Almost a year removed from a series of events that rocked campus and drew national attention to Yale, University President Peter Salovey took his opinions about free speech, inclusion and the controversial events of last fall to The Wall Street Journal.
In an op-ed last Monday, entitled “Yale Believes In Free Speech — and So Do I,” Salovey argued that free expression and inclusivity are not mutually exclusive. Writing that university presidents across the country have faced the conflict between inclusivity and free speech, Salovey said he believes Yale is an inclusive community that also promotes free speech. Invited speakers are free to express their views, and the administration does not punish faculty or students for their opinions, no matter how unpopular they are, he wrote in the article.
“All too often we hear people suggesting that inclusion and free expression are mutually exclusive — participants in a zero-sum game. Yale is in a terrific position to refute that claim, and I feel a personal responsibility to help do so,” Salovey told the News.
But students interviewed disagree with Salovey on the University’s track record in upholding free expression while also fostering an inclusive campus.
In response to Salovey’s column, former opinion editor for the News Aaron Sibarium ’18 published a letter in The Wall Street Journal criticizing Salovey’s “misrepresentation” of the events last fall, citing fear among several students to voice their opinions on controversial matters.
“Many students were worried that there wasn’t a respectful climate of reasoned debate on campus,” Sibarium said.
Joshua Altman ’17, president of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale, argued that Yale failed to do so during the fallout of former Silliman Associate Head Erika Christakis’ email, in which she defended students’ right to wear culturally insensitive costumes.
“Claiming that the Yale administration succeeded in this goal last fall strays too far from the fact pattern,” Altman said. The Buckley Program was founded in 2010 by a group of Yale undergraduates in order to promote intellectual diversity on campus.
Yale never declared that even if one disagrees with the Christakises’ views, the two raised legitimate questions that warrant vigorous debate, Altman pointed out.
“While the Yale administration did not ‘punish’ [Erika Christakis] for her remarks, they also did not defend her or her right to free expression,” said Kyle Tierney ’17, vice president of the Buckley Program. “Simultaneously, Yale failed to offer an inclusive environment to the Christakises. When the Christakises were slandered and cursed [at] in the Silliman courtyard, the image of Yale as an inclusive place of free expression was shattered.”
The Christakises resigned from their positions in Silliman College this summer after facing strong backlash and outcry from students.
In his article, Salovey said Yale adheres to the principles of free speech espoused by the Woodward Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale, a committee created in 1974 to promote the “fullest degree of intellectual freedom” on campus. The spirit of the report, Altman said, is not just that the administration does not censor speech but that it actively encourages debate and disagreement on issues such as race.
On Oct. 1, about 40 Yale professors gathered to celebrate the reprinting of the 1974 Woodward Report and listen to federal appellate judge José Cabranes LAW ’65 speak about the report’s relevance to the current situation of free speech at Yale.
Cabranes said the University’s “safe spaces” and the ways in which the free speech of students and faculty members is currently monitored jeopardizes the freedoms outlined and supported by the Woodward Report.
Still, students acknowledged Salovey’s commitment to free speech, as well as the administration’s efforts in that regard.
“If you want to have free speech, you need to be able to take offense,” said Alexander Sikorski ’20, who said he supports Salovey’s commitment to free speech. “By putting policies in place that prevent people from hearing offensive speech, you are limiting what may be justifiable opinions regardless of whether or not they are offensive.”
He added that he has not seen any case of violation of free speech by the administration.
Although the events from last fall still loom large, Altman said the climate of free speech at Yale seems better this year.
“As I wrote in the essay, our campus has proven, and is proving every day, that work toward the fullest possible inclusion doesn’t stifle speech but rather fosters it,” Salovey told the News. “Take our new Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration: what a remarkable range of dialogue is emerging already from the scholarship, ideas and voices that are coming together there.”
The center, established in response to the campus racial protest, is an academic and research center focused on race, ethnicity and identity. Along with the center, the University has taken other initiatives, including a doubling of the budgets of Yale’s four cultural centers and providing training for members of the administration on recognizing and combating racism and other forms of discrimination.