This week, the University of Chicago sent a letter to incoming freshman informing them that it does not “support” trigger warnings or “condone” safe spaces. But its own students argue that the letter is simply trying to distract from the real issues they want the university to address.
A trigger warning prepares people to read or watch something that may be challenging for them — most typically because they have experienced something traumatic, such as sexual assault. Safe spaces are places where marginalized groups can go to get away from the dominant campus culture for a moment, or where someone who has been traumatized by something can go to heal on their own time.
The letter from the University of Chicago about these two topics, signed by Dean of Students Jay Ellison, reads:
Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and cause discomfort.
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings. We do not cancel invited speakers because their topics prove controversial, and we not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
On Thursday, shortly after this news broke, The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed written by University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer on the importance of free speech.
Ignoring student activists
But University of Chicago students themselves told ThinkProgress that they believe the letter is meant to distract from the issues student activists are most concerned about, such as a living wage for campus workers, better services for students with disabilities, and what students say are racist policing practices from university police on the South Side of Chicago.
“Dean Ellison has repeatedly refused to meet with student leaders about critical issues, including living wages on campus, accessibility for students with disabilities, and strengthening the university’s sexual assault policy,” Anna Wood, a student and university worker who has engaged in campus activism, wrote in a statement to ThinkProgress. “It’s ironic that during my time at the University of Chicago, administrators have continuously sought to create a comfortable space for themselves free of challenge by avoiding engagement with student leaders about these issues.”
In an interview with ThinkProgress, Eric Holmberg, president of the executive committee of the student government at the University of Chicago, argued that the letter is more about trying to focus instead on issues that students have mostly resolved. Although students have raised concerns about certain speakers coming to the school, he said trigger warnings and safe spaces, which are entirely different topics, weren’t a highly controversial on the campus and have been implemented quietly and with success. He pointed out that Ellison, the dean of students who signed the letter, is listed among the names of people involved in the Safe Space Ally Network for LGBTQ students on campus.
“This is a coordinated effort to control the conversation about campus climate and touchy problems on campus.”
All of this leads him to wonder whether this is simply a public relations campaign to discredit student activism by misrepresenting safe spaces and painting a portrait of coddled students who want to live in a “fake world.”
“This is a coordinated effort to control the conversation about campus climate and touchy problems on campus and frame it as young people being concerned about being challenged or being uncomfortable,” Holmberg said, “as opposed to all of the ways in which the university creates a toxic environment and makes poor decisions and is unwilling to listen or have dialogue.”
He also pointed out that a new provost, Daniel Diermeier, has built a career on reputation management. He wrote the book, Reputation Rules: Strategies for Building Your Company’s Most Valuable Asset, and has worked as an advisor to BP, the FBI, the City of Chicago, and Johnson & Johnson. In his book, Diermeier wrote, “But reputational challenges are not simply the consequence of wrong decisions, accidents, or bad luck; they frequently are created by activists, interest groups, and public actors with the goal of forcing changes in business practices through ‘private politics.’ Activists are competitors for the company’s reputation. They need to be treated as seriously as competitors in the marketplace.”
How safe spaces became a hot topic
The conversation about safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses has evolved into a larger cultural debate in which people from older generations often paint Millennials as wanting to avoid spirited intellectual debate and be comfortable at all costs. They’ve become shorthand for an accusation that young people want to hide from scary ideas.
there's a lot of labor involved in speaking up in spaces where the 1st (and 2nd and 3rd) thing you gotta do is justify your presence there.
— Gene Demby (@GeeDee215) August 25, 2016
But experts on racism challenge this idea. Lawrence Ross, author of Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, posits that the university’s letter to students is itself a “safe space” for the university. Ross said that the letter is using the concept of free speech to limit marginalized students’ speech.
On the other hand, space spaces and trigger warnings don’t limit speech but open up dialogue. When everyone is comfortable talking, there is a richer dialogue on campus.
Ross pointed out that various incidents on the campus have shown there is good reason for allowing safe spaces to exist on campus. The university is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for its handling of sexual assault complaints and a campus fraternity sent racist, homophobic, and Islamophobic emails earlier this year.
“The ironic part is that safe spaces and trigger warnings actually open up dialogue.”
While the university is touting the idea of freedom of expression, Ross said, “When it comes to marginalized groups on campus, those groups are usually brutalized by the freedom of expression coming from dominant groups, whether it’s white men sending racist emails or men [committing] sexual assault.”
On the other hand, the very things the university criticized can foster more discussion. “The ironic part is that safe spaces and trigger warnings actually open up dialogue,” he said. “They don’t close down dialogue because it’s all set up as a voluntary system within the classroom.”
Some university presidents have embraced the idea of a safe space. Morton Shapiro, president of Northwestern University, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in January in support. He gave an example of white students asking black students to join them at at their lunch table to engage in “uncomfortable learning,” but the black students declined. He explained that the black students should be able to eat their lunch in peace without white students unilaterally deciding when uncomfortable learning would take place.
“I’m an economist, not a sociologist or psychologist,” he wrote, “but those experts tell me that students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable. Safe spaces provide that comfort.”