Nicholas Christakis ’84 — the Yale sociologist and physician who resigned his post as head of Silliman College after getting caught up in a firestorm of race-related controversy in the fall of 2015 — was one of four faculty members on Monday given the title of Sterling professor, the highest honor bestowed on Yale faculty.

The appointments, made by the University president and confirmed by the Yale Corporation, were announced last week in a Yale News article.

Though acclaimed in academic circles for his interdisciplinary research straddling the fields of network science, biosocial science and public health, Christakis has been a divisive figure at Yale since Halloween of 2015, when his wife, Erika Christakis, sent an email defending students’ right to wear “offensive” costumes. The email prompted widespread backlash on campus, and the couple fast became embroiled in a nationwide debate over questions of cultural appropriation and free speech.  

With students and alumni demanding they step down from their posts at Silliman College, which they had held for just a year, the Christakises resigned at the end of the 2015–16 academic year.

Brea Baker ’16, who participated in the fall 2015 protests, said she was not surprised by Christakis’ appointment, since it falls in line with the Salovey administration’s habit of “sneak decision making and going against the will of the student body.” Still, she said, she was “shocked at the explicit cowardice” to announce the appointment, which she called “insult enough,” when students were away from campus on summer break.

“Yale sells a vision of intimate residential college system led by administrators tasked with our emotional and social health above anything,” Baker said. “Based on the original email, administrative responses and now this appointment, it seems that only students of color understand this. If Yale insists on selling this narrative, then those who don’t understand their obligations to the student body should be replaced.”

Christakis did not respond to a request for comment from the News.

Others on campus view Christakis as a crusader for free speech. Cameron Koffman ’19, president of the Buckley Program, who heard him speak at two different Buckley events on the importance of free speech, said he thought Christakis was a fantastic speaker and “that Yale was lucky to have someone like him on the faculty.”

Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart told the News that the University fully supports Christakis’ Sterling professorship and does not see it as a controversial issue. When asked whether the 2015 protests had any effect on the appointment, Peart stressed that Christakis’ new honor was the result of his body of academic work.

His research, which has appeared in more than 180 peer-reviewed professional journal articles and several books, includes large-scale randomized trials to improve maternal and child health in developing countries and science experiments exploring human social interactions, social genomics, the microbiome and artificial intelligence.

Christakis currently serves as director of the Human Nature Lab and co-director of the Yale Institute for Network Science, holding appointments in the Sociology, Biomedical Engineering, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Statistics and Data Science departments, as well as in the School of Medicine and the School of Management.

“Nicholas Christakis is a world-renowned scholar of social networks, and he has been an innovator in the intersection between the biological and social sciences,” said Grace Kao, sociology professor and chair of the sociology department. “I think it’s a great honor to have someone in our department be recognized by a Sterling Professorship.”

The other three faculty members honored with Sterling professorships were Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology professor Anna Marie Pyle, Computer Science professor Daniel Spielman and English professor Ruth Bernard Yeazell.Pyle is known for her research on RNA structure and protein enzymes’ RNA recognition, while Spielman’s focuses on the design and analysis of algorithms, network science, machine learning, digital communications and scientific computing. Yeazell’s academic work concentrates on the novel from the 18th to the 20th centuries, the history of gender and sexuality and the relationship between literature and the visual arts.

Hailey Fuchs contributed reporting.

Adelaide Feibel | adelaide.feibel@yale.edu

  • SirEarl

    “Yale sells a vision of intimate residential college system led by administrators tasked with our emotional and social health above anything”

    Uh, no. This is the same nonsense that was screamed at Professor Christakis three years ago. From Yale’s website describing the duties of the Head of College: “He or she is responsible for the physical well being and safety of students in the residential college, as well as for fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college.” By no stretch of the imagination can or should this be construed to mandate placating students who are ill-equipped to face viewpoints that bruise their fragile egos.

    After all, a liberal education involves being exposed to numerous viewpoints (both in and out of the classroom), some of which may run counter to one’s own views. The coddling that Ms. Baker sees as the primary goal of the residential college system is in direct conflict with Yale’s educational mission.

    • Nancy Morris

      Agreed and yikes!

      Each Yale residential college primarilly as a cozy, censored, social justice safe space “above anything?” Wow.

      Somebody was more than a bit casual in reading the brochure.

    • marymig

      How did someone of Ms. Baker’s apparent immaturity ever get past the admissions committee?

    • CharlieWalls

      I certainly agree that this piece should have provided more information about the others, which could have replaced a portion of the excess about Prof Christakis. However, the paragraph listing his half-dozen or so appointments in different departments was helpful. That sort of individual was really not available for Silliman College — a man of too many hats.

    • mbwcdw

      Long overdue justice for Christakis at last.

    • Mulberry Field

      Tell that to the helicopters that raised these kids.

  • Kenneth McKenna

    This is wonderful. Christakis is a brilliant, original researcher and should be recognized.

    This appointment will also serve as a pointed answer to those who insinuate that the incidents of 2015 have caused Yale to disparage Christakis or pressure him.

    Now if only some way could be found to get the wonderful Erika Christakis back to teaching her fabulous course.

    The YDN should, of course, be criticized for its dreadful reporting style. This story is about Yale recognizing its great scientists and scholars. Far more coverage should have been given to the work of each of those elevated to Sterling Professor level. Yet those other than Christakis are virtually treated as footnotes, which they definitely are not.

    The YDN gives far too much prominence in this story to those involved in the Halloween fuss. The Halloween SJW trick-or-treaters should have been given at most a line at the end and told to get a life.

  • Bulldog

    Four renowned, remarkable professors are promoted to Sterling professors, but three of them get a single sentence, and the forth is attacked as being divisive and a “sneak decision” appointed against the will of the student body. Appointments are based on credentials and talent, not on the emotions of some fraction of the 18-22 year olds on campus three years ago, mad about something written by a spouse. I cannot believe the outrageous entitlement implicit in the suggestion the appointment decision should be otherwise. Seriously, have y’all been huffing?

  • 4more444

    It would be nice to see YDN give the other three their due.

    • numberonelesliehallfan

      Thank you for saying this! It’s so true!

  • matt10023

    Well, that will just not do. How can any person who’s disliked by the mob get an award, no matter his or her contributions. The administration must punish those who awarded him this honor….or else.

  • Wittgenstein007

    Lest it be forgotten: Nicholas Christakis’s academic work focuses on maximizing the efficiency of targeted medical interventions in the developing world. He has saved more lives — especially of people of color — than every protestor put together.

  • marymig

    Thoroughly applaud this move!

  • Anonymous’ Bosh

    “Shriieeeek!”

  • Kira

    The tide maybe turning in the direction of open and honest intellectual engagement and away from Yale existing as a safe space for the intellectually afraid to engage. Oh my! Kudos to Yale on this one. This must be truly frightening for people of the left though. What if one had to defend their ideas using logic and reason instead of using the Nazi-like tactics of labeling adversaries racist, homophobic, deplorable, etc.

  • Phil Ostrand

    Ms Feible engages in lazy journalism. To quote, “Christakis has been a divisive figure at Yale since Halloween of 2015, when his wife, Erika Christakis, sent an email defending students’ right to wear “offensive” costumes.” No what Ms Christakis said was that if someone wears an inappropriate costume, it is better to say something individually to that person rather than have “the government” (Yale) mandate what can be and cannot be worn.

    The crux of the matter came when Mr Christakis was cursed out and f bombed by students because they felt offended that anyone should have the right to hurt their feelings.

    I have some advice for current Yale students.
    You are going to get your feelings hurt.
    Get used to it.
    It is called life.

    Yale is doing you no favors in trying to protect your feelings now, only prolonging and enhancing the pain you will feel when you get out of college. There are idiots galore out there. Some who take pleasure in making you jump at every offense just because they can. Rather than a Pavlovian response, maybe Yale can educate you on a better more productive course of action. At least they did when I was there and you had to defend your arguments with logic rather than with cursing. Times have changed… And so has Yale…

  • ronchris

    Attention all HR departments: do not hire Brea Baker

    • numberonelesliehallfan

      #ShutYerLittleBabyFace

    • numberonelesliehallfan

      All Brea Baker did was criticize a pre-existing issue that was controversial, the same thing that Christakis and his wife did in the email from 2015. So therefore, if there’s a call for HR departments to not hire Baker, then I’ll say the same about Christakis.

  • David Bach

    The only cowardice shown at Yale is by these “students” like Brea Baker ’16, who are so easily triggered that they make themselves unemployable after college. Good for Yale for doing the right thing. And shame on Adelaide Feible for wasting print with the precious snowflakes that once protested in ignorance.

  • CharlieWalls

    I entered the following comment two weeks ago and it is still “pending” which seems odd to me. I believe it is a valid comment:

    I certainly agree that this piece should have provided more information about the others, which could have replaced a portion of the excess about Prof Christakis. However, the paragraph listing his half-dozen or so appointments in different departments was helpful. That sort of individual was really not available for Silliman College — a man of too many hats.