Yale University

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Reply to Phil Anderson "Free Speech on Campus"

Howard Gillette

December 31, 2015

Category: Society > Campus Issues

No doubt, in the replies here as well as exchanges I’ve had with fellow graduates inside and outside our class over the past several months, President Salovey’s response, let alone the actions of students in protest, has not sat well outside the university. The term “political correctness” comes up time and again, as if any complex issue of culturally mediated exchange could be easily reduced to formula.

I know from talking to the father of one of the students, who is herself black, that the issues on campus extended well beyond those voiced in the well-publicized reaction of the very vocal few who made their way onto YouTube.

Certainly, George Will’s old saw — implying that the only tenured faculty humanities professors on university campuses are one-time radicals who couldn’t make it anywhere else — represents the height of ingenuousness and doesn’t illuminate the issues currently vexing Yale. Will’s previous clash with classmate Stephen Greenblatt carried a similar ideological message, and was answered easily enough in the power of Greenblatt’s own work.

Universities are by their nature intentional communities. The environment for learning necessarily reflects society but need not bow to its worst instincts. One need not embrace the term “micro-aggression” to still recognize patterns of discrimination that continue to be very real more than half a century after we left Yale.

I’m not convinced that Yale has the right formula for dealing with the problems that were voiced so strenuously. Nonetheless, it would have been irresponsible for the university not to act in an effort to assure a climate for study that is welcoming to all its students. Let’s at least start there and put aside reductionist language that simplifies rather than illuminates the issues at hand.