In recent days, similar protests have rattled two very different college campuses. At the University of Missouri, activists and athletes rallied against racial hostilities, prompting the resignation of the president and chancellor. At Yale, two faculty members faced heavy scrutiny of their own.
The Yale brouhaha was churned up by, of all things, Halloween. Before the holiday, the school’s Intercultural Affairs Council sent an email asking students to take care with their costumes. “Could someone take offense with your costume and why?” the email suggested students ask themselves, noting several examples of unacceptable costumes. To which Erika Christakis, a lecturer and the wife of professor Nicholas Christakis, the master of one of Yale’s residential colleges, replied, “I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”
Despite a backlash, Christakis defended her note. Some students said they no longer felt safe in her husband’s residential college. One student berated him on the quad: “You should step down! … You should not sleep at night. You are disgusting.”
That moment was captured in a clip now viewed more than 1 million times on YouTube. It was taken by Greg Lukianoff, who runs the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and happened to be at Yale as a guest of the Cristakises’ to give a talk on free speech. “I’ve never seen it this bad,” he says. “I think we’re teaching a generation to overreact to speech as if it were a physical threat.”
Those videos and other posts online have helped blow the lid off Yale’s teapot tempest. But if Missouri’s protests echoed Black Lives Matter, Yale’s conjured an older debate, reignited in 2015, about free speech and higher education. A January essay by Jonathan Chait in New York lamented the renaissance of the campus political correctness of the early ’90s. He offered as evidence the rise of trigger warnings on academic syllabi–which allow students to skip works they might find traumatic–and the recurrent protests against high-profile commencement speakers. In September, the Atlantic published a cover story by Lukianoff and psychologist Jonathan Haidt on “the coddling of the American mind.”
Hundreds of students have since signed their names to an open letter condemning the Christakises. It contains this sentence: “We, however, simply ask that our existences not be invalidated on campus,” which is undeniably weighty as far as theoretical Halloween costumes go. (The protest has since shifted to one concerning the broader issue of Yale’s treatment of students of color.)
Figuring free speech as the central issue at Yale, though, misses a bigger point, and not only because bullies have throughout history invoked free speech as a defense for their intimidation.
What the mess does spotlight is the corner into which today’s top universities have painted themselves in promising four ideal years rather than four challenging ones. Places like Yale are more devoted than ever before to pleasing their students. William Deresiewicz, the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life and a former Yale professor, says elite universities now treat their students as customers. “The feeling is ‘No, we must never let students feel bad.'”
Who would blame Yale students for feeling that way when tuition for the most recent academic year totaled $62,200? Much of the rise in costs–at every school, not just Yale–has gone to pay for administrators, the school employees who don’t teach or research. These are the people who are paid to make students happy rather than provoke them in classrooms. No wonder students are inclined to cast their lot with them.
This appears in the November 23, 2015 issue of TIME.