On August 21, I publicized the following letter that the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago sent to all incoming first-year students. I was delighted by it, but since then there’s been considerable discussion on the Internet of the letter (see here, here, and here for criticism and here, here, and here for support). All the controversy centers around the letter’s third paragraph:
“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.”
There are three things at issue, and I want to discuss them in turn: trigger warnings, treatment of invited speakers, and safe spaces. I will argue that while perhaps the letter could have been a bit more detailed, especially in defining “safe spaces” and being more explicit about the University’s existing policy, it is a good letter that has been widely misunderstood. Other colleges should follow Chicago’s lead.
Before I begin, let me give a statement that the University issued to the press and others as a clarification of the letter. I got this simply from calling Jeremy Manier, the University Spokesman, who told me that this was given out to reporters and other people who wanted more information.
Academic freedom is a fundamental value at the University of Chicago. Among other things it means that faculty members have broad freedom in how they accommodate concerns that students may express, including advising students about difficult material. The University does not mandate a specific approach to these issues. Student groups and University departments also will continue the important work of creating welcoming venues for conversation and Dialogue.
Separately from the intellectual values expressed in the letter, the University encourages students to make use of the many support resources that exist on campus. The University provides numerous resources for students’ well being, including private counseling and other forms of support. There are also many campus groups that offer mutual support for students and other members of our community.
In light of that and the paragraph, as well as my own interpretation (based on my own experience) of what the letter was trying to say, let’s take up those three topics. I emphasize that I speak here only for myself, I had nothing to do with the Dean’s letter nor with University policy, and am speaking not as an official representative of the university but as an emeritus faculty member who taught here for nearly three decades.
I have been aware of these for some years, and also knew that there is no official policy about these at the University of Chicago.
To me, the letter does not mean that the University bans trigger warnings, but simply that they are not mandatory, and no faculty member will be punished for failing to issue them. Be aware that there are some universities in the U.S. where trigger warnings are mandatory.
I think what the University was trying to say here—and those who maintain otherwise should seek clarification from University officials—is simply what it said initially (“we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings'”) and what it clarified in the subsequent statement (“Faculty members have broad freedom in how they accommodate concerns that students may express, including advising students about difficult material. The University does not mandate a specific approach to these issues.”) The letter, then, means that the University neither requires nor bans trigger warnings, and that issue is left to faculty discretion.
I think that’s a wise policy, but there is a note about advising students about “difficult” material. The University is not mandating callousness here, but is, according to its tradition, leaving classroom matters to the faculty’s discretion.
Would I give trigger warnings? I never have, as I taught courses that didn’t require them—or should I have said “Content note: Evolution, which may disturb Biblical literalists”? If I were to put up a picture of ISIS beheading someone, or of a gruesome accident, yes, I’d warn the students first. That, after all, is what I do on this site. Would I give a trigger warning if I were teaching literature in which there was violence or abuse? I doubt it, for there are so many things seen as triggering on student lists (including “eating and drinking”) that one couldn’t warn about them all. If I weren’t teaching biology but humanities, film, art or something else, I’d probably make an announcement to the students at the beginning of the course that if there are any issues that give them severe problems, they should come to me privately and discuss them. But I would make every student read and confront all the material, and not omit stuff (for either a single student or the class) because it was seen as “triggering”.
But I would not penalize professors who didn’t give warning and then became the object of student complaints. That would have a chilling effect University teaching. The present policy dictates that if a student complains that you didn’t warn them, or conveyed material that “offended” them, the University would support the teacher—unless, of course, he or she harassed students or said something so bizarre that it would warrant investigation (see below).
Treatment of invited speakers:
The statement is simple: the University of Chicago does not “cancel speakers because their topics might prove controversial.” That’s all it says. It doesn’t say about what speakers will or will not be invited, nor does it lay out a policy about disrupting talks. The University has, however, made it clear that it will not tolerate heckling or disruption of speakers, and has set up a committee to decide what sanctions will be applied to those who abrogate this policy. But note that the University has never prohibited (and never will, I bet) PEACEFUL demonstrations outside a building, or anywhere else on campus, against an invited speaker.
So, for example, the cartoon below by Jