A Modern Conundrum: Academic Freedom and Safe Spaces

Written by Shiying Cheng

At the end of August, the University of Chicago sent out a welcome letter to its incoming first-year students making it clear that the University does not condone intellectual “safe spaces” or trigger warnings.

“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,” the letter from Dean of Students Jay Ellison reads.

“The issue with the letter itself is that University of Chicago is conflicting too many different ideas that do not necessarily have to do with each other,” said Sociology Assistant Professor Prentiss A. Dantzler. He emphasized that University of Chicago’s letter does not use the terms for how people talked about safe spaces, trigger warnings, and censorship. He added, “trigger warnings are separate from safe spaces, which are separate from censoring speakers on campus.”

In addition, “A lot of people are conflicting this idea of the Freedom of the Speech”, which “does not have to do with educational institutions,” but emphasizes that people should not be “silenced by the government,” said Dantzler.

On the other hand, Professor Tim Fuller from the Political Science Department responded, “the significance [of the letter] lies in the fact that the president of one of the greatest universities in the country was willing to reaffirm the idea of open-ended discussion in academic life.”

Professor Fuller stressed that a liberal arts college or university should be a safe space on its own. “It is the place where you can say things that you would not say in public if you are a candidate for politics, and where you can have an open inquiry that doesn’t necessarily exist in other places.” Therefore, “to be in a college like this is already to be in a place that provides certain types of protection of free inquiries.”

Senior Sociology major Jacqui Adler, who conducted confidential research about opinions around and experiences with Safe Spaces in the classroom at CC within the Sociology and Political Science Department, responded to the letter, “Personally, I agree with it. I would not necessarily expect CC to send out a letter like that to all the freshmen.”

She believes that students should expose themselves to different ideas in colleges. Adler replied that it is not the role of the institution but of the individual to decide what to be exposed to within the college. Adler’s research illustrates that most students do not want a “censored classroom” but “a brave space,” in which students are encouraged to debate and disagree with each other in a civil way.

According to a report issued by American Association of University Professors in 2014, “Trigger warnings suggest that classrooms should offer protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education. They reduce students to vulnerable victims rather than full participants in the intellectual process of education.”

Professor Dantzler responded, “Trigger warnings serve as a way to introduce difficult situations and topics to students, which would otherwise be problematic for them to discuss in the classroom and at the institution itself. There are ways to do this, where you do not silence a voice or silence the discussion.” He even argued that maybe the administration at the University of Chicago “is not knowable about pedagogical techniques to do this.”

Furthermore, within the University of Chicago’s letter to first-years, Dean Jay Ellison included a link to a university report issued by its Committee on Freedom of Expression. The report states, “It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive… Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

“The purpose of being in a college like this is to have civil exchanges about important questions,” asserted Professor Fuller. “That’s the principle which we should uphold.”

“Students should feel safe, but not necessarily comfortable in every situation,” said Professor Dantzler. “Being uncomfortable is part of the college process. It is part of the learning environment that you signed up for when you went to an educational institution.”

Adler also points out the fundamental differences between the social and academic settings: “The institutional role is to set up the academic space in a certain way, but within that institution, you could have SOSS (Student Organization for Sexual Safety), SARC (Sexual Assault Response Coordinator), the Wellness Resource Center, and the Black Student Union.” She emphasized that certain student organizations have the right to determine what their space looks like, but it is fundamentally different when the institution determines the safe spaces for certain people in academic settings.

The University of Chicago letter does not necessarily reflect the views amongst all faculty and staff, but more so the views from the administration. In a post-Yik Yak era at Colorado College, the discussion surrounding academic and social freedom is highly relevant. When responding to the letter from the University of Chicago, Assistant Vice President and Director of the Butler Center Paul M. Buckley replied, “CC emphasizes that freedom of expression is essential to any college or university, offering opportunities for a diversity of views—some of which can be in tension with each other—to be expressed.”

However, he also emphasized, “Freedom of expression also requires taking responsibility for one’s statements. This freedom does not include the right to injure, harass, or silence others. The Yik Yak postings in question did not offer a modicum of intellectual value, but were toxic, injurious postings. The College is not a safe harbor for hate.”

