Culture wars on American campuses?

As we all know, youtube videos can go viral, and here is one that has done so recently. It shows an exchange of views – if we can call it that – at Yale University. Should you wish to learn a little about the background to this incident, you can read it here. And finally, here is another account from a participant of sorts, published in the Washington Post.

Should you not wish to read the stories, here is a short summary. A Yale academic, Erika Christakis, sent out an email in which she reflected on the potential benefits of students and others being allowed to express themselves (in this case in the choice of Halloween costumes) in ways that could include being ‘a little bit inappropriate or provocative’. Some students took offence at the email, and this in turn led to the recorded confrontation between Dr Christakis’s husband (who was defending the email) and some students.

The question that all this raises is one I have covered before in this blog – whether there is on a university campus (or for that matter, anywhere else) a right not to be offended. Do universities have an obligation to ensure that no one is troubled or disturbed by what they see or hear? And of course, how does all of this affect freedom of speech?

Of course universities do have a duty of care towards their students, including a duty to ensure that students are not the victims of discrimination or bullying and that they can learn in an environment that encourages them and supports them. I do not believe, however, that universities are obliged to ensure that no student ever hears anything they do not like, or that they never meet anyone who disagrees with them. Intellectual inquiry is about hearing every point of view, even offensive ones.

As a result of the backlash against her email, Erika Christakis resigned from her Yale University teaching post. That, I would suggest, was not a good day for the university.

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8 Comments on “Culture wars on American campuses?”

  1. Paul Donovan Says:

    It is interesting that some of the most privileged young people in society feel so oppressed and intimidated by opposing views. I viewed the YouTube clip and felt that if anyone needed a safe space it was the staff member. Credit to him then that he continued to teach his oppressors what a university should be about despite their lack of respect towards him. Sadly for the badly behaved students, their performance will be available on social media for all future employers to peruse.

  2. Vince Says:

    What have I missed in the Christakis extracts. I see nothing to bother the students at all. In fact it seems it’s to the administration she’s pointing when she says a measure of leeway was given to students to mature in a safe precinct. That now no longer exists. Is there something else going on that this is but the peak above the clouds.

  3. jarlath waldron Says:

    I would like to thank you for posting this on the blog for all to see. I am afraid that these types of situations are common place in the US at the moment. I understand that there needs to be some sensitivity when dealing with vulnerable people on campus, and boy there appears to be a lot of vulnerable people in the World at the moment, why don’t we highlight some of the issues that led to this sensitivity, but were not allowed to talk about those topics either. I am a mature student, and would like to say that there are not many safe spaces once you leave University, now would be a good time to start learning some coping mechanisms for the future. This type of situation in my opinion, has become a way to hinder free expression and free thought. This has to be challenged on all fronts.


  4. I think the University system has seriously let down the establishment. The above problem is endemic in all regions (eg UKś Kings College) and now at all levels. The blame can be squarely lain at the deliberate misunderstanding of ¨student voice¨. This has been exploited by lame managers to surpress their staff who, then in a climate of fear stop innovating, and thus squander competitive advantage that the English language gives all the above examples.

  5. anna notaro Says:

    Not sure whether ‘culture wars’ is the most appropriate way to describe what is happening, (perhaps I’m just biased due to my antipathy for war metaphors), I’d rather refer to the ‘filter bubble’ phenomenon, defined as: a result of a personalized search in which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user (such as location, past click behavior and search history) and, as a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles).
    Social media (Facebook, Twitter) music streaming (Storify) news aggregators (Nuzzel) to name just a few all tend to offer the familiar, what we and our friends like, no room for serendipity, chance encounters with the ‘Other’ from us are rare, thus valuable debating skills are lost. It is a paradox that in such interconnected world we end up living in comfy cocoons.
    For Eli Pariser who coined the term filter bubble ” A world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there’s nothing to learn … (since there is) invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas.” Bad news for universities and for us all.

    • jarlath Says:

      I like the way in which you described the situation, I like to call it the Facebook like button phenomenon. Its easy to hit a button when you like or agree with a particular topic, with a persona being built around the person without much in-depth thought on many topics or of the pros and cons of many situations. I think conversational skills are being eroded, in that if you have to be aware in what you are saying and when, this leads to a hindering of progress in many situations.

  6. Concern in Academia Says:

    It is very unlikely that a university professor would hold a grudge towards a student. Students are demanding manipulative and tend to be more powerful than professors these days. If a professor over reacts it is likely due to the professor feeling victimized himself. If a professor snaps he is likely to forget about it afterwards. It is not an indication that the Professor will go on and bully or discriminate the student. It is an indication that the Professor had no other outlet, which is indicative of a unhealthy work environment. It is an indication that the professor is the victim and that he is isolated.


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