A demonstration at Yale University against what many students see as racial insensitivity on campus, New Haven, Connecticut, November 9, 2015

Chris Melamed

A demonstration at Yale University against what many students see as racial insensitivity on campus, New Haven, Connecticut, November 9, 2015


After weeks of student protest about racial inequality on campus, Yale President Peter Salovey announced on November 17 that the university would be making significant changes to address “longstanding inequities.” The announcement came just five days after a group of Yale students delivered a list of demands to Salovey, and it marked a significant victory for the students, and for racial justice. At the same time, however, the Yale controversy offers a vital lesson both in the power of free speech and in the dangers of seeking its curtailment in the name of equality.

The Yale dispute deserves attention all the more because it is part of a growing national student movement. A website that has been set up to collect student group demands to end “systemic and structural racism on campus” includes more than seventy colleges across the country, from Puget Sound to Eastern Michigan to Georgia Southern to Claremont McKenna (www.thedemands.org). The list grows almost daily.

The demands vary in their particulars, but most seek some mixture of more faculty of color, greater resources for cultural centers focused on minority groups, expanded curricular offerings dedicated to issues of race and ethnicity, training in identifying racial bias, and increased aid for low-income students. Universities have responded in a variety of ways. Most notably, Brown University announced on November 20 a $100 million initiative aimed at increasing racial inclusivity on campus. (Some Brown students of color have dismissed even that as insufficient, and have sought still more reforms.)

Some of the students’ demands, however, also seek to limit speech, by the college itself and by fellow students. Students at the University of Missouri sought and obtained the resignation of their college president and chancellor for what they considered insufficient responses to racist speech on or near the campus, including epithets directed at black students and faculty. At Princeton, students of color have contended that, because of Woodrow Wilson’s racist views, the school should remove his name from a residential college and from the university’s school of public policy. That request remains under consideration but in recent weeks Princeton and Harvard both abolished the title of “master” for residential college heads, a change that Yale students have also urged.

At Amherst, students demanded, among other things, that the president condemn the posting of a sign reading “All Lives Matter,” deemed offensive to the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement; that the school’s unofficial mascot, Lord Jeff, played by a student in disguise, be abandoned because its namesake allegedly advocated spreading smallpox among Native Americans; and that the school’s honor code be revised to reflect “zero-tolerance” of “racially insensitive” remarks. Students at Wesleyan sought to deny funding to the student newspaper because it published an Op-Ed critical of Black Lives Matter. And Georgetown University has announced that it will rename two buildings because the individuals whose names they bear profited from slavery.

The emergence of a nationwide movement for racial justice, in which students have been inspired to voice their grievances and challenge the status quo, is a welcome change from the much-bemoaned apathy of previous generations. But as the examples above illustrate, the students have sometimes sought to suppress or compel the expressions of others, a fundamentally illiberal tactic that is almost certain to backfire, and that risks substituting symbol for substance in the struggle for justice.


The Yale protests came to national attention when a short video of one particular confrontation in early November went viral. In it a black woman, a Yale senior, curses Professor Nicholas Christakis, a white residential college master, as he converses with a circle of students about racial tensions on campus. In the conversation, students speak of the need for “safe spaces” and demand an on-the-spot apology from the master for an e-mail that his wife, who is associate master, sent to students of their college, defending the freedom of students to wear “provocative” Halloween costumes.

When the master says that “other people have rights, too,” the student responds, “Why the fuck did you accept the position? Who the fuck hired you? You should step down.” Moments later, she concludes, “you should not sleep at night…you are disgusting,” and walks away. Her words are highly inappropriate, to say the least. But the overall impression is not so much that she is rude as that she is angry and frustrated; it looks not unlike the rage that many teenagers occasionally vent at their parents.

Critics seized on the one-minute-twenty-second video, condemning the students for their intolerance and incivility.1 But because it captures only a single inflammatory exchange, the video has distorted perceptions about the issue at Yale and elsewhere. For some time, Yale students of color have maintained that the school does not sufficiently welcome them. As of the fall of 2013, only 2.9 percent of Yale faculty were Latino and only 3.5 percent were black. Students of color are more likely than white students to be stopped by campus police, mistaken for service staff, and stereotyped and slighted by students and faculty alike. Students across the country have expressed similar complaints. Racial bias, these students remind us, is not limited to police encounters in high-crime, inner-city neighborhoods, but permeates American life, including the hallowed halls of our nation’s best universities.


