By Zachary Young
June 3, 2016
Nicholas Christakis and his wife, Erika, came to Yale University in 2013 with high expectations. At Harvard, the couple had held prominent teaching and administrative roles. At Yale, Dr. Christakis, a sociologist and physician, received a laboratory directorship and four appointments; Ms. Christakis, an expert in early-childhood education, became a seminar instructor. Two years after their arrival at Yale, Dr. Christakis and Ms. Christakis were awarded positions as master and associate master of Silliman College, Yale’s largest residential college. (I attend the university and reside at Silliman).
Last week, the Christakises resigned those posts.
Early-childhood educator Erika Christakis. Photo: Axel Dupeux/Wall Street Journal
Their departure comes as no surprise. For seven months, the couple has been subject to bullying, harassment and intimidation. They inadvertently became a national media story last fall and catalyzed a month of campus protests, prompting Yale President Peter Salovey to tell minority students: “We failed you.”
The Christakises encountered a witch-hunt mentality on a contemporary college campus. It began fittingly on the day before Halloween, when Ms. Christakis questioned guidelines from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee warning against “culturally unaware or insensitive” costumes. Ms. Christakis reasoned, in an email to Silliman residents, that students should decide for themselves how to dress for Halloween, without the administration’s involvement.
Student radicals of the 1960s might have recognized her note as a defense of free expression, but those days are long gone. Instead, Ms. Christakis was denounced as a proponent of cultural insensitivity. Irate students circulated petitions, wrote editorials and posted social-media tirades. They scribbled criticisms in chalk outside the Christakises’ home and posted degrading images of them online. Two student groups demanded their removal from Silliman.
In one incident captured on video, dozens of students confronted Dr. Christakis, berating and cursing him, while a Yale dean looked on. One student screamed at Dr. Christakis: “You should not sleep at night. You are disgusting.” Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway did not help matters when, the next day, he offered his “unambiguous” support for the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s guidelines, calling their intent “exactly right.”
Though President Salovey rejected calls for the Christakises’ firing, animus for the couple simmered. In December, a crate appeared outside their Silliman office containing a sombrero and a Rastafarian wig—the sort of Halloween paraphernalia now taboo on college campuses. In January, a fake email purporting to be from Ms. Christakis objected to the administration’s safety ban on hoverboard scooters. The couple canceled teaching plans for the spring.
At Silliman College’s graduation ceremony on May 23, several seniors refused to accept their diplomas from Dr. Christakis or to shake his hand. Two days later, the Christakises announced that they would step down from Silliman. Many students celebrated the news on Facebook.
While the Christakises remain affiliated with Yale and could return to teaching, their resignations from Silliman had the air of a chapter closing in one of the more disturbing episodes of modern campus intolerance.
The Christakises made remarkably unlikely targets for purging by student activists. The couple has a long record of advocating for minority students, and the Christakises have devoted much of their academic work to highlighting health and development problems facing underserved communities.
In the months since the controversy erupted, the Christakises have met one-on-one with offended students. They have invited their critics over for a group lunch to “continue the conversation.” Though not always with success, the Christakises tried to improve a fraught situation, with little backup from the administration.
“We have great respect for every member of our community, friend and critic alike,” Dr. Christakis wrote in announcing the couple’s resignation from Silliman, effective in July. “We remain hopeful that students at Yale can express themselves and engage complex ideas within an intellectually plural community.”
On the evidence of the past year or so across American campuses, such hope is becoming ever more beleaguered. With luck, the sorry episode at Yale will cause students to spend less time vilifying professors and more time engaging with their ideas.
Mr. Young, a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Journal this summer, will be a senior at Yale University in the fall.