“Trouble Brewing [at Yale] After ‘Dehumanizing’ Artisanal Coffee Remark”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Adam Goldstein & Peter Bonilla) reports:

[A]An interesting case in which Dr. Sally Satel is a Yale School of Medicine Lecturer invites review [Yale’s]Consistent retreat since 2015 from the advertised promises of free expression. In Quillette, Satel wrote about an online lecture she gave early this year, and the pushback that ensued, including the accusation that she “dehumanized” rural Ohioans by being surprised by their enthusiasm for artisanal coffee.

Satel’s “trap house” experience is similar but not the worst. But both of these are indicators of a more serious disease. Through its graduates, Yale exerts an outsized influence on the daily lives of most Americans — for example, Yale educated three of the last six U.S. presidents, and eight sitting Supreme Court Justices attended either Harvard or Yale at some point. If Yale has abandoned its commitment to free speech culture, we should either encourage it to reconsider or encourage our business and political leaders to reconsider their connection to Yale….

On Jan. 8, Satel gave a Grand Rounds lecture to the Yale Department of Psychiatry about the year she spent working in a clinic in Ironton, Ohio, treating people fighting drug addictions. In her lecture, she examined internal and external influences that can lead to substance abuse, addressed what she sees as misconceptions about the opioid crisis, and argued that misconceptions and mistakes by policymakers and medical providers may have exacerbated the crisis.

Satel was open about the effects of poverty, despair and addiction on the community. She also shared her fond memories of the interactions she had with members of the community and the bonds that were formed through her work. (Satel also discussed her work in Ohio at length with Reason’s Nick Gillespie in an interview for the April edition of Reason magazine.) Satel, a physician who is trying to understand the complexities of a major public health issue, has shown empathy and compassion. It’s likely that you wouldn’t want to work in such environments as Satel (though she has also been employed at a Washington D.C. methadone clinic).

After the talk, however, an unidentified and unenumerated group of “Concerned Yale Psychiatry Residents” sent a letter of complaint to John H. Krystal, chair of the department of psychiatry, objecting not only to the content of Satel’s lecture, but to the idea that Satel, a former assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale who remains a lecturer on the faculty, would be invited to give the address at all:

A group of Yale Psychiatry patients are concerned and have written this letter in protest at Dr. Sally Satel’s Grand Rounds presentation on January 8, 2021. We were traumatized by this presentation, which was made two days following the insurrection at Capitol by white supremacists.

In her presentation, Dr. Satel was classist and dehumanizing towards rural Ohioans and rural people in general. Her highly controversial and racist views on individuals who are subject to structural injustices in their health have made Dr. Satel a well-known figure.

Is this the language that is “dehumanizing demeaning and classist?”

This letter contains two examples. The title is “My Year Abroad: Ironton and Ohio, Lessons from Opioid Crisis”. The letter also mentions an affectionate aside Satel made towards the end her lecture. It refers to the owner of “artisanal coffee shops” which she said was something I wouldn’t expect to see here. According to them, this “dehumanization,” should never be allowed to flourish in Yale Department of Psychiatry.

How about this “highly problematical, racist canon?”  Two of Satel’s published books are the focus of students’ ire. Satel, along with her co-author in 2006’s “The Health Disparities Myth”, argues that geography and socioeconomic status are more important than racial bias to explain racial disparities. She does not dispute the existence of such disparities. Satel also makes the same argument in “PC, MD.” a book that residents cite. She argues that reducing racial disparities to racial bias is oversimplifying the issue.

Satel is criticized for “having the audacity” to criticize Reverend Al Sharpton who was an activist and exemplary person. Satel briefly mentions Sharpton in her work, as she believes that he was one of the many people who in the 2000s attributed racially discriminate healthcare to provider bias. Sharpton, or any other person should not be subject to challenge. Satel’s work doesn’t target Sharpton. Instead she is arguing against the evidence that isn’t in line with Sharpton’s activism.

Satel’s findings are of course open for criticism and scrutiny. Residents are not interested in any aspect of it. The residents write that they find Satel’s canon beyond the scope of a “difference in opinion” worth discussing. To make matters worse, they believe that Satel’s views are incompatible to Yale School of Medicine’s commitment to antiracism. They call for Yale to remove Satel from his position as a lecturer.

Satel says that Yale hasn’t done this. Yale also has not made this a teaching moment for residents, at least in any way that is public. The chilling effect of the ban will likely discourage many lecturers from becoming the next punching bag. These are terms for the discussion. What does that say about Yale’s freedom-of-expression culture?

Disclosure: Sally Satel (a good friend) is also a guest blogger on my blog. She was also a co-guest blogger several years ago. This incident was new to me until I read the FIRE article.