The fact that so many of the recent controversies have arisen on college campuses is in some sense paradoxical. Because universities can select their student bodies and are committed to diversity, they are some of the most integrated sites in an otherwise still largely segregated nation. Despite the myth of the “melting pot,” most of us live, work, worship, and socialize in segregated circles. We watch different movies, listen to different music, wear different clothes, go to different bars and nightclubs. But the academy can be an experiment in integration, where students from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences study and live together. Elite institutions such as Yale are not as integrated as they should be, of course, and remain disproportionately the preserve of the privileged. But as of fall 2014, Yale College’s student body was 49 percent of minority descent, including 11 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic, 23 percent Asian, and 3 percent American Indian or Alaska native. Such integration is not without friction, however, and students of color bear the brunt of the friction.

The immediate catalyst for the confrontation in the Yale video was an e-mail Erika Christakis sent on October 30 to the students of Silliman College, one of Yale’s twelve residential colleges, questioning whether an earlier Intercultural Affairs Committee e-mail urging students to avoid offensive Halloween costumes was too heavy-handed. The committee’s e-mail, itself prompted by an incident several years earlier in which some students had gone out in blackface, was not, in fact, especially heavy-handed.

The committee’s e-mail acknowledged that students “definitely have a right to express themselves,” and merely said the administration hoped

that people would actively avoid those circumstances that threaten our sense of community or disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression.

Ms. Christakis’s e-mail, which begins by noting that it was prompted by conversations with Silliman students who had objected to the committee’s message, expresses concern that colleges are becoming places of “censure and prohibition.” “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 asks.2

Some students, including those demanding an apology in the video, viewed Ms. Christakis’s letter as a tone-deaf invitation to wear racist costumes. Rumors, as yet unverified, that a student at a fraternity Halloween party turned away a black woman claiming that the party was “for white girls only” stirred passions further. (Yale announced in early December that its investigation found that there were black students present at the party, that the alleged incident was supported only by second-hand hearsay, and that there was “no evidence of systematic discrimination against people of color.”) Shortly thereafter, a group of students naming themselves Next Yale called for Mr. and Ms. Christakis to be dismissed from their positions as master and associate master of Silliman College. Among other things, they also demanded that Yale eliminate the term “master” and rename another residential college, now named after John Calhoun, an outspoken defender of slavery in the antebellum era.3

In part because of the video, and in part because of these demands, the Yale controversy has been portrayed as pitting racial equality against free speech. But that diagnosis misses the broader picture. Most of what has taken place at Yale and other colleges reflects the best traditions of free speech: students of color and others have been organizing politically, holding rallies, and speaking out. They are using their speech rights to communicate their experiences and demand equal justice. That’s exactly how the freedom of expression should work.

And the core of what they are fighting for is critically important, indeed necessary: an inclusive community that treats them as equals. The students have focused in particular on faculty hiring. A school with so few black and Latino faculty sends a powerful even if unintended message to its students of color: that they may be good enough to attend, but not to teach there. It also denies minority students the opportunities for mentorship that their white fellow students take for granted. Of course, faculty can and do mentor across races, but it is crucial that students of color have teachers who share their experiences in our still racially divided world.


According to a poster on campus, Yale’s African-American faculty has grown at the glacial pace of 1 percent each century since its founding (rising from 0 percent in 1701 to 3 percent in 2015). Twenty-five years ago, Yale Law School had three black faculty members; today, it still has only three. In over two hundred years, the law school has hired only one black female professor, one Latina female, and no Latino males. (The law faculty does, however, have two East Asian professors, four South Asians, and one Arab-American.) The underrepresentation of African-American and Latino faculty is not unique to Yale, but a nationwide phenomenon, and a central focus of the campus protests.

