Jonathan Holloway has called New Haven home for the last 18 years. But on July 1, 2017, he will move from his current position as Dean of Yale College and Yale’s Edmond S. Morgan Professor of African American Studies, History and American Studies to Northwestern, where he’ll succeed Dan Linzer as provost.
“The big issue is the scope of the job,” Holloway says. “At Yale College, I’m responsible for everything in the undergraduate experience. As provost, I’m responsible for managing the entire university on the academic agenda.”
Holloway will leave Yale with a complicated legacy: As the first Black Dean of Yale College, he was a central figure in a series of protests during Fall 2015, which garnered national coverage in The New York Times and other major publications. They emerged, in part, from an email written by Erika Christakis, then-associate master of Silliman College at Yale.
Beyond filling the shoes of Provost Linzer, who has been at Northwestern for more than 30 years, Holloway will need to adapt to a new university bureaucracy, institutional culture and location. The transition from dean to provost is not necessarily an easy one, he says, even though some onlookers may see the move as little more than a jump in status within the hierarchical world of academia.
In an email to residents, Christakis pushed back against an email from Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Council that said students should avoid making culturally unaware or insensitive choices like wearing feathered headdresses, turbans or ‘war paint’ along with “modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or readface.” While Christakis did not want “to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community”, she wrote “I think there might be something missing in our discourse about the exercise of free speech (including how we dress ourselves) on campus, and it is this: What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?”
Citing her husband, Nicholas Christakis, who was then-Master of Silliman College, she also recommended “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
This message, which many saw as culturally insensitive, combined with an earlier instance of alleged racism at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, created a brief but intense fervor within the Yale community.
One of the enduring images to emerge from the protests was of Holloway standing on a flat sculpture called the Women’s Table above a frustrated crowd of students at the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Library, more commonly known as “Cross Campus.” Holloway says he came to Cross Campus that day to support students who were chalking affirmations for women of color at Yale and to bear witness.
But soon after arriving, students gathered around Holloway. First, there were a handful who made demands for a more definitive response from Holloway and Yale’s administration. They cited an instance a year earlier where Holloway had sent an email in less than 24 hours responding to swastikas being chalked on various buildings around campus. He tried to explain the response to the swastika incident differed from the one at SAE because there was no alleged perpetrator, though he now says he wished he had done more to make clear to students that the SAE investigation was being taken seriously.
Within a matter of minutes, the small crowd had ballooned into a throng of students. And what happened next, according to Holloway, was remarkable.
“Students started telling me their pain – and it was brutal,” Holloways says. “What wounded me was their deep disappointment, that they had expected better.”
Holloway knew he had to listen. He wanted to capture the pain and anger, the disappointment and confusion, all that raw emotion the students were feeling. He wanted them to know he heard every word they said, witnessed every tear they shed, and was moved. Although the students may not have known the whole story behind the SAE investigation or may have said things that upset him, he knew their feelings were genuine, and he didn’t know how to respond except to acknowledge it. And to the students, that made a difference.
“There was a lot of pain and struggle going on in the public sphere, and a big struggle for us was that administrators didn’t seem to be listening,” says Isaiah Genece, a fourth-year undergraduate student and Yale freshman counselor. “The first and foremost thing he did was listen. It says a lot that he was willing to put his own concerns aside and hear all the words and concerns of the student body, especially in contrast to other administrators.”
In the moment, Holloway says his solemnity may have gotten the better of him. In trying to be Dean of Yale College – the dean of everyone, not just those students on Cross Campus chalking and protesting – he may have overcorrected and been too restrained. Maybe, in retrospect, he didn’t do enough to show his support for the students in public.
But Peter Huang, president of Yale College Council (YCC), has worked with Holloway on multiple projects and has seen his commitment to the undergraduate community first-hand. He collaborated with Holloway on initiatives to improve mental health services and residential communities at Yale, and says many students have talked about Holloway’s devotion to the school following the protests.
“There was a lot of anger and a lot of confusion about what it meant to be an undergraduate student at Yale,” Huang says. “I was very glad and grateful to have Dean Holloway there. He was very emotionally present during the protests.”
Although Holloway sometimes wonders if he was too restrained, some think he was too vocal in his support. And things were ugly: Erika and Nicholas Christakis resigned from their positions at Silliman last July, and some students refused to shake Nicholas’ hand when they accepted their diploma during graduation. These critics say Holloway offered too much praise, and as a result, he may have threatened the rigorous intellectual freedom Yale has long prided itself on.
Zachary Young, who was a resident of Silliman when the protests occurred, wrote an editorial for The Wall Street Journal in June 2016. In it, he said the Christakises were damaged by a “witch-hunt mentality,” and that Holloway did little to avert or ameliorate the situation when “he offered his ‘unambiguous’ support for the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s guidelines, calling their intent ‘exactly right.’”
Holloway says the Christakises may have inadvertently stepped into a minefield when Erika published her letter, but he also emphasizes they were not removed from their jobs: Nicholas still heads his lab, and Yale has reached out to Erika to teach her lecture course again, though she has not accepted the offer, according to Holloway. He also says colleges and universities like Yale are places of immense passion, and that disagreement is a sign of a healthy academic community.
But he also speaks of a need for a renewed sense of respect and dignity. “We are all losing faith in one another – that we can actually talk to people we disagree with and recognize that we actually share things in common,” he says. “I’m not trying to wage an ideological campaign. I will support the students with whom I disagree as much as I support the ones I agree with.”
As Holloway begins his transition to Northwestern – as of January, he’s already made several visits to campus to meet with faculty and administrators – it is likely that he will be asked to engage these sorts of uncomfortable topics once again, whether it relates to how buildings should be named (Yale renamed Calhoun College this February, in a controversial decision that contradicted statements made by university president Peter Salovey in April), the nature of student protest or how academic freedoms ought to be defended.
But Holloway feels confident that Northwestern is “in amazing shape,” and he, his wife, Aisling Colón, and his two children are looking forward to the move. In fact, they’re already singing praises of the town’s “Midwestern charm.”
But back at Yale, many students will likely miss Holloway's calm voice in these debates. “He’s always pointed us in the right direction,” Huang says. “Northwestern is lucky to have him.”