As universities and colleges open their doors to first-year students across the country this fall, old, festering, familiar controversies are once again creeping up. Students, faculty and administration nationwide are embroiled in a debate exploring the relationship between demands for inclusivity, communal safe spaces for healing, trigger warnings and academic freedom. One dean, however, hoped to put that issue to bed before classes even began.
In a welcome letter to first-year students, the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students made clear that “we [the University] 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” (The Chicago Tribune, “U. of C. tells incoming freshmen it does not support ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘safe spaces,’” 08.25.2016).
On the surface, the letter appears to be a firm response to and affirmation of the widely held belief that trigger warnings and safe spaces are stifling academic discourse and softening the mental resolves of American college students.
On the internet, those on the Left and the Right applauded the University of Chicago’s letter as a testament to what colleges should be doing: upholding academic freedom and encouraging open dialogue. Who could argue against academic freedom? At a glance, it seems hard to dismiss this defense of intellectual liberty. But is that the true impact–and intent–of the letter?
It is one thing for students and professors to collectively organize and discuss the various merits and weaknesses of trigger warnings, safe spaces and the like. For an academic dean, who holds large amounts of power over the students they serve, to legitimize the narrative that trigger warnings and safe spaces are antithetical to academic freedom is not only misguided, it’s dangerous.
For one, the letter relies on grand generalizations and implicit slippery slope arguments that don’t carry much weight. For example, the letter reads, “Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority–building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”
Implying that trigger warnings and safe spaces undermine any of these values is a grandiose misfire. Isn’t pointedly reducing these things as oppressive or coddling a replication of the exact lack of nuance you’re arguing against? Isn’t decrying trigger warnings and safe spaces as threats to academia without any caveats or explication preventing further dialogue on the issue? As Professor Kevin Gannon of Grand View University argues, “[A]s a statement of principle, the letter–as does much of the general argument against trigger warnings and safe spaces–relies on caricature and bogeymen rather than reason and nuance … That’s the specter that arguments like this conjure up: the greatest threat to genuine academic freedom comes from within … And if universities don’t make a stand against this foolishness, Western Civilization itself will collapse” (The Tattooed Professor, “Trigger Warning: Elitism, Gatekeeping, and Other Academic Crap,” 08.24.2016).
Associate Professor of English Hua Hsu offered similar arguments in the wake of Vassar’s James O’Keefe controversy in which the conservative commentator handed out pocket constitutions on campus (while also dressed up as the document) and had one of his affiliates ask an administrator to destroy one of the copies while posing as a student. This exchange was recorded surreptitiously and subsequently posted online. Professor Hsu wrote, “The imaginary college student is a character born of someone else’s pessimism. It is an easy target, a perverse distillation of all the self-regard and self-absorption ascribed to what’s often called the millennial generation … Today’s youth should be understood in terms of the choices available to them, not the world they’ve inherited. Let college kids be, many of us say, for they are no weirder than we were” (The New Yorker, “The Year of the Imaginary College Student,” 12.31.2015).
College students are hyper-visible cannon fodder in the much larger and omnipresent culture wars, especially in the age of social media. When you get past the jargon, you find that these debates are barely, and have never been, about students. Or dialogue. Or intellectual liberties.
The UChicago Dean of Students office is not concerned about academic freedom; It is instead concerned with posturing the University as an elite authority on the state of the academy, while snobbishly dismissing modern college students as whiny and overindulged. Gannon writes, “Rather than seeing themselves as clinging to the last vestiges of the 1950s, they get to paint themselves as staunch advocates of all that is good and worthy … I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the backlash against so-called ‘political correctness’ in higher education has intensified in direct variation with the diversification of the academy, areas of scholarship, and–most significantly–the student population.”
The letter almost cartoonishly evokes sentiments that are often attached to the modern college student: entitlement, stubbornness, self-righteousness. For example, one sentence reads, “At times this [diversity of opinion] may challenge you and even cause discomfort.” Yeah, we know. College students didn’t exist in a bubble of temporal ignorance before entering the pearly gates of your esteemed university.
The letter’s sentiments are not new arguments. However, this is (as far as this Editor could find) the first documented piece of writing penned by an administrator specifically addressed to students as part of college policy regarding safe spaces and trigger warnings. Therein lies the real danger of the letter: It legitimizes the often vitriolic attacks on creating more inclusive academic spaces and empowering survivors of trauma and oppression. People who cry loudest about freedom of speech on campus can point to the letter as a seal of approval from the Ivory Tower itself.
Additionally, the narrative of students as coddled and overprotected by institutions necessitates rethinking and complication. It is no secret that colleges and universities across the nation have a serious issue with sexual assault, in particular the empowerment of survivors and properly sanctioning perpetrators. Giving credence to this narrative not only whitewashes the institutional mistreatment of students by college administrations across the country, but also tacitly erases student agency to address this mistreatment (which sometimes manifests itself in calling for safe spaces and trigger warnings).
As Gannon articulately summarized, “Our first reaction to expressions of student agency, even when they seem misguided or perhaps frivolous, should not be to shut it down. If we really value academic freedom, then we need to model that with and for our students. Ableism, misogyny, racism, elitism, and intellectual sloppiness deserve to be called out. That’s not a threat, that’s our students doing what they’re supposed to as engaged citizens of an academic community.”
This was a painful summer. Especially for Black students in the wake of the state-sanctioned killings of Alton Sterling and Philipe Castille and for queer people of color in the wake of the Orlando shooting. It would be a serious institutional transgression to not provide spaces for collective healing, introspection and community-building in the aftermath of such tragedies. We cease to be an academic community, or a community at all, when those who are most marginalized are not properly supported, respected and valued.
In a short series of tweets, sociologist and noted scholar Eve Ewing stated, “Positing ‘safe space’ and intellectual freedom as though they are at odds actually diminishes the intellectual freedom of marginalized people … Actually, in issuing statements like this universities ARE creating safe spaces…for unchecked and flagrant oppressive structures” (Twitter, 08.24.2016).
The University of Chicago justifies the incisive and fallacious attacks on college students as coddled children who complain at the slightest discomfort. Administrators and faculty, at the University of Chicago and here at Vassar, must respect and listen to the demands of students, rather than dismiss and evade them, if universities are to be as truly committed to intellectual freedom as they say they are. This year, let empathy be a cornerstone of our definitions of intellectual freedom, not an indulgence.