The Yale students also sought greater attention to ethnic studies in the curriculum, increased financial aid, and more resources for the school’s four cultural centers (Afro-American, La Casa, Native American, and Asian American). These centers, which have been given designated space in university buildings, offer a haven for students who feel disrespected, misunderstood, or harmed as they navigate life at an institution built on white privilege. They can be a site for the kind of collective action that is apparently necessary to push the administration to address minority students’ concerns. And their very existence says to the community at large that the school values the experiences of all who attend, not just of those who match Yale’s historical pedigree.

A still from the video showing Nicholas Christakis being confronted by Yale students, November 5, 2015
A still from the video showing Nicholas Christakis being confronted by Yale students, November 5, 2015

To a considerable degree, the Yale students’ protests have been heard. Some four hundred professors signed a letter in support of the students for challenging “institutionalized inequalities” on campus (although the letter did not specify what these inequalities consisted of). The university has launched a multimillion-dollar effort to increase the diversity of the faculty. And in his November 17 statement, Yale President Salovey announced four initiatives designed to “make significant changes so that all members of our community truly feel welcome and can participate equally in the activities of the university.” They include creating an interdisciplinary center for the study of race, ethnicity, and identity; hiring additional faculty to teach these subjects; doubling funding for the university’s cultural centers; training its staff to detect and address racial and ethnic bias; and improved financial aid. These are important victories for the protesting students, and for the student body as a whole.

None of the measures Salovey announced is without challenges. Hiring more faculty of color is easier said than done, as there is a relative dearth of African-American and Latino candidates with doctorates in many fields. Schools like Yale and Brown may be able to hire away such scholars from other schools, but at least in the short term that only redistributes the problem. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012, African-Americans received only about 7 percent of all doctoral degrees, and that figure includes law degrees, medical degrees, and education degrees, most of whose recipients do not seek to teach in universities.4 In 2012–2013, African-Americans made up only 5 percent of doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math.5

Increasing support for cultural centers and racial and ethnic studies also has potential downsides. While such initiatives are invaluable for many students, there is at least some danger that they may further divide university life along racial and ethnic lines, and thereby increase the sense of alienation that many minority students report. As Kwame Anthony Appiah warned in these pages nearly twenty years ago, identity politics can lead to a kind of “illiberal multiculturalism,” emphasizing separate spheres, rather than “liberal multiculturalism,” which celebrates mutual tolerance and respect.6

Other schools have responded to student complaints by urging faculty to be more sensitive to the fact that their classrooms are much more diverse than when they were students themselves. This need not come at a cost to intellectual exchange about difficult subjects. As NYU Law School, guided by its students of color, recently advised its faculty, there are fairly simple measures faculty can take to create a more inclusive classroom. They include encouraging participation from all, not shying away from issues of race and class, underscoring the importance of both respect and a robust exchange of ideas, and providing anonymous channels for student feedback while a course proceeds. As long as attentiveness to difference does not stifle intellectual exchange, it can go a long way toward creating a learning environment that welcomes all.

So rather than condemning students at Yale and other colleges for trampling on free speech, we should commend them for using their speech rights to push their institutions to take more seriously their obligation to all their students.


Significantly, President Salovey did not dismiss the Christakises from their residential college positions, banish the term “master,” or rename Calhoun College. Those were the right calls.7 In calling for the dismissal of the master and his wife, the students lost sight of the very free speech principles that they otherwise used to their advantage. Ms. Christakis’s e-mail casts no aspersions on any minority group. Nor does it recommend the donning of racist costumes. It is a plea for free expression. As the letter says, “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

It is understandable that some students found Ms. Christakis’s letter offensive. But there is no evidence that any offense was intended. Moreover, the fact that speech offends is not a reason to punish the speaker. The Supreme Court defended this principle most recently in 2011 when it overturned a jury verdict against the Westboro Baptist Church for offensive and homophobic protests near the funeral of an American soldier:

Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.

The First Amendment governs only official state action, and therefore does not limit Yale, a private institution. But the same principles of free expression animate the doctrine of academic freedom, which Yale, like other universities, has fully endorsed. And while the educational mission entails requiring a certain level of decorum in classroom discussions, in order to make possible civil discourse among people who hold different views, it does not countenance punishing a professor (or student) for questioning administration policy, much less for espousing bedrock principles of free expression. That Ms. Christakis is an associate master of the college, in charge of a residential community, does not negate her right to express such opinions, especially in a university setting, and punishing the Christakises by removing them from their positions would have sent an unacceptable message of intolerance.

