In the weeks since the University of Chicago issued a letter condemning trigger warnings and safe spaces, supporters and critics of the letter have returned to a similar debate that took place on Yale’s campus last fall.
The University of Chicago’s Dean of Students and administration sent the letter, addressed to incoming freshmen, in August. Since then, observers at Yale and beyond have analyzed it in the context of another controversial message, this one written last October by former Associate Head of Silliman College Erika Christakis, who criticized the Yale administration’s over-sensitivity to cultural appropriation during Halloween. Weeks of protest followed.
A Wall Street Journal editorial about the University of Chicago’s decision, published Aug. 25, said they hoped the “refreshing” move would inspire the “timorous souls” at Yale. On the other side of the debate, a Sept. 3 column in The New York Times by Yale political science lecturer Jim Sleeper, which also referred to the letter from UChicago, argued that it is conservatives’ portrayal of student protests, not the protests themselves, that endanger free speech.
Yale administrators interviewed said the University is committed to free expression as one of its core values. But, they said, they would not broach the subject in the same way that the University of Chicago did.
“We here at Yale share a long-held, strong commitment to academic freedom and free expression. We want students to be exposed to, and engage with, ideas and opinions that differ from their own, so that students may … ultimately expand their understanding and worldview,” Dean of Student Engagement Burgwell Howard said. “However, I don’t think that the Yale administration or faculty would frame the goals in exactly the same way the dean at [the University of] Chicago did, especially to first-year students exclusively.”
During their annual freshman address on Aug. 27, University President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway affirmed the value of free expression, but said it is not impossible to have open dialogue within a welcoming, intellectual community. Salovey rejected that idea as a “false narrative.”
Holloway told the News that Yale does not have a policy about trigger warnings. Many professors offer advance notice to students about offensive topics and language, but Holloway described that as “just a heads-up, and I see nothing wrong with that.”
“It’s about being decent,” Holloway said. “It does speak volumes of faculty’s capacity to be aware that the ideas we are trying to communicate might be literally traumatic to people.”
Matthew Foldi, a junior at the University of Chicago and president of the school’s College Republicans, said his school’s letter came about in part because of a note he sent to administrators condemning the cancellation of two speaker events on his campus that were deemed controversial. Those cancellations coincided with a number of national events, including allegations that a Yale student had been spit on after attending a free speech event where the speaker made a joke about the genocide of Native Americans.
“Those who profess to be so open-minded are some of the least open-minded you find,” Foldi said. “They cannot even allow for other speakers to speak on campus. While for me, the events at Yale or any other school in isolation weren’t what spurred me to make my resolution, the trend we’re seeing across the nation … manifests itself not just at Yale, but across the country.”
Nevertheless, Holloway told the News that Yale has not uninvited a speaker since the early 1970s, around the time when the University commissioned the seminal Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale to outline its policies on free speech. He added that Yale stands by the principles in that report “wholeheartedly.”
Howard said many people took issue with the seemingly dismissive approach the University of the Chicago took to communicate its thoughts on trigger warnings and safe spaces. The challenge in many cases, he said, is when intellectual debates touch on aspects of someone’s core identity. At that point, Howard explained, an individual may feel like the discussion is not a critique of what that person thinks, but rather a critique of who that person is. Yale’s goal is to create a space where people feel comfortable sharing, learning, listening and disagreeing, he said.
Students interviewed at Yale expressed varying opinions on the University of Chicago’s letter.
“I felt a deep sadness for many students of color, the LGBTQ community and other underrepresented groups at their university whose pains are being trivialized and silenced,” said Erika Hairston ’18, president of the Black Student Alliance at Yale. “Creating an inclusive community does not detract from intellectual conversation, but rather recognizes that various identities and histories are a part of these conversations and deserve to be equally considered and acknowledged.”
But Kyle Tierney ’17, vice president of Yale’s conservative William F. Buckley Jr. Program, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the bluntness of Chicago’s letter. While he thinks Yale’s administration should consider issuing a similar statement, he considers it unlikely. He added that the Buckley Program has been unhappy with how the administration has handled issues of free speech in recent years, prompting the program to republish the Woodward Report with its own added commentary.
“It is important to be civil, but in the course of enlightenment and intellectual study, there are times when ideas need to be put forward, and there cannot always be a consequence for not being civil,” Tierney said “At some point, this is a place where people try to further their education. If Yale is committed to free speech, they need to be committed to free speech fully.”
An anonymous Yale alumnus, who is familiar with both Yale and the University of Chicago, said the latter has a longstanding tradition of “confrontational questioning,” and frequently looks for opportunities to embarrass its peer institutions.
However, he added that each institution must evaluate the demands of certain groups in the context of its own history. Whatever Yale does on its own in response to questions of free speech and inclusivity will only address the particular circumstances on its own campus, he said.
Howard said Yale’s approach to the debate seeks to build a community that both honors free expression and makes students feel at home.
“One should not expect to be unoffended while at Yale, but one should expect a community that operates with mutual respect,” Howard said. “It is a challenging line to walk, but one I believe sets Yale apart from some of our peers.”