In a move that the internet will use as fuel for a new round of exhausting yelling, the University of Chicago has sent a letter to incoming freshmen warning the school doesn’t provide “so-called ‘trigger warnings’” or “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces.’” The University’s president and provost have previously accused student protesters of hampering free speech on campus.
The concept of what a trigger warning actually is or does has wandered very far afield in the past few years, way, way away from its original intent as a concrete warning to trauma survivors. The debate over safe spaces, too, has become cartoonized, a shorthand way to complain about privileged millennials, because the big, hard, knotty discussion about institutionalized racism on campus, about freedom of expression versus sensitivity to discrimination and injustice, takes too long and can’t be expressed in 140 characters.
And so now we have this move from University of Chicago, first reported by the site Intellectual Takeout and then picked up by the campus paper the Chicago Maroon. It was quickly rebroadcast approvingly by Fox News and a round of right-wing blogs. From the letter to the incoming class:
Once here will you discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristic 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 even 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 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.
Chicago, like many other schools across the country, had many student-led protests last year, some of them important and some less so. Student body president Tyler Kissinger was threatened with expulsion just before his graduation because he participated in a May occupation of the president’s office, demanding, among other things, a living wage for campus workers and divestment from companies that invest in fossil fuels. (He and the other student protesters were ultimately allowed to graduate.)
Even before then, though, the University’s leadership was registering profound discomfort with protests on campus, sending a letter in June 2015 that said protesting campus speakers “violated the University’s long-standing commitment to free expression:”
These protests are not representative of, nor compatible with, the level of discourse that our students, faculty and staff work to sustain. Members of the University community engage in dozens of protests each year on a wide range of issues, including challenges to current practices of the University. Such protests are not only appropriate, but they can contribute to the exchange of ideas that can lead to change. It is equally vital to treat protesters with respect, even when disagreements are significant. But protests that threaten safety, silence speakers with different points of view, prevent members of our community from listening to speakers, or prevent campus events from proceeding diminish freedom of expression.
There’s a balance here that neither side has gotten quite right, a war between students and professors, as Donna Zuckerberg wrote for Jezebel not long ago, that somehow sidesteps that they’re both fighting injustices inherent in the academic system.
Meanwhile, as Chicago assures everyone that they are here for toughness and rigor and not coddling your precious millennial feelings, they are also being investigated by the feds over whether they mishandled sexual assault complaints. The U of C also hired molecular biology professor Jason Lieb despite warnings that he had been investigated for sexual harassment at two previous institutions. Lieb “resigned” from UChicago after a new round of sexual misconduct allegations and a subsequent investigation there. But that is, I guess, not the kind of safe space we’re discussing today.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said the Maroon was first to report the letter; Intellectual Takeout had it first.