Addressing my freshman class in 2014, University President Peter Salovey said that “the pursuit of new knowledge … requires that we confront what we would prefer to avoid, that we engage when it would be far more comfortable to disengage.” To drive home the point, he cited several passages from the Woodward Report, Yale’s seminal document on academic freedom. There would be cases, Salovey concluded, in which “meaningful lessons can only be learned by gritting our teeth and then arguing back” — in which the answer to offensive speech, premeditated or otherwise, would be more speech of our own.
Fast forward to October of the following year, when Erika and Nicholas Christakis came under fire for telling students that if you didn’t like someone’s Halloween costume, you should say so. Their main points — that University bureaucrats had no business policing free expression, that the solution to bad speech was more speech, not less, that offense could sometimes serve a valuable purpose — were an almost verbatim restatement of Salovey’s.
Instead of defending the Christakises, however, Salovey sent out a campuswide email detailing the need to make sure “all members of our community truly feel welcome.”
“We begin this work by laying to rest the claim that it conflicts with our commitment to free speech,” he elaborated, apparently forgetting that this conflict is the whole point of the Woodward Report: “Without sacrificing its central purpose, [the University] cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect.” To deny that trade-off, as Salovey did explicitly, is to deny the axiom on which all of Yale’s free speech policies are based.
Never mind that the Woodward Report posits a “positive obligation … shared by all members of the community” to promote free expression for everyone else. At no point did Salovey chastise the myriad students who had shirked this obligation; at no point did he acknowledge that two Yale professors were being burned in effigy for saying exactly what he had said just a year earlier. By the time campus returned to normal, Salovey not only sold out the Christakises but also his own principles — assuming he had them to begin with.
That assumption grew more dubious in 2016, when Salovey announced the initial decisions on “master” and “Calhoun.”
“The use of ‘master,’” he conceded, was part of an “ancient collegiate tradition” that had nothing to do with slavery. But because it was not “intrinsically tied to Yale’s history … the reasons to change the title of ‘master’ proved more compelling than the reasons to keep it.” Salovey’s argument was contradictory on its face. The “ancient collegiate tradition” to which “master” belonged is the same one that spawned modern research universities such as Yale, which emphasize academic mastery over a craft; replacing this title with the corporate-sounding “head of college” would obviously estrange Yale from its pedagogical roots, corroding a time-honored tradition with bureaucratic glut.
Meanwhile Calhoun was causing more people more discomfort, and for better reasons, than an Oxbridge holdover used for centuries without umbrage. But here Salovey took a stand. He couldn’t allow outrage or ochlocracy to rebrand a “much-beloved” residential college, even one named for an avowed white supremacist.
The adjective gave it away: Changing Calhoun might have angered alumni and hurt Yale’s bottom line; axing “master” posed no such risk. I suspect Salovey thought that by making strategic concessions to the activists, he could avoid another PR fiasco and hold onto donors.
Until he couldn’t. Students began protesting the decision as soon as it was announced, and after Fox News had made “shrieking girl” its go-to punching bag for the better part of six months, Salovey decided the best way to save face would be to remove any further cause for conflagration. So the administration convened the “Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming” — whose precepts seemed designed to leave alone everything but Calhoun — and set about pawning off rank capitulation as prudent governance. That Calhoun would change was never in doubt once the question had been reopened; doubling down again would have sown chaos, which Salovey wanted desperately to avoid.
It should go without saying that there is nothing principled about inventing an entire list of guidelines and regulations just so you can justify surrender to public opinion. These reversals no doubt fueled the perception of a spineless, weak-willed Salovey, who appears utterly incapable of standing up for what he believes.
But in many ways, this diagnosis gives Yale’s 23rd president far too much credit. His is not the stewardship of a man who understands his duty but lacks the will to execute it. Rather, the Salovey regime takes its cues from The Organization Kid whose heyday has come and gone — managerial, efficiency-minded and thoroughly amoral. Perhaps this is why it commands such universal disdain: In a climate of protest and paroxysm, feckless leaders make for dangerous enemies.
Aaron Sibarium is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .