Student outrage erupted at Yale University recently when the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s call for students to be thoughtful in their choice of Halloween costume was denigrated by the faculty leaders of one of Yale’s residential colleges. Tensions were further exacerbated by reports of racist behavior at a fraternity party on campus during Halloween weekend.
Having spent 2013-14 at Yale as an American Council on Education Fellow, I know how deeply President Peter Salovey, Provost Benjamin Polak and Dean Jonathan Holloway care about equity and inclusion. It was especially disheartening to see this story in the national news just when Yale is launching an initiative to increase faculty diversity.
The IAC sought to remind students to be sensitive in their choice of attire; its message stressed that wearing costumes embodying stereotypes of racial or ethnic groups indicates to peers from those demographics that they are neither welcome nor respected.
Responding that “we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween,” Yale faculty member and Silliman College associate master Erika Christakis objected that it was not educators’ place to judge a student’s costume, that costumes are protected free speech, that college should be “a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience” and that it is up to students offended by a costume to start a discussion with their peers.
Her email to the college’s students quoted her husband, Nicholas Christakis, also a Yale faculty member and Silliman’s master, as advising that “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.”
These objections are fallacious, especially coming from faculty members who co-lead a residential college community and are therefore “charged with setting the intellectual, social and ethical tone of the college.” The original letter from the IAC called for students to be more thoughtful in judging their own attire; it is incumbent on each of us to consider how our free speech may impact another’s life; so-called transgressive actions that attack other members of the community do not create a "safe space" for intellectual maturation; and a university should help all students recognize when a situation raises issues worthy of reflection and debate.
Moreover, the topic was not simply costumes that an individual might not find to their taste, but costumes that are overtly hostile to entire racial or ethnic groups. As I discuss below, faculty and academic leaders should help students learn to apply the rigorous analytical tools they learn in our classrooms to complex societal issues they will encounter outside of academe; we do this best when we model this behavior ourselves.
It is good to see reports that Erika and Nicholas Christakis have since offered an apology, acknowledged that “many students feel voiceless in diverse ways,” and invited students to come discuss their concerns. When we cause others pain (regardless of our intention), taking responsibility and seeking dialogue are appropriate steps. I hope that the leaders of Silliman will be able to use this painful incident as an impetus to make their college, and the university, more truly welcoming of all students.
But the episode goes far beyond a single campus on a single holiday weekend. Indeed, it reminds us of the university faculty’s unique role in supporting free intellectual inquiry and teaching students how to take part.
The essential responsibility of a university educator is to teach students to gather information, analyze it critically, reflect upon its larger meaning and use it to make a difference in the world. Our special role is to help students consider how they will navigate society as adults and to help them acquire the intellectual tools needed for that journey. This involves teaching students how to have tough conversations about sensitive issues in a spirit of respectful inquiry -- including discussions with those whose views they neither understand nor share.
To this end, we must show our students how to discern when a situation raises challenging intellectual or societal questions worthy of their consideration. While it is not our job to tell them what conclusions to draw about a particular Halloween costume, it is precisely our job to help them understand that they should give the matter serious thought.
Moreover, to prepare our students to take up the mantle of free speech and engage in vigorous public discourse on the issues of the day (including the impact of racist Halloween costumes on a community), we must teach them how do so in a manner that respects the right of others to join the debate. We need to set standards in our classrooms and on our campuses that let those from marginalized populations know their voices are welcomed.
Until those students are invited to share their perspectives and questions, until their words are heard and accorded reflective (not reflexive) responses, they are not truly being afforded the education they enrolled to obtain. Until classmates from majority populations comprehend that their own understanding will be enriched by listening deeply to those peers, their educations are also being compromised.
Academic leaders have additional responsibilities in this arena because of the authority conferred by their roles. As the Yale incident demonstrates, communiqués from the campus’s cultural diversity center or inclusion committee are not always accorded the respect they deserve. The very fact that the group is formally charged with speaking out on topics related to inclusion can erode their messages’ perceived legitimacy and impact.