In 1974, Yale’s president Kingman Brewster commissioned a study of free speech after a series of incidents in which controversial speakers, including General William Westmoreland and Stanford physicist William Shockley, either had their invitations rescinded or were disrupted by hecklers. The report, written by one of the nation’s greatest historians of race relations, C. Vann Woodward, remains an apt guide for today. It argues that intellectual growth requires “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” And it insists that where the values of community and intellectual rigor conflict, the latter must prevail. In a passage that speaks directly to current demands at Yale and elsewhere for “safe spaces,” it maintains:

A university…is not primarily a fellowship, a club, a circle of friends…. Without sacrificing its central purpose, it cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect. To be sure, these are important values…and a good university will seek and may in some significant measure attain these ends. But it will never let these values, important as they are, override its central purpose. We value freedom of expression precisely because it provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox.

Yale wisely adopted the Woodward Commission’s approach, and to this day informs all incoming freshmen that by coming to Yale, “you join a community where ‘the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox’ must be tolerated.”8

Wholly apart from the values of academic inquiry, it is a mistake to seek to suppress speech in the name of equality. Free speech and association are rights of special importance to the minority—as the Yale students themselves have demonstrated. The freedom of speech empowers them to express their views, to dissent from majority policies, and to organize politically to advance their interests, just as, before them, it lent protection to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and other civil rights activists. The last thing a minority group should seek is the suppression of nonviolent free expression.

Focusing on offensive speech also distracts from the more significant issues of racial injustice that persist more than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation unconstitutional. African-Americans are disproportionately the victims of violence, both from the police and from their fellow citizens. They have far fewer economic and educational opportunities. Virtually the only American institutions in which they are over- rather than underrepresented are prisons and the military. They have considerably less wealth and shorter life expectancy than whites. And countless studies have shown that they are the victims of the implicit, often unconscious biases of doctors, employers, teachers, police, and probably everyone else they encounter. These are the pressing racial problems of our time—not Erika Christakis’s e-mail or the fact that her title is “associate master.” As media reactions illustrate, there is a real risk that by going after the Christakises the students’ very legitimate complaints about much more serious problems will be drowned out.

The demands to remove the names of ancestors with racist views from college buildings is similarly misguided (though admittedly less directly threatening to values of free expression). Changing the name of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton or of Calhoun College at Yale is a sideshow; it will do little or nothing to advance racial justice at either institution. It substitutes cheap symbolism for the concrete measures needed to achieve real progress. If symbolism is the issue, moreover, it would be far better to commission new monuments, and to use new naming opportunities to express a message of inclusion, than to airbrush disturbing facts about our past. John Calhoun was a racist, and students should confront the fact that he is part of Yale’s legacy (as of our nation’s), not have his name erased from public memory. That route has few stopping points. Should the Washington Monument be renamed because Washington owned slaves? Should the FDR Memorial be taken down because he interned over 100,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans? Or is it better to teach Americans why slavery and internment were wrong, and that even our national heroes did things that we now judge as immoral and unjust?

Yale students are right to complain that their critics have failed to look beyond the viral video involving Mr. and Ms. Christakis. If we want to understand the controversy at Yale, or at any of the many colleges that are experiencing similar protests, we must take seriously the deep and lasting wounds that continue to afflict the African-American community. We must demand, with the students, more diversity in faculty and staff, greater resources for minority students, and greater sensitivity to the challenges of building an integrated community of mutual respect and academic inquiry.

If President Salovey’s promises of significant change are realized, the students will have won—for the good of the whole university. But the struggle will not be over. Responding to the challenges of diversity in a racially divided world is a full-time job. And continued activism will be needed to keep administrations at Yale and elsewhere to their promises. Demands to punish Erika Christakis, rename buildings, and suppress “racially insensitive” remarks trivialize the cause. Students engaged in what is one of the most promising movements for racial justice in decades would do well to abandon such requests and focus their and our attention on the more systemic problems of equal justice that continue to plague us all.