Yale University

Sound Off !

My Letter to President Salovey

David Turner

February 3, 2016

Category: Society > Campus Issues

Dear President Salovey,

I was very impressed by your address to the freshman class. It’s a model of balance, sensitivity, and sober reflection. I told friends of my pride that Yale — in contrast to the university where I’ve worked — is led by someone who thinks and writes so well.

But then came the Halloween Troubles. I was very disappointed, and remain troubled, by your reaction. It was as if you had forgotten everything you had upheld weeks earlier.

Erika Christakis reacted to a memo from the Intercultural Affairs Committee. Her rejoinder was balanced and thoughtful, in the spirit of your address to freshmen. Traditionally, the residential college masters have been chiefly responsible for undergraduate life outside the classroom. Erika Christakis wrote from this perspective. No wonder she objected to a memo bypassing the masters altogether. Most IAC members are non-faculty. Their memo is a slovenly piece of writing, an effusion of hypersensitivity unworthy of a great university. Is it invariably offensive when someone wears a Pocahontas costume with a feather in the headband? Like Erika Christakis, I think not. The American exchange student killed last month by terrorists in Paris had "Pocahontas" tattooed on her arm. On her home campus, students wore feathers in her memory. Feathers! Imagine!

I deplore that you and the Dean did not rush to defend the Christakises. They did nothing wrong! They upheld Yale College as a community of scholars first and foremost. Others may have marketed Yale’s residential colleges as “home away from home,” but that’s not their intended role. In our day, Yale treated us as adults — as maturing scholars who needed correction and criticism, advice and mentoring, but fundamentally as adults! The College did not act in loco parentis. That’s how it should be!

The December 7 message of (tepid) support for the Christakises came far too late. It did nothing to rectify the implicitly anti-Christakis stance of earlier messages.

In your letter about Yale’s response to the Troubles, you presented your decisions well. Nevertheless, you did cave in to unreasonable demands. Decisions about new appointments in particular areas shouldn’t be made hastily in response to demands by agitators. Whether students, faculty, alumni, or outsiders are the agitators is not important; the same deliberate process should be followed in all cases. Needs and plans of all programs should be considered. Decisions about course offerings should be made similarly — soberly, after lengthy discussion. Isn’t that the approach you had insisted on for deciding whether to change the name of Calhoun?

P.S. to Sound Off: Grateful for Erika Christakis’s courage in standing up for values I cherish, I contacted Tony Lavely to nominate her for honorary membership in our Class. Erika is an impressive public intellectual, author of many carefully written articles that show how research in social sciences can inform policy. The more I learn about Erika, the more convinced I am that she’s a worthy candidate. The Class Council will vote on the nomination in February.