Thoughts on the Title of “Master”

August 31, 2015

Dear Fellow Sillimanders,

As many of you are no doubt aware, we are embarking on an exploration of the title and form of address for college “masters” at Yale.  While this is connected to the issues expressed in President Salovey’s and Dean Holloway’s addresses to the freshmen on Sunday about the possible renaming of Calhoun College, I think it can also be seen as a distinct topic.

I’d like to share with you here my thoughts about my role and title at Silliman College.  I do so with the hope that this is the beginning of a conversation, not an end, and that we can all get to know one another well this year regardless of things like titles. 

Here is what the Yale College website says about my position: “The master is the chief administrative officer and the presiding faculty presence in each residential college.  He or she is responsible for the physical well being and safety of students in the residential college, as well as for fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college.”  I take this charge seriously, and it governs our relationship.  It is a big honor and responsibility to be a college master at Yale.  I want to help all of you create a home here – one where you are able to pursue your intellectual and personal aspirations and obtain the most from this world-class university.

The word “master” can evoke thoughts of slavery and other forms of subjugation, and it has made me at times quite uncomfortable to be referred to as “master.”  But I also think that it is important to acknowledge that the word “master” has diverse applications and origins.  As many have pointed out, its use at Yale was not taken from the context of slavery.  We see similar words used for Master-at-Arms, Master Sergeant, Special Master (in court proceedings), Master Electrician, Master of Science (as in the degree!), or Master of a martial art, and so on.  The use of the term for the heads of Yale colleges was directly copied from the Oxford and Cambridge Systems nearly 100 years ago.  

Of course, I understand that words have meaning, and that they can be hurtful.  But, as you will learn about me, I see words as both important and unimportant.

Here is why.  The central issue for me regarding this topic is that I don’t want us to get so satisfied that we have dealt with the surface issue of language that we don’t address other potentially more important issues – such as how we nurture talented students from all backgrounds who now come to Yale (such as those struggling with poverty, physical or mental illness, violence or ethnic hatred in their home countries, or lack of social connections, and all sorts of other circumstances people face).  And it seems to me that Americans are too content with being innocent of the ugliness in our past.  I worry that changing our titles would seduce us into thinking that we can self-exculpate, that we can absolve Yale of itself.  Handling troubling things by adjusting words rather than deeds is indeed a sort of cop-out, I think.  It reminds me, in some ways, about how the very recent national attention about removing confederate flags from sale at Wal-Mart came to stand for addressing mass murder, racism, inequality, and other disturbing features of our society.  It made many people feel good and it was easy to do.  But, as a public health expert, I would rather see us remove guns from Wal-Mart than flags.  

I have been genuinely confused by the word “master” in our collegiate setting, all the more so precisely because of its legitimate roots.  Alternatives in use at other places, like Lord, Rector, Chancellor, Provost, Governor, Dean, and, yes, even Warden (in use in some colleges at Cambridge) do not seem workable – or even reasonable.  Or they are already claimed by others at Yale (think of Dean Hill or Provost Polak).  And the title “Head” is not an easy form of address, as in “Dear Head Abovewater,” and has less gravitas.  So, given the alternatives, I think “Master” is not a bad choice.

However, I see the title of “master” as distinct from how a person in the role of “master” is addressed.  For my part, I believe that people should be allowed to call themselves (within reason) what they prefer – e.g., President Obama cannot ask to be called King Obama, but he could ask his friends to call him “Barry,” with no slight to the office of the president.

It seems to me that all good relationships are rooted in acknowledgement of a person’s thoughtfully self-chosen identity, including form of address.  Hence, I fear that, in focusing on the search for the appropriate or uniform form of address, we might run the risk of inauthenticity, which is potentially toxic to the work of relationship-building we do so well in the colleges.  