Conversely, when other university leaders stand up for the principles of equity and diversity, this is received as a more neutrally grounded and less biased expression of support for these themes. Given this, we who are officers of the university must publicly support the importance of paying attention to (and openly discussing) civility and community. Our doing so fosters the very sense of safety and trust that is essential for broad-based public conversations about sensitive issues.
Similarly, faculty members who are accorded privilege by their race, gender, ability or other personal characteristics should make an effort to model inclusive principles for students, rather than relying on our colleagues from underrepresented groups to do so. We should show publicly that we are open to becoming more aware of the unearned benefits our majority status confers and to better understanding the ramifications for other community members. We can do this, for example, by reading some of the many books and blogs on these topics and by listening attentively when members of marginalized communities raise concerns -- even when the subject matter is painful to face.
We can examine relevant evidence in our classrooms, to show that these topics merit the investment of precious course hours and warrant intellectual discussion by all students, regardless of personal background. When we see a questionable Halloween costume, we can express our concerns and ask others what they think, rather than making it the responsibility of the person whose ancestry the costume mocks to open the topic.
Some critics claim that campus diversity centers are trying to cocoon students of color, students with disabilities or students on the LGBTQ spectrum, to shield them from the rough-and-tumble world of free speech.
I firmly disagree. Based on what I have read, observed and heard from my own family and friends, individuals from marginalized populations in our country do not generally have the luxury of living in a safe, sanitized bubble. Like it or not, issues of race, power, gender and ability confront them daily -- often quite literally, in the form of microaggressions, slurs or threats hurled without provocation. Indeed, it is only those of us in the majority who have the luxury of remaining oblivious to these considerations as we choose our Halloween costumes.
The university is intended to be a safe space for intellectual growth, a place to test ideas against the best available evidence, a place to deduce the concrete implications of theoretical visions, a place to examine unfamiliar or uncomfortable issues. Clearly, even such a plebeian topic as the choice of holiday attire offers rich opportunities for applying tools acquired in the history, sociology or philosophy classroom.
Through our daily work, professors and university leaders should show students how to be responsible members of a diverse community who listen carefully to opposing views and reflect upon the impact of their actions. If the university is to truly become an academic haven for all our students, we are the ones who must make it so.
Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Michigan State University.
This week, in response to concerns expressed by student activists, Washington and Lee University announced changes to the display of Confederate flags on its campus. Northwestern University recently studied the involvement of one of its founders with a massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, while Duke University removed the name of a segregationist politician from a dormitory.
And many Northern and Southern colleges are considering evidence that they benefited from the colonial slave economy, as documented in Craig Steven Wilder's book Ebony and Ivy (2013). Inevitably, the older a college or university, the greater the likelihood it has some history of which it is not proud.
The question for those of us who work on complicit campuses is how to respond to this knowledge. When institutional identity collides with identity politics, the result is a microcosm of our national culture wars: debates over the meaning of contested events and people; questions about apologies and restitution; and demands by some to jettison traditions that others cherish.
What should a modern, multicultural institution do about history and symbols tainted by exclusion or discrimination?
First, we must boldly research and acknowledge the past, and then we need to think hard about how – or whether – our institutional identity should be recast. A principled response may mean changing the stories that we tell about ourselves. It may mean altering or recontextualizing the names, iconography, and traditions of our campus. In short, we owe it to our students to interpret any uncomfortable facts in light of our current values.
Confronted with a history that is contested, troubled, or downright shameful, there is no need for embarrassment. Rather, we should gather as many facts as possible, acting proactively and pursuing this research with rigor and candor. In the words of Brown University’s Slavery and Justice Commission, which explored Brown's ties to the slave trade, “Universities are dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. They are conservators of humanity’s past.... If an institution professing these principles cannot squarely face its own history, it is hard to imagine how any other institution, let alone our nation, might do so.” The fearless embrace of scholarship and analysis is a powerful way of demonstrating institutional ideals.
In undertaking this work, we must be prepared for the possibility of dissent. Brown's review of its connections to slavery attracted the attention of both advocates and opponents of reparations, as well as demonstrations by white supremacists and the Nation of Islam.
But we cannot use the risk of conflict as an excuse to minimize the relevance of such “ancient” history. As Wilder says, this would be to “misunderstand the role that history should be playing in the modern academy. It reflects a sense that there is a problem to be managed rather than a history that has to be embraced and woven into the narrative of the institution. Every act of evasion only empowers those who actually are using the history politically.”
For colleges and universities, the past that we do not explain becomes the arena where others reveal the difficult truths we have avoided or, less constructively, project myths and agendas that contradict our institutional cultures.
Exposing the facts is only the first step. It is not usually the historical record that poses the problem; the hard choices arise in the interpretation of and response to that history.
Debate over the necessity for apologies or restitution is one common area of contention. These are decisions that institutions must make for themselves, but in the context of a contemporary college or university, acknowledgment is usually more important than apology, particularly when historical responsibility is murky or the recipient of the apology is not immediately identifiable.
At Brown, where the university was primarily a beneficiary of slavery rather than a perpetrator, President Ruth Simmons decided against a formal apology but committed the university to "restorative justice" activities, including the establishment of a scholarly center and creation of a traveling exhibit. In contrast, in June 2013, Babson College President Lewis Schlesinger chose to formally apologize to Brandeis University for the anti-Semitic behavior of Babson students at a soccer game in 1978 – an incident that took place within living memory under college auspices.
A second challenge arises from the messages embedded in campus iconography, names, and traditions. We are the present-day custodians of these symbols, and inaction on our part suggests an implicit or even explicit endorsement of such messages. At the very least, controversial symbols must be identified and explained, and in some cases the best response may be to abandon them.
Key factors for consideration are the level of connection between the problematic individual or event and the institution, and the existence of any relevant contractual requirements. Because the offensiveness of a name or tradition may be debated, colleges and universities must clearly explain their decisions to either retain or alter symbols.
At Northwestern, for example, significant honor has been given to the university founder John Evans, whose name appears on the alumni center and several professorships (as well as the town of Evanston, where the university is located). After a thorough review of the factual record, Northwestern’s John Evans Study Committee cleared Evans of direct involvement in an 1864 massacre of Native Americans but deplored his justification of it and noted that the university has benefited from Evans’ positive reputation. The committee recommended that Evans’s name remain in its honorific positions but that Northwestern also increase access for Native American students and enhance the study of Native American cultures.
At Duke University, following a similar review, President Richard H. Brodhead made a different decision, which was to strip the name of a segregationist politician from a campus dormitory. In Duke’s case, the eponymous man had minimal involvement with the university, and in the future the building will contain an explanation of the name change. Both of these differing approaches are appropriate to the circumstances, expressing a commitment to factual transparency while reframing the universities’ institutional narratives and reaffirming their modern values.
The situation currently unfolding at Washington and Lee University illustrates many of these considerations. Student activists demanded an apology for the university’s participation in slavery and a denunciation of Robert E. Lee’s participation; the removal of Confederate flags from the campus chapel; and an end to allowing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an unaffiliated group, to hold an annual program on campus.
In his response this week, President Kenneth P. Ruscio announced plans to modify the display of Confederate flags and provide more historical and educational context designed to clarify their ambiguous message. While acknowledging the complexity of Lee’s legacy, Ruscio chose not to apologize for Lee’s actions prior to his affiliation with the university.
I agree that an apology is unnecessary. Far more meaningful will be a thorough airing of Washington and Lee’s institutional ties to slavery, which Ruscio has already launched. I question the wisdom of allowing outside groups to use the campus to promote their own interpretive agendas, but thoughtful disagreement about such complex topics is to be expected.
Washington and Lee cannot change its history, but it is doing the hard work of engaging with its past to shape its current and future culture. All colleges and universities must be prepared to do the same. As the historian Wilder states, “We can’t evade the consequences of the past or shift the responsibility of research to others. This is something we have to wrestle with.”
Michele Minter is vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at Princeton University.