Race and Titles at Yale

This morning the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on the simmering-to-a-boil race situation at Yale. It focuses partly on two administrators who have been the focus of much student ire, Nicholas Christakis, the Silliman master whose wife sent a mass email to students defending the wearing of offensive Halloween costumes; and Jonathan Holloway, the dean of Yale College and the first African-American person to hold that position. Students are angry at both of the Christakises over the email, and at Holloway for not doing enough generally to address a fraught racial climate in the college.

The article refers to Christakis as “Dr.” and to Holloway as “Mr.”

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The CHE’s policy on courtesy titles appears to be one out of the 1950s: It refers to medical doctors, but not to doctors of philosophy, by the title they earned. At Yale at mid-century, it was, indeed customary to do the same. The operating assumption was that anyone teaching had a PhD and anyone learning did not, and so everyone could be called Mr. just the same while everyone would still know his place in the pecking order.

It’s not like that at Yale anymore, nor should it be in the Chronicle. Faculty members at Yale and other universities are now customarily called “Prof.” or “Dr.” There is much more diversity of training and education and many more PhDs in non-professorial positions within the university (contingent faculty, student life, support services, and various other offices) who deserve the same respect as the faculty. People who have earned the title should be able to use it, especially in an academic universe in which not everyone with a PhD gets a professorial position anymore.

And, crucially, in an article on race it creates a terrible contrast to refer to a white administrator as “Dr.” and a black one as “Mr.” This isn’t an article that in any way has to do with Christakis as a physician or Holloway as a historian. In this context they both function as college administrators and so they should be treated equally when it comes to referring to them by title. If it were an article about Christakis saving Holloway’s life after he had been struck by a falling gargoyle on campus then it might be appropriate to refer to the two men as the CHE did here; I would still find the policy of MD = Dr., PhD = Mr. to be a silly one, but that would a matter on which people of good faith could disagree. In this case, in an article about race and how black people are treated and perceived in the academy, it creates an insidious optic. And the optic matters.

Yes, it is a slight in every sense of the word: An insult and a very small thing. However, in the current climate, the small things really do matter and not only because they are small-scale reflections of attitudes held on the grand scale. If all the participants in these conversations were to treat each other equally with the same common courtesies that would go a long way to at least creating a climate in which the bigger issues could begin to be addressed.

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