Regarding the Yik Yak incident last semester, Professor Fuller also commented, “if you have a standard of decency with respect on how you treat other people, you won’t do something like that.” He believes that the type of behavior exhibited by this event is not appropriate for mature people.

During the interview, Adler described CC’s attitude towards freedom of expression in an academic setting as hypercritical. She added that CC has “this love for identities and differences” and emphasizes diversity and inclusion at a surface level, but “we only seem to be diverse and inclusive towards certain groups of people.”

She further elaborated that CC attempts to be more inclusive towards racially unrepresented students, but not necessarily towards students with multi-religions or different political ideologies. “The more we focus on a diversity of identities in a certain way, we are actually making it less of a safe space for conservative and religious students in the classroom.”

The report from the American Association of University Professors also addressed the role of professors in student life outside of the classroom. “College professors are not responsible for students’ emotional health…That responsibility lies with counselors and other mental health experts.”

“I agreed with that,” Adler said affirmatively. She believes that as adults, students should take care of themselves. “If taking care of yourself means going to the counseling center, the Wellness Resource Center, or the accessibility resources, that is what you determine you need. But when you go to the classroom, that’s where professors should focus on your education, not necessarily your mental health, as long as within reason.”

The division of labor between professors and counselors has become the model which most higher education institutions adopt, while the Butler Center at Colorado College offers a different insight. Dr. Buckley referred the staff at his office as “diversity educators” and “student development professionals,” who advise and facilitate learning.

However, Dr. Buckley did draw the line between their jobs and counselors: “We are not counselors, but we are very attentive to the psychological well-beings of our students and the entire community…We are sensitive to students’ negotiation of academic pressures. Very often, we will refer students to the Wellness Resource Center and the Counseling Center to take part in the excellent services they provide beyond the scope of our own roles.”

After the University of Chicago sent out the letter to its first-years, the President of Lewis & Clark College, Barry Glassner, and of Northwestern University, Morton Schapiro, took a different stand. On Aug. 25, they co-authored an article in The Los Angeles Times to defend the student protest movement that the University of Chicago letter has criticized.

Glassner and Shapiro highlighted the significant changes in demographic homogeneity within academia in the past decades, regarding gender and racial ratios. “These students are coming of age in a time of political, social, and economic turbulence unseen in a generation.” They argued that criticizing safe spaces and trigger warnings oversimplifies real issues faced by many students and disregards the social environment.

Meanwhile, Professor Fuller responded to Glassner and Shapiro with three firm “no’s.” “Anybody who knows the history of universities going back to the Middle Ages knows that protests, movements, and appeals have already occurred in the institutions of higher learning. So the fact that we are having a particular version of that now does not mean that it is something that never happened before.” He added, “as far as the increasing diversity of the student body goes, I think that we have to pay attention to that. But the basic principle of liberal learning has not changed. The basic principle of civil discourse and open inquires remain central.”

What is the significance of “safe spaces”? Is it an institutional responsibility to create and maintain it?

CCSGA President Annika Kastetter stressed the extreme significance of safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses in both academic and social settings. “It is no one’s place to tell others how to feel or respond to certain things,” she said. Because of different backgrounds and life experiences, everyone reacts to certain things differently. “It is flat out ridiculous for an institution to impose certain barriers which potentially prevent students from being healthy, safe, and feeling comfortable at where they are living and studying.”

Professor Fuller emphasized that it is not the purpose of the institution to create official safe spaces, but it is the purpose of the institution to protect its students if they are openly attacked. “Students always, on their own, found communities in which they can talk to people who think as they do and where they can be more open than they might be in some other settings.” He fears that the overall political correct climate in higher educations will lead to “a situation in which nobody feels free to say openly what they think or believe.”

Shiying Cheng

Shiying Cheng

Website Editor & News Reporter
Website Editor and Staff Writer for the News Section at the Catalyst. Shiying Cheng joined The Catalyst in March 2016. Cheng is also a contributor for Insights Section of Asia Times. As a student, Cheng is double majoring in Political Science and Computer Science, with minors in Journalism and History. She is passionate about data, coding, and story-telling, and wants to impact the surrounding communities through the power of journalism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *