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Exclusive: Yale’s Dean Defends ‘Safe Spaces’ Amid Campus Protests

9 minute read

For weeks Yale has been gripped by a heated debate over race on campus. Angry emails have been exchanged, students have been videotaped in quads exploding in rage, and on Tuesday two respected teachers at the center of the controversy announced they would step back from their roles, with one taking a semester-long sabbatical and the other retiring from teaching.

It all started with a now-infamous Halloween email sent by Erika Christakis, a psychology lecturer and wife of Nicholas Christakis, the master of one of Yale’s twelve residential colleges. In the email, she pushed back against an idea being floated on campus that students should self-censor their Halloween costumes against anything controversial or possibly offensive. Her email ignited the school, spawning confrontations between students and teachers and campus-wide protests.

The fight has been framed as a debate over safe spaces and intellectual engagement, but Jonathan Holloway, Yale’s Dean, rejects that dichotomy. “It is all of our hopes that pushback is civil and courteous as often as it can be,” he told TIME. “There are times when it should be but it isn’t, and there are times when it can’t be. I don’t think this instance was in the latter group. I think it could have been civil and it wasn’t—and that is disappointing. But I don’t see it as an assault on free expression.”

Following the protests last month, Yale’s President, Peter Salovey, released a new set of campus initiatives, including recruiting a more diverse faculty and expanding institutional support at campus cultural centers.

Holloway talked to TIME on Tuesday about the protests on campus, how social media affects conversation, and what he thinks asking for a “safe space” really means.

How do you balance the commitment to free speech with students’ demands for “safe spaces” on campus?

I find it fascinating the way free speech has been wrapped up in the debate over the last six weeks now. No one here is opposed to free speech. Now, a lot of people took issue with the way people dealt with one another—and people, I think, pushed the boundaries of protected speech—but there was nothing that I found actionable to discipline. No one ever said people couldn’t say anything. It was just about what was that the right way to say something, or is this the right decision to make when it comes to cultural appropriation. And it went off from there.

Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be about free speech, but Erika Christakis said she did feel silenced by the climate on campus. [In an email to the Washington Post after her resignation, she wrote, “I worry that the current climate at Yale is not, in my view, conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems.”]

I think there’s a misconception that the administration forced her out. That couldn’t be further from the truth. No one can help how somebody feels. But from an administrative, institutional, resource-based sense of things, we didn’t discipline anybody for their behavior. So I don’t understand the notion of people feeling silenced.

Now, I do understand that individuals can feel — and this cuts across the political spectrum — that they run too much of a risk of becoming a social pariah on a college campus if they have ideas that are deemed unpopular, and they feel they have less space to say those things. That’s a real and disturbing phenomenon.

How do people grapple with controversial topics, like race, without worrying that other people might find what they’re saying offensive?

I honestly think it’s more difficult these days to have these conversations. I confess I sound like I’m dating myself, but because of how social media affects the opportunity for face-to-face, honest-to-goodness conversations, where you can say, you know, “I don’t understand this for this reason.” It was easier to have that conversation before. Where now, you don’t know when you’re being filmed, you don’t know when someone is going to tweet something because they overheard you say this, and people have to be much more circumspect. And we’ve lost something in that.

How do you see Yale’s issues fitting into the larger national debate about extreme political correctness on campuses in order to create safe spaces for students?

Students calling for a safe space are not saying they want their classroom to be a safe space. They know the class is going to be a place to push and be pushed, where unusual or different ideas are going to be put out there and they have to wrestle with them. What the students are talking about when they say they want a safe space is, “I would like to be able to come back to my college if I forgot my ID, and somebody is going to let me in because they recognize me, instead of being that black kid at the gate who can’t get in because he’s forgotten his ID.” They just want to be students. The safe space issue has really been bent beyond recognition from the way I understand it.

But to push back a bit, can you really have a safe space without people feeling they have to guard their language?

You’re totally right. I think a lot of it deals with how people interpret the sense of threat that they’re experiencing. Somebody who is totally normative, whatever that means for the context, they have more freedom to say and do what they want than someone who isn’t. And I think it’s fascinating how a lot of people who are actually in that normative space are the ones who are crying foul, saying we can’t really say our unpopular idea. And I’m like, well, you can, but you have to take a risk. And the people who are in those marginal communities are taking that risk every day when they just walk around campus.

So you’re saying that, in order to both speak out or be who you are, you have to be willing to invite a certain amount of disagreement?

I think you do. And it is all of our hopes that that pushback is civil and courteous as often as it can be. There are times when it should be but it isn’t, and there are times when it can’t be. I don’t think this instance was in the latter group. I think it could have been civil and it wasn’t—and that is disappointing. But I don’t see it as an assault on free expression.

Do you think the national media attention on Yale recently affected the situation on the ground?

Certainly it did. Everybody had to figure out how to navigate their own particular role on campus. The university had a very difficult time trying to get its own understanding of what was going on out there. None of the activists were trying to deny anyone’s free speech. Yelling at somebody, yeah, you shouldn’t act like that, and everyone here knows that. But we also all understand that we have our moments, we get worked up and we express ourselves in ways we wish we hadn’t. That’s just called life.

Do you think that the Yale administration did enough to support the Christakises?

I think we did the right thing. There will be lots of disagreement about that, that’s for certain. We were facing a very fluid environment, with things moving at an incredible pace, in a way that university administrations are not frankly equipped to deal with. It’s always a matter of trying to figure out where we need to provide the most immediate care, and then the eventual care. And I think we did the best we could in the situation as it presented itself.

What is the climate like on campus now?

The climate is much quieter in every outward way. And I have to say outward because we could be caught by surprise at any moment. People get very quiet and very serious during the last week of classes. I do think a lot of people who were pushing for the kinds of issues in the president’s initiative, even if they didn’t get everything they wanted, I think they see this as an almost startling moment for them to engage constructively, instead of merely as protesters. It’s up to the administration, and the faculty and students as well, to deliver on the promise of the initiatives. And if we don’t, there’s no doubt the protests will be back in some shape or form.

As an African-American educated at Yale and Stanford, could you empathize with the protesters’ demands?

I understand completely. We have serious issues on our college campuses in those institutions like Yale that are trying to open their doors as far as they can to a diverse population along every metric. And the result of that is that you have a more complex undergraduate population than you’ve ever had before. And so when you have all that kind of difference, and you have an administration and a faculty who, while they may be advocating for the difference, may not yet be prepared for the difference and all the challenges that comes with it, you’ve got a tough situation.

I also teach this topic, my last book was writing the founding of the African American studies at Yale in 1968. And gosh, it’s the same phenomenon today. The same words, the same sense of broken promises that you hear students expressing in ’68. So I get it. I really do get it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.Rogers@time.com and Haley Sweetland Edwards at haley.edwards@time.com