So, Yale University quietly bestowed a Sterling Professorship, its highest academic position, on the sociologist and medical doctor Nicholas Christakis this summer. Many readers will remember the Christakis Affair. It unfolded early in November 2015 when Christakis, then the Master of Silliman, a residential college at that super-rich bastion of privilege and self-satisfaction, had the temerity to defend his wife Erika from an angry mob of students. Her tort? Suggesting in a public memo that college students be allowed to choose their own Halloween costumes.
We know, we know. It sounds absurd. But put yourself in the place of those delicate Yale charges. There they were, subsisting in their distended bubble of wealth—coddled, protected, continually assured by word and deed that the operation of virtue depended upon their choices of food, clothing, language, and renewable energy. The Dean of Yale College had just advised caution in choosing a Halloween costume. The antennae of the sensitivity police bristled on high alert: a sombrero or an Indian (read: “Native American”) headdress could wreak havoc on the moral fabric of campus life. And here was the wife of a college administrator, herself a lecturer at Yale, who dared to ask, after a few pages of moist progressive handwringing, whether Halloween might not be an appropriate occasion for a “young person to be a little bit obnoxious . . . a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” Break out the smelling salts!
An amateur video of the confrontation between Nicholas Christakis and that angry mob of students went viral. It is worth looking up. Christakis is a model of desperate restraint. In soft, reasonable tones, he explains that an academic community depends upon good will, and patience, and respect for alternative points of view.
The trembling mob was having none of that. They shouted and swore and berated Christakis, exploding in a manufactured fury that was both alarming and contemptible. “I apologize, I’m sorry,” Christakis wailed at one point. Too late.
Peter Salovey, the spineless president of Yale, responded to related student demands (made around midnight at his private residence) by shoveling $50 million to various “diversity” initiatives. * Yale dropped the title “Master” because some illiterate students thought the word had racial rather than scholarly overtones. Salovey also convened (again, you cannot make this up) a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming and a Committee on Art in Public Spaces to scrutinize the names of things at Yale and the university’s publicly displayed art for signs of political incorrectitude. Calhoun College, named for the U.S. Vice President and Yale alumnus John Calhoun, was changed because Calhoun not only owned slaves but thought slavery was a good thing. (So did Samuel F. B. Morse, for whom another Yale college is named, but Shh! don’t tell anyone.) Stained glass windows depicting slaves working in the fields were vandalized, others were hustled away for safekeeping, as were various sculptures: a bas-relief at the Yale Library, for example, which depicted a Pilgrim carrying a musket.Several things resulted from this obscene display. The Christakises resigned from their position as heads of Silliman College. Erika left off teaching at Yale altogether. Nicholas, a highly decorated academic, took a sabbatical. Then Yale bestowed its “Nakanishi Prize” on two of the student ringleaders, Alexandra Zina Barlowe and Abdul-Razak Mohammed Zachariah—potential employers take note—for (you cannot make this up) “exemplary leadership in enhancing race and/or ethnic relations at Yale College.” There was no mention, by the way, of the Christakis Affair in the award.
Nevertheless, time, the great healer, has buried the obloquy of those actions in a Lethe of wealth and circumstance. To quote a famous riposte: “What difference, at this point, does it make?” Surmising, no doubt correctly, that the public appetite for outrage had moved on, Yale decided it was time to make amends to Nicholas Christakis and offer him the tasty sop of a coveted professorship. After all, deep down, Christakis was one of them, a paid-up member of the progressive brotherhood. He had been unexpectedly blindsided by an event that no one could have foreseen. Quietly, quietly, then, he has been rehabilitated and given an extra pat on the head. He is “deeply honored,” of course, and “eager to make [him]self useful to Yale’s mission.”
It would be rude, on such an occasion, to inquire too closely into the exact nature of that mission.
*Editors’ Note 2/11/19: It has just been called to our attention by the Yale Office of Public Affairs and Communications that the $50 million shoveled to various “diversity” initiatives was in fact not prompted by students showing up at President Salovey’s private residence but was “the result of over a year of work done by the president, the provost, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler and the deans of every professional school.” We apologize for misidentifying the cause of this insanity.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 1
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