specialized in public health and Erika specialized in early childhood education.
The Christakises were at the center of a massive campus controversy last fall, which began when Erika sent out an email to Silliman members that encouraged students not to be offended by Halloween costumes that made use of other peoples’ cultures.
The email produced a deluge of outrage, with critics arguing Erika had justified cultural appropriation, and even made Yale an “unsafe” place for black students. The situation climaxed when a mob of students confronted Nicholas in public, demanding that he apologize on behalf of his wife. When Nicholas attempted to have a reasoned argument with the mob, student Jerelyn Luther shrieked at Christakis in a video that quickly went viral.
Eventually, the Christakises apologized for hurting some people’s feelings, but they still refused to resign, although they did cancel their spring classes. But now they have changed their minds. In a statement sent to Silliman students Wednesday, they announced they would be stepping down after just one year leading the college. Nicholas will remain a tenured professor at the college
“We have great respect for every member of our community, friend and critic alike,” Nicholas wrote in the statement, according to the Yale Daily News. “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.”
The Christakises’ belated decision to step down may have been based on the failure of time to heal the wounds from last fall. Traditionally, graduating seniors at Yale receive their diplomas from the head of their residential college, but at Silliman’s Monday graduation ceremony, several students refused to accept a diplomas from Nicholas.
According to the Yale Daily News, the Christakises’ early departure is almost unprecedented. Normally heads of college serve five-year terms (with a three-term limit), and only a handful have left after a single year. A Yale spokesman told the Yale Daily News the school had done nothing to encourage their departure.
“[President Peter] Salovey has expressed his support throughout the year for Nicholas and Erika and that continues to be the case,” said spokeswoman Eileen O’Connor.
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