Defining Ideas

Yale Responds To Richard Epstein

Monday, October 31, 2016
Image credit: 
Wikimedia

Richard Epstein’s inaccurate attack on Yale’s commitment to free expression and fair procedures for investigating and adjudicating sexual harassment relies on a similarly uninformed opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal. Yale strongly disagrees with the notion that there is a conflict between its commitment to free speech and its commitment to inclusiveness, diversity, and a campus free of sexual harassment, and we write now to correct a number of Mr. Epstein’s distortions and errors of fact.

  • The idea that verbal conduct of a sexual nature may constitute sexual harassment is not an idiosyncratic feature of the Yale system; it is included in the definition used by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Department of Education, and the federal courts. Although nearly all sexual misconduct cases adjudicated at Yale involve physical conduct, not speech, Yale recognizes that there are instances where speech – such as repeated lewd remarks by a supervisor – may constitute sexual harassment.  
  • Complaints of sexual misconduct at Yale are investigated by an outside fact-finder with legal training. The complaints are then adjudicated through a multi-layer process that allows parties to submit and respond to evidence, propose witnesses, engage legal counsel, and file an appeal to the university’s highest levels. The University-wide committee that hears such cases is chaired by a tenured faculty member, and the hearing panels are composed of faculty, staff and students. During hearings, each party listens to the testimony of the other and proposes questions for the panel to ask. The application of the “preponderance of the evidence” standard is a requirement of the Department of Education and is the standard used by the courts of the United States in civil cases.
  • Throughout the difficult events of last fall, Yale never abandoned its commitment to free expression. In his public message to students and faculty at the height of the controversy, President Salovey wrote to remind the community that we “affirm Yale's bedrock principle of the freedom to speak and be heard, without fear of intimidation, threats, or harm, and we renew our commitment to this freedom not as a special exception for unpopular or controversial ideas but for them especially.” In a subsequent public message to the Silliman College community, President Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway wrote that “[b]oth Nicholas and Erika Christakis remain committed to serving the college, and we fully support them in these efforts. They are exceptional teachers and scholars, with a longstanding and deep dedication to undergraduates.”
  • Despite Professor Epstein’s assertion to the contrary, Nicholas Christakis has continued in his role as the Sol Goldman Family Professor of Sociology and Professor in the Institute for Social and Policy Studies, of Biomedical Engineering, of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and of General Medicine, and continues to serve as the Director of Yale’s Institute for Network Science. Erika Christakis, who served as a Lecturer at Yale during the fall of 2015, declined our invitation to teach an undergraduate course during the 2016-17 academic year.
  • Yale made a firm commitment to free expression in the 1974 Woodward Report, which remains Yale policy today. We do not see the need to revise this document or adopt another university’s policies in light of current conversations.

It should be noted that neither Professor Epstein nor the Hoover Institution contacted Yale prior to publication so that these factual errors could be avoided. We strongly believe that members of the academy have a common interest in encouraging and protecting the free exchange of ideas. The pursuit of that common interest requires that we avoid inaccurate assumptions about the motivations of others and labels intended to evoke stereotypes. We hope Professor Epstein will join us in that effort.