University President Peter Salovey has an impressive legacy of furthering liberal education. His op-ed in The New York Times in November, 2017 eulogized civil rights activist Pauli Murray’s proud support for liberal discourse. Murray defended the right of segregationists, whom she vigorously opposed, to present their viewpoints. As Salovey wrote in his piece, Yale dedicated a new residential college to her in the spirit of speaking forcefully “about the essential freedoms at the heart of all struggles for equality and dignity. As she taught us, our responsibility to protect freedom of expression is all the more vital if we are to overcome the hatred and division that have characterized our nation for far too long.”
Salovey’s first speech to the class of 2018 echoed these arguments. The mission of the university is to “discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching.” This trumps mutual respect and personal discomfort. Further, the right to free speech comes with the responsibility to be civil and construct coherent arguments. He cites the 1975 Woodward report, which declares that “the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom.”
Yet Yale is not living up to these high ideals. The problems of the Yale student body are well known. A small group of extremists propagate bigotry while the majority are terrified of challenging the ensuing decay of our liberal education. Not one single person leveled a cogent critique against our last column in the News, despite its direct challenge to the majority of Yale students’ core beliefs.
The University has created this environment. Cultural Connections, a University orientation program, is encouraging outright bigotry. Administrators of the program encouraged students to “snip snip” the “white man,” and speakers’ calls for violent revolution against the white man went unchallenged. A Yale administrator prevented one of us from talking about his Afghan deployment in one of our colleges because it might exclude the one Afghan the administrator thought we have on campus. The Law School administration has repressed liberal education advocates by banning their posters. All the while, they give special exceptions to activists who violate common decency by posting graphic accounts of war. In another instance, one of us was threatened by a high ranking administrator while organizing a pro–civic values event, being told, “You will regret this in ways you do not understand. I have seen students burn for this.” In this environment, few will stand up for liberal education out of concern for their careers and reputation.
We must work together to address these problems. Speeches and op-eds are not enough. First, we must launch a public discussion on the problems plaguing liberal education. We must trace the roots of the ideological polarization and encourage provocative but well-grounded debate on how to move forward. A good first step would be to hear coherent critique of our assertions about the roots of the breakdown. We welcome disagreement and will refine our ideas as needed. Further, during first-year orientation, we should have mandatory education for all students on the tenets and norms of liberal debate. There should be a lecture series and discussions on the topic.
Second, there must be limited, smaller and more professional offices of student affairs. Their current offices’ ideological activism and treatment of students as toddlers has undermined liberal debate. To start, the offices must be impartial by not favoring one interest group or ideological belief system. Deans at the offices of student affairs signing the letter denouncing Nicholas Christakis was a major breach of impartiality. In fact, they should actively promote ideological diversity through events and funding, as any liberal institution worth its salt does.
Last, we must discipline students and administrators who commit gross disrespect. The Woodward reports calls for formal sanctions to uphold free speech. The Christakis mobbing was only the tip of the iceberg, but the culprits were, if anything, rewarded. They should have been required to take liberal education classes, give a public talk about the importance of mutual respect and been threatened with suspension if they did something similar. Extreme ideological claims like “cops are just murderers” should be challenged with liberal debate by both students and faculty members.
We do not want “coddle and pander” to be Yale’s motto. What should stay — and what we should live up to — is “lux et veritas.”
Alex Frank is a third year Law student, Esteban Elizondo is an alumnus of Yale College, and Suranjan Sen is a second year law student. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org .