On Nov. 29, physics professor Douglas Stone released an open letter expressing support for Silliman College Master Nicholas Christakis and Associate Master Erika Christakis. In the days that followed, students began to raise concerns that the professors who chose to sign onto the letter — three quarters of whom work in STEM fields — are out of touch with campus climate.
Stone’s letter defended Erika Christakis’ controversial Halloween email as a call for discussion based on “positive intent,” and argued that the Christakises were acting in the best interests of their students. But students who disagree with this message have raised concerns that the 63 professors who signed the letter do not understand conversations taking place on campus. Many were especially concerned that the majority of those professors focus on STEM disciplines, arguing that faculty in those fields were especially unsympathetic to the plight of minority students on campus. Still, STEM professors interviewed largely expressed views similar to those reported by professors in other fields.
American studies major Olivier van Donselaar ’17 wrote in a social media post that the signers of the open letter were out-of-touch with campus dialogue.
“The fact that the large majority of the faculty that signed this letter in support of the Christakises are in STEM just shows how far-removed from reality these people are,” van Donselaar wrote. “Maybe we should require faculty to take an ethnic studies class too?”
Biomedical engineering major Bianca Li ’17 said STEM professors are generally further dissociated from campus due to the time constraints of their research and because of what she described as an “old boys” atmosphere that insulates them from campus debates.
“I have a suspicion that, unless they are involved with residential college life, STEM faculty members are just as far out of the bubble as people who are not at Yale at all,” Li said. “When professors were present, I didn’t even feel comfortable reaching out to my friends about how they were being impacted by the Christakis email except very briefly before a class with a STEM professor who is a woman of color.”
Some students suggested that STEM faculty are in general less likely to be aware of debates on campus due to the nature of professors’ respective fields. Astrophysics major Kareem El-Badry ’16 said that, while many non-STEM fields directly or indirectly engage with the questions underlying the debates on campus, STEM professors tend to have less direct experience studying the issues.
“People in non-STEM fields have likely just been exposed to more discussions about race than people in STEM fields,” El-Badry said. Still, he said he believes there are large differences between professors’ awareness levels, even within departments.
El-Badry added that when a previous open letter expressing solidarity with students of color was distributed on campus, the astronomy department chair sent an email to the department about race issues on campus, after which almost all astronomy faculty signed the letter. The chair also contacted the department faculty suggesting professors be sensitive to student needs given widespread campus sentiments.
STEM professors interviewed disagreed with the idea that faculty in their disciplines are out-of-touch with recent movements on campus.
Computer science professor Brian Scassellati, who signed the letter, said the distributional makeup of the letter’s signees has a far simpler explanation: The author of the letter simply sent it to friends and colleagues who were naturally within his field and similar departments. Computer science professor Joan Feigenbaum agreed, suggesting that any distributional irregularities were probably just the result of who knew whom.
Many professors who signed the letter suggested that it took a nuanced stance on the issues involved and added context about the roles the Christakises have played in activism on a national level. Psychology professor Tyrone Cannon said he signed the letter because he thinks that contentious issues should be treated with civil, mutually respectful discourse and he believes that the Christakises did just that in their communications with students on campus.
“Clearly, racism continues to exist in our society, and many people are understandably and justifiably affected in deeply emotional ways by the various expressions of it,” Cannon said. “We clearly need to do more as a society — at large as well as at Yale — to confront racist attitudes and work toward a greater sense of inclusiveness … People like the Christakises, who give so much of themselves to help create a vibrant intellectual community at Yale, are part of the solution, not the problem.”
This afternoon, several professors from STEM departments including MCDB, MB&B and physics will host a luncheon for students to talk with faculty about racial debates and concerns on campus, according to Joyce Guo ’17, one of the event’s organizers.
Guo said the professors hope to express a renewed commitment to attentiveness and support for students of color at the luncheon. The event will be held in the Silliman Fellows’ Lounge, and will happen again next Friday. Li said she hoped dialogues such as today’s luncheon would serve to better incorporate STEM faculty into the discussions on campus and make it easier to include STEM faculty perspectives in the dialogue.
The November open letter expressing solidarity with students of color was authored by five FAS senators and signed by 500 professors.