I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. In my earlier post on events at Yale, “Heckling, Hate and Halloween”, I noted my opinion that the Yalies had taken the bait and made themselves into a publicity stunt for an organization named FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Somehow, its president had been present during a confrontation between the undergraduates and one Prof. Nicholas Christakis, the Master of Silliman College (one of the residential colleges at Yale). He hit videotape paydirt when one of the Yale students started screaming at the good professor, shouting him down and cursing him out with a string of four-letter words. Of course, he recorded it on his smartphone; FIRE posted his video online and commented freely on it, after which it was picked up and sent viral, first by rightwing bloggers and websites and then by many others. What good luck for FIRE! Publicity!
Turns out the president of FIRE wasn’t there by luck, accident or coincidence. No, he was at Silliman College at the specific invitation of Prof. Christakis to speak that very day at an event called a “Master’s Tea”, a series of programs whereby the masters of Yale’s residential colleges invite (and pay) prominent figures to visit their college for an intimate social occasion and conversation with undergraduates. (On a side note — isn’t that about as “privileged” as it gets? Private tea parties with the rich and famous, because you were one of the lucky adolescents who won the college admissions jackpot?) Prof. Christakis and his wife Erika, author of the now-infamous email criticizing the issuance of another email that cautioned students not to wear offensive Halloween costumes, have long positioned themselves as public champions of uninhibited free speech on college campuses, including a published piece they co-authored for Time magazine back in 2012.
Now — do we think it’s a coincidence that Prof. Christakis went outside to engage with these students, who were chalking words of protest in the Silliman College courtyard, with his invited guest, who was at the college to decry the “coddling of the American mind” (title of his own new book) and who just happened to be ready to videotape the encounter? Let me ask you — had you ever heard of Nicholas or Erika Christakis, or Greg Lukianoff, before this? No, I hadn’t either. And now they’re being written about all over the world, including now in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Which, in my opinion, seems a little fishy.
But wait, there’s more! It turns out that the young woman who shrieked at Prof. Christakis, voicing her “pain” and demanding to know “who the f–k hired you?” is not what she seems either. A couple of websites have identified her and researched her background. She is a resident of Fairfield, Connecticut, an affluent Connecticut suburb. Her family is solidly upper middle-class. She grew up in a home appraised at three quarters of a million dollars. Her mother is CEO of her own — wait for it — PR and social media consulting firm, where this young woman has worked. And her mother is white.
And this same young woman was one of the small search committee that hired Prof. Christakis to become the Master of Silliman College. She not only knows perfectly well who hired him, she was one of them. Okay, just a hunch here — this outburst may have arisen from her need to prove herself to her peers and reclaim her place at their side, as one of them. Maybe she feels she has to disavow her role in hiring Prof. Christakis, now that he turns out to be unpopular among her friends. Maybe she’s just exhausted from walking the tightrope between her upper middle-class, privileged upbringing and status as a Yale student, and what she perceives to be her mission to identify with less privileged African-Americans; and she snapped. I don’t know, and I’m not going to name her or shame her. She’s really young, and what she is entitled to is to make mistakes. Most of us got to make ours in private but these kids play them out in public.
What I do know is that IMHO, Yale students, faculty and administrators all seem to have taken their cliched parts in a kind of absurdist “theater of free speech”, as orchestrated by some very clever self-promoters, and they are now allowing it to tear apart the fabric of their real-life community, to the detriment of anyone actually learning anything. The only person whose reactions seem to have been genuine, unrehearsed and heartfelt was Dean Holloway, the first black Dean of Yale College, who also came under fire from students claiming he isn’t a forceful enough ally. If it weren’t that I know there is much more to Yale University and other fine colleges, I’d be wondering why they are entitled to the massive tax exemptions and public subsidies they have long enjoyed. If I were Yale, I’d get to work making sure the rest of the world gets to see more of the actual value it adds to the world and tell the Christakises, behind closed doors, to STFU. Unless, of course, they’re recording the whole thing.