New Haven is apparently in crisis. On October 30, in response to an official e-mail discouraging Yale students from wearing racially insensitive Halloween costumes, Erika Christakis, a faculty member who with her husband heads the residential hall Silliman College, sent a somewhat tone-deaf, blithely condescending letter of disapproval to her students. In her response to the administration, she asked whether we had “lost faith in young people’s capacity…to ignore or reject things that trouble you.” The ensuing protests have become national news, with students demanding an apology and eventually the resignation of Christakis and her husband.
Christakis closed her letter by remarking that “free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society”—a laudable idea, and frequently, from authorities in Christakis’s position, a patronizing antidote to student objections concerning campus climate. Students of color at these colleges are generally familiar with the evasive, smiling reasonableness of mid-level administrators, who live on planets far removed from the day-to-day atmosphere that drives student complaints and haven’t made it far enough up the academic-administrative ladder to start pretending otherwise.
“The tensions at Yale,” write Isaac Stanley-Becker and Susan Svrluga in The Washington Post, “echo recent uprisings at colleges and schools around the country.” The Post cites just one other university outcry to evidence a protest epidemic: the University of Missouri, where, in response to a wave of student action, university president Tim Wolfe stepped down on Monday. Wolfe was the public face, and often the ready defender, of the Missouri administration’s failure to address pervasive campus racism.
Yet the situation at Yale does not “echo” that of Missouri at all. Or that of Ole Miss, where a statue of James Meredith was vandalized last year with a noose and Confederate insignia, and where white students threw liquor and shouted slurs at a young black woman studying there; or the situation at Duke, where white students this year—wait for it—hung a noose from a tree and shouted racial slurs at a young black woman studying there. Black students at Mizzou have begun receiving death threats.
This isn’t to spark a round of Oppression Olympics: Disadvantaged students at Yale-caliber institutions experience daily object lessons on the well-intentioned ignorance and patrician paternalism of their classmates and professors. Their protests do touch on many elements of campus life. But institutional noblesse oblige is not all bad. Yale’s endowment, which posted a stunning 20.2 percent return last year, stands at $24 billion, or nearly $2 million per student. This is put to some fine ends—including comparative institutional responsiveness, the kind that engenders certain expectations. Mizzou, by contrast, serves 35,400 students with $800 million in the bank. It literally cannot afford Yale’s preoccupations: Money that could be spent on some further degree of, say, mental-health services is probably being spent on new gear for a football program that brings in $84 million yearly, more than one-tenth the endowment’s value.