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Politics

After Furor, Halloween Costume e-Mail Ousts Yale Lecturer Christakis

A lecturer at Yale on Early Childhood Education, Erika Christakis, has quit over an email she wrote urging students to pick their own Halloween costumes – even if they were offensive – drew criticism.

She wrote the email in October suggesting that there could be negative consequences to students ceding “implied control” over Halloween costumes to institutional forces.

“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,” she wrote, “a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”

Her position was in response to a directive from the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale warning students it would be insensitive to wear costumes that symbolized cultural appropriation or misrepresentation, or both, like feathered headdresses, turbans, war paint, blackface or redface, or costumes making fun of people.

Christakis made a “voluntary decision not to teach in the future,” according to a statement from the university, the New York Times said.

Her husband, Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a physician and a Professor of Sociology at Yale, will take a one-semester sabbatical, the university said. The statement said the administration hoped  she would reconsider, quitting.

“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 email, combined with an overheard “white girls only” remark at a fraternity party, helped set off protests over racial insensitivity at Yale.

A debate over whether the protests and efforts to legislate forms of expression like Halloween costumes were making students and faculty afraid to speak out if they disagreed at the school which said it welcomed freedom of expression.

After the email, a group of students confronted her and one was shown in a video posted on YouTube screaming at her, “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not!” the student was heard yelling. “Do you understand that? It is about creating a home here!”

Dr. Christakis is the Master of Silliman College, an undergraduate residence at Yale, and his wife is Associate Master, posts they will keep the school said. They didn’t respond to the Times’ request for comment.

In 2009, he was named to the Time 100, Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2009 and again in 2010, Christakis was named by Foreign Policy magazine to its list of top global thinkers

The message caused an uproar among some students who said the email was insensitive and itself failed to create a “safe space” at Silliman.

In an email to the Washington Post, she implied that the Halloween controversy and its fallout were at the heart of her decision:

“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 a shot at the school’s apparent policy of both urging and squelching freedom of expression if some students don’t like what you say or what they think you’re implying or suggesting or hinting or indicating.

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