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Yale Lecturer Whose Email to Students Ignited Debate Over Racial Issues Resigns

Erika Christakis sent an email in October about potentially offensive Halloween costumes that quickly set off a debate over political correctness and racial issues on college campuses.

by Olivia Becker
Dec 8 2015, 4:50pm

Photo via Flickr

The Yale lecturer whose email to students regarding Halloween costumes set off a long-simmering controversy regarding minority students and political correctness on the elite Ivy League campus, is now resigning her teaching post. 

The university said on Monday in a statement that Christakis, an instructor of early childhood education and live-in administrator, known as a "master," in one of the university's residential colleges, Silliman College, had voluntarily decided to stop teaching.

"Erika Christakis is a well-regarded instructor, and the university's leadership is disappointed that she has chosen not to continue teaching in the spring semester," the statement said. "Her teaching is highly valued and she is welcome to resume teaching anytime at Yale, where freedom of expression and academic inquiry are the paramount principle and practice."

Her husband, Nicholas Christakis, who is a professor of sociology and medicine at Yale as well as a Silliman master alongside his wife, will be taking a one-semester sabbatical in the spring, according to the Washington Post. He expects to focus more on laboratory research, but will continue serving in his capacity as Silliman administrator.

Though Erika Christakis will go back to working with children and families, Yale's president, Peter Salovey, told the Post that she would remain associate master of Silliman.

"I have great respect and affection for my students, but I worry that the current climate at Yale is not, in my view, conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems," she said in an email to the Post.

Her teaching resignation comes about six weeks after she sent an email in her capacity of associate master to Silliman students in October urging them to be more open about the right of people to wear Halloween costumes that some might deem offensive. It came in response to a message sent by the school's Intercultural Affairs Committee that cautioned students from wearing potentially offensive costumes that misappropriated other cultures or races.

"This year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween," she wrote. While noting that she did not wish to "trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community," Christakis went on to question the imposition of "standards and motives" on others as well as the feasibility of agreeing on how to avoid offense.

"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 asked. "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."

The email quickly set off a campus-wide debate as well as massive protests over political correctness, free speech, and racial issues at Yale that had long been simmering under the surface. Many students criticized Christakis for being insensitive to racially offensive behavior at the elite Ivy schools, and said she was ignorant of how minority students are treated at those institutions. Others, however, countered that the growth of political correctness at Yale was in danger of policing free speech and hindering the open expression of thoughts and ideas that is central to higher education.

A video showing a confrontation between a student and Nicholas Christakis, which quickly went viral, demonstrates the tenor of the debate at Yale. In the video, a female student confronts Christakis by yelling, "It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It is about creating a home here!"

A student activist group called Next Yale issued a list of demands to the university's administration last month, which included the immediate removal of both Erika and Nicholas Christakis from their positions. Salovey refused to do so, citing a general high regard for the professors among their colleagues and other students on campus.

The racial issues brought up by the email at Yale quickly spread to other Ivy League schools. At Princeton last month, student activists occupied the university president's office, pressing the school to address a list of their demands, including the removal of Woodrow Wilson's name from several prominent campus buildings. Other solidarity actions took place at Harvard, Columbia, and Brown.

Photo via Flickr

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