Personally, I have always preferred to be called by my first name, but I also worry that my usual practice of asking to be called “Nicholas” might now be misinterpreted as a challenge to others, or as an attempt to be special.  Yet, because of my comfort with – and, indeed, preference for – being called “Nicholas,” I can in some ways sidestep the issue of “master” as a title.  This preference for my first name reflects both my own personality and the status I am apparently accorded as a large, white, middle aged man who went prematurely grey at age 35 and has a voice that carries across a dining hall.  I may not always need to assert authority through rank or address because it is socially conveyed – in this way sometimes unfairly, I realize.  Needless to say, I don’t take pride in that.  On the contrary, I like to be called “Nicholas” precisely because I am granted too much authority at times, for instance, when it gets in the way of the collegial and mentor/mentee relationships so vital in the college residential system.

On the other hand, I admit that some formality helps as well.  Many students don’t want an avuncular Master.  Many like the way tradition looms large at Yale.  Most of you chose Yale precisely because of its storied past.  I like tradition too!  And there are times when, in advocating for students at this great university of ours, it helps that I am not just a “Professor” or a “Doctor,” but one of the twelve “Masters.”

The college master is in some important ways a last defense against the encroachment of the bureaucratic university, with its uniform standards and procedures and its occasionally impersonal tone.  College masters see their students up close, unfiltered, for better and, indeed, for worse.  The Masters are aligned with the college administration, of course, and we report to the Dean and President, but, in some key way, we stand apart from the administration, too, by virtue of living and eating with students.  We fulfill our master’s role in communion, in companionship, in camaraderie.  It is this sort of fellowship, above all, that I hope to foster and safeguard here in Silliman College.  And I respectfully submit that I can do so in spite – or because of – the forms of address you choose to use with (and about) me.

Still, I also must admit that I just like the informality of my first name.  I am inspired by the custom in many progressive schools, and in the Quaker tradition, of using first names for all, including those in positions accompanied by considerable authority and tradition. 

I would also like to add one more consideration to the mix, namely that I am uncomfortable with the asymmetry of “Master Christakis” while Erika, as Associate Master, is called by her first name.  It’s simply too much of a mouthful to expect students to address her as “Associate Master Christakis” and, again, context may matter as we consider alternatives.  Perhaps this asymmetry carries a different sort of weight with a female master and a male spouse?  It could be less of an issue if Erika were herself a professor.  She is a Yale faculty member, as Lecturer in the College, and often called “Professor” by her students, but she is not, in fact, a professor (by title at least – since she certainly “professes knowledge” in her teaching!), and she is always very clear about that with her students and invites them to call her “Erika.”  She, too, comes from a progressive education tradition and is more comfortable with first names.  Erika will play a very important role at Silliman in her capacity as Associate Master, and it’s important to me that our community understand our roles vis-a-vis each other, and not only as individuals.  I want very much to model for our students, in our forms of address, the healthy and reciprocal relationship I have with my wife.

Finally, I am aware of the fact that if I go by my first name, this creates a new problem because our Dean should not be obliged to go by her first name, and she prefers “Dean Hill” for a number of good reasons, including that all the other deans go by “Dean,” as well.  “Dean” is not a problematic or culturally loaded term, and it also has the nice advantage of having one crisp syllable, so why not use it?  

So here is what I am thinking at the moment (and, based on conversations with you, I reserve the right to change my mind, one way or the other).  In official Silliman notices, we will use our titles (e.g., “Master Christakis invites you to….”), but I will often sign letters “Nicholas,” except where they come from both me and Dean Hill, in which case we will sign them “Master Christakis and Dean Hill.”  There might be potential confusion or inconsistency (when, for example, Dean Hill and I are together, or when you are introducing me to someone for the first time and choose to be more formal).  I trust that we can be flexible and not overly worried about precedents.  The last thing I want is to feel that my attempts to be sensitive and reasonable might actually be contributing to anxiety that could cause someone to avoid me.  So, please, call me Master Christakis, Professor Christakis, Doctor Christakis, or Nicholas!  But call me something, so we can get to know one another. (Erika is equally flexible, though she has a secret preference for “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”)

Finally, I am happy to talk to any and all of you about this, if you are interested, and to hear your thoughts and ideas about this topic – keeping in mind that, actually, we also have other important topics that surely warrant our hard work and attention.   I look forward to discovering them with you.

Best Regards,