Free speech vs. safe spaces: Why UChicago is pushing back on limits

A letter sent by the University of Chicago to its incoming freshmen warned that the administration does not support concepts such as 'safe spaces' or 'trigger warnings,' citing the school's 'commitment to academic freedom.' 

Tony Dejak/AP/File
This March 5, 2013 file photo shows a student riding a bicycle on the campus of Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.

Like most incoming freshmen going to college this month or next, the University of Chicago Class of 2020 can expect to experience late nights, new friends, and difficult classes. 

What they won't find on campus, however, is an administration that condones "safe spaces" or "trigger warnings," practices that have become relatively normalized at a number of other universities across the country. But UChicago is bucking the recent trend. 

"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 even cause you discomfort," reads a letter from the Dean of Students, Jay Ellison, delivered to incoming first year students on Wednesday.

The university's "commitment to academic freedom," the letter continues, "means that we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own." 

A trigger warning is normally a written or oral advance notice about a topic that some students may find distressing to see, hear, or read. A safe space is a place where students can avoid those subjects, or a place where they can discuss topics without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe on account of their gender, race, or religion.

The letter, shared by thousands on social media, has been both celebrated and criticized, reflecting an ongoing debate surrounding such practices as universities struggle to find a balance between meeting the demands of student activists and retaining freedom of speech. College campuses have long aspired to be places where students can be exposed to new ideas and have vigorous exchanges of points of view, which many see as a cornerstone of the educational process. But priorities and values are shifting.

"There has been an increase in the limitations placed on speech on college and university campuses over the past several years, including the banning of invited speakers and new university guidelines about what students and faculty are allowed to say or discouraged if not forbidden from saying," says Jason Manning, a professor of sociology at West Virginia University, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. "This has involved a cultural change among students, especially student activists." 

The shift is a relatively recent one, Manning says, with concepts such as "microaggressions" – subtle comments or actions, intentional or not, that are perceived as offensive by another person – and "trigger warnings" entering into public discussion around 2013. As the Monitor's Kevin Truong reported last year: 

What began in the 1990s as political correctness – a desire not to offend others – has now morphed into what one academic observer calls “empathetic correctness” – a desire never to be offended. Even celebrities have weighed in on the debate, with comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher saying the environment at college makes it almost impossible to do their routines without someone becoming upset....

According to professors and higher-education experts, the trend is driven by financial realities in the American higher education system, and exacerbated by a contemporary world in which opinions are catalyzed and publicized by the intellectual echo chamber that can exist online. With a drop in the number of college-age students, as well as decreased funding from states, increased competition among colleges and universities has resulted in an atmosphere where students are treated like consumers and more emphasis may be placed on their satisfaction rather than how much they are learning, critics charge. 

The letter sent to University of Chicago freshmen may reflect a growing disapproval of such practices by college administrators, says Azhar Majeed, director of policy reform at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education – yet, as one of the only institutions to publicly take this stance, it remains the exception to a trend of acquiescing to student activist requests for a "safer" campus.

"On the administrative side, more and more universities are coming around and understanding that simply ceding to these kinds of demands places a threat on free speech and academic freedom," says Mr. Majeed in a phone interview with the Monitor.

However, he adds, "It is rare that schools take an outright stand." He attributes the lack of action in large part to some administrators being "simply leery of negative publicity or backlash." 

The shift to a more "empathetically correct" campus culture is not driven entirely by students, of course. Kate Manne, a philosophy professor at Cornell University, defends trigger warnings, dismissing criticisms that they give students carte blanche to skip class and avoid a discussion entirely. Instead, she says, they can offer students a chance to prepare themselves for a conversation that might be difficult.

"The evidence suggests that at least some of the students in any given class of mine are likely to have suffered some sort of trauma, whether from sexual assault or another type of abuse or violence," Professor Manne wrote in a New York Times editorial last fall. "So I think the benefits of trigger warnings can be significant."

A number of administrators, such Wesleyan University president Michael Roth, have defended the values of a generation of scholars that others have written off as "pampered students with coddled minds." 

"What we are experiencing today on college campuses, I think ... is that we have an extraordinary pressure from points of view that have been excluded at the university," said Dr. Roth in a debate at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June, citing female, minority, and low-income students as examples of those who were previously excluded.

"[N]ow, they're raising issues that we are less comfortable talking about," he said.

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