As we noted last month, Peter Salovey, the president of Yale University, is a gift that keeps on giving. A year ago, when angry students disrupted a conference (on free speech), hurled verbal abuse at the Master of a residential college because his wife had said it was none of her business what sort of Halloween costumes they wore, and, later, marched to the president’s house at midnight to complain about “institutional racism at Yale” and issue a list of demands, including the demand for “a University where we feel safe,” abolition of the term “Master,” and renaming Calhoun College because its namesake, John C. Calhoun, had supported slavery, President Salovey commiserated with the students, noting the pertinence of their concerns. “We have failed you,” he told a group of aggrieved students at yet another confrontation.
Yale, like several other distinguished institutions, made national headlines with its series of capitulations and self-abasements. The term “Master” was indeed retired after etymologically illiterate students complained that the term reminded them of Southern plantation “Masters” and slaves (possibly they were unacquainted with the term’s more distant pedigree which suggested scholarly mastery). Moreover, the name of everything on campus, not just Calhoun College, is up for grabs now that a Committee to Establish Principles of Renaming has been organized. Even public works of art—stained-glass windows, for example—are subject to removal and segregation under the scrutiny of a Committee on Art in Public Spaces after a janitor smashed a window in a dining hall because he was offended by its depiction of slaves. That malefactor was fired, but promptly rehired and lionized after students protested. Meanwhile, President Salovey allocated $50 million for such initiatives as Yale’s new Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (yes, really).
Peter Salovey has mastered the art of saying one thing while practicing another.
Yale’s series of groveling capitulations has repeatedly made national headlines over the last year. Now Peter Salovey has endeavored to make a headline of his own with an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal celebrating Yale’s commitment to free speech. Doing full justice to this document would be a long and tedious task. We will confine ourselves to just a few observations.
First, President Salovey has mastered the art of saying one thing while practicing another. In his op-ed, he says that “Yale does not censor invited speakers, nor does the administration discipline faculty members or students for the expression of ideas, no matter how unpopular. The answer to speech one finds offensive is more speech.” Sounds good, doesn’t it?
But the reality at Yale tells a different story. President Salovey writes that “In the course of all the events and discussions of the past year, the Yale administration did not criticize, discipline or dismiss a single member of its faculty, staff or student body for expressing an opinion. Nor have we allowed any member of the community to disrupt or otherwise prevent a scheduled speaker from having his or her say.”
This is disingenuous, to say the least. Consider the fate of Nicholas and Erika Christakis. Erika had committed the unpardonable tort of suggesting that students be allowed to choose their own Halloween costumes, which brought the wrath of the campus crybullies down on her and her husband, the then-Master of Silliman College. Yale may not have explicitly dismissed them, but within a year Nicholas Christakis had stepped down from that position, and both had taken a leave from teaching at the university. A coincidence?
It is also worth noting that President Salovey’s administration got the ball rolling on this ridiculous controversy when a dean wrote a campus-wide email admonishing students to take care not to wear costumes that might be offensive. President Salovey writes that “In a volatile world with social media and cameras on every phone, emotional moments can be taken out of context and magnified, distorting or obscuring an accurate view of events.” But the truth is that the more “context” one provides for the student behavior at Yale, the worse it seems. One of the most notorious moments, captured on video and an instant viral internet sensation, records a young female student screaming obscenities at Nicholas Christakis. A day later, scores of students disrupted that conference on free speech we mentioned above: we know because we were there. When participants left, they were besieged by yelling students, some of whom spat upon participants. No amount of “context” justifies President Salovey’s limp observation that “Some of our students were determined to communicate to us their own experiences—at Yale. We took the time to listen to what they had to say. Not only were they telling us some things we needed to hear, but we also knew we should be models of how to engage in difficult conversations without shutting down the people trying to speak.”
Free speech is under siege at Yale as it is at many campuses because university leaders are unwilling to stand up for the moral and intellectual principles that underwrite institutions of higher education in a free society. The ultimate aim, as in all totalitarian initiatives, is the subversion of truth by its subjection to political codes. Their primary allegiance should be to the truth, not to “social justice,” not the maintenance of “safe space,” not freedom from “triggers” or “microaggressions.” President Salovey’s invocation of “inclusivity” is a cowardly evasion of his obligation to put the pursuit of truth above the demands of political correctness.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 3, on page 2
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