Yale teacher at center of Halloween costume controversy resigns

Yale lecturer Erika Christakis has resigned, months after an email she sent sparked a wave of student protests over free speech and racism at Yale. The university announced the news with a statement Monday:

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. 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.

Christakis told The Washington Post in an email that “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.”

Back in October, Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent out an email to students imploring them to avoid insensitive Halloween costumes. “Halloween is… unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most Yale students can sometimes be forgotten and some poor decisions can be made including wearing feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface,” the email reads, and continues, “we would hope that people would actively avoid those circumstances.” The committee then offers a few guidelines on how to avoid offensive costumes.

The email wasn’t that far off from what other schools have done to steer students away from offensive Halloween costumes. But the response of Christakis, an associate master of the residential college Silliman, sparked a wave of protests at the school. She wrote, among other things:

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.

That reaction was met with apprehension from some. Her critics wrote an open letter taking issue with her premise (and the fact that she compared Yale students dressing up for Halloween with pre-schoolers dressing up in play). From the letter:

The contents of your email were jarring and disheartening. Your email equates old traditions of using harmful stereotypes and tropes to further degrade marginalized people, to preschoolers playing make believe. This both trivializes the harm done by these tropes and infantilizes the student body to which the request was made. You fail to distinguish the difference between cosplaying fictional characters and misrepresenting actual groups of people. In your email, you ask students to “look away” if costumes are offensive, as if the degradation of our cultures and people, and the violence that grows out of it is something that we can ignore.

They added that racially insensitive expressions make Yale an unsafe space. Student activists interrupted a free speech conference, and they called for Christakis’ resignation. When Christakis’ husband Nicholas Christakis, a Yale professor and the master of Silliman, tried to defend her, an impassioned student’s response went viral:

Protests were covered nationally, and considered in tandem with ones at the University of Missouri, where the community struggles with consistent, overtly racist acts against students.

Her defenders, however, think Yale should have protected her right to express an unpopular opinion. Inside Higher Ed points out that several professors signed an open letter defending Erika and Nicholas, writing, “While the university stands for many values, none is more central than the value of free expression of ideas…We join with the Christakises in appealing for discussion based on ‘positive intent:’ the assumption that all sides are coming to the table in good faith and with compassion.”

In a letter to Inside Higher Ed, Yale professor Douglas Stone said Christakis’ resignation is a loss for students. “Last year Erika Christakis’s classes were shopped by over 300 students and many who wished to take them were turned away,” Stone said of the well-regarded early childhood specialist. Stone continued, “she has received truly exceptional teaching evaluations… Those who mounted the campaign against her have significantly reduced educational choice for all Yale undergrads.”