Two incidents involving freedom of speech on campus have made the news in recent days:
October 28: Dean Burgwell Howard and the university’s International Affairs Council sent an email to students, discouraging students from wearing costumes that featured feathered headdresses, turbans, blackface, and war paint, noting that “while students…have a right to express themselves, we would hope 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.”
October 30: Wife of the Silliman Master (the faculty adviser who lives in one of the undergraduate dorms) Erika Christakis sends an email to Silliman residents in response to students’ questions. The key excerpt:
Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – 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? 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. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you? We tend to view this shift from individual to institutional agency as a tradeoff between libertarian vs. liberal values (“liberal” in the American, not European sense of the word).
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.
Protests erupted on the Yale campus, and a confrontation with Erika’s husband Nicholas was filmed and posted on YouTube. The undergraduates surround Christakis and yell obscenities at him over his wife’s email.
Despite the efforts of the administration to quell the outrage, the protests continue and the students involved are now demanding that the university hire black psychologists for the campus health center and adopt more ethnic studies curricula. (Yale recently announced a $50M effort to hire more ethnically and racially diverse faculty.)
University of Missouri:
September 12: People in a passing pickup truck allegedly shout racial slurs at the student government president, who is black.
October 5: A drunk white student allegedly yells a racial slur at a group of black students. The university chancellor posts on a blog in response, condemning racism on campus.
October 8: Mandatory online diversity training for faculty is announced.
October 10: Black protestors block the University president’s car in the Homecoming Parade, demanding he talk to them about the incidents.
October 21: A student group called Concerned Student 1950 issues a list of demands, including an apology from the university president and his removal; diversity training for all faculty, staff and students; and more funding for black faculty and staff and for social justice centers on campus.
October 24: A swastika drawn in feces is found on a dorm bathroom wall.
November 2: A graduate student begins a hunger strike until the university president resigns. Students protest.
November 7: The football team announces that it will not participate in practices or games until the university president resigns.
November 9: The university president and chancellor resign.
* * *
The atmosphere at Yale was described to me as a “witch hunt,” even before the Halloween email controversy.
In My Day – which was not so long ago – even the most progressive students gave lip service to the value of diverse views. What has changed? Is this a return to the campus activism of the 1960s, or something different?