Many students believed that his responsibility was to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They saw anything short of a declaration of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respected students by validating their hurt feelings.
Their perspective was informed by the idea that their residential college is akin to a home. At Yale, residential colleges have what was then called a “master”—a professor who lives on site and is responsible for its academic, intellectual, and social life. “Masters work with students to shape each residential college community,” Yale stated, “bringing their own distinct social, cultural, and intellectual influences to the colleges.” The approach is far costlier than what’s on offer at commuter schools, but aims to create a richer intellectual environment where undergrads can learn from faculty and one another even outside the classroom.
“In your position as master,” one student said, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman. You have not done that. By sending out that email, that goes against your position as master. Do you understand that?!”
“No,” Christakis said, “I don’t agree with that.”
As he saw it, there was no contradiction between creating a safe residence for Silliman students and challenging them intellectually, a view Yale itself officially shares (though what its representatives convey to prospective students is opaque to outsiders).
Professor Alan Jacobs of Baylor University published one of the more insightful posts on this aspect of the controversy, observing that any Yale student seeking an environment akin to a home is bound to be disappointed, because their residential colleges are, by design, places where “people from all over the world, from a wide range of social backgrounds, and with a wide range of interests and abilities, come to live together temporarily, for about 30 weeks a year, before moving on to their careers. It is an essentially public space,” he added, “though with controls on ingress and egress to prevent chaos and foster friendship and fellowship.”
Homes are typically places where parents instill their own values in kids whose formative experiences they shape, or where domestic partners who bonded over shared values cohabitate. Insofar as Yale includes students from diverse homes, it will be unlike an actual home, and should acknowledge that reality to all of its students. Learning to live away from home by tolerating difference is part of campus life.
In that October confrontation, the student demanding a comfortable home exploded when Christakis articulated an educator’s understanding of his role. “Then why the fuck did you accept the position?!” she screamed. “Who the fuck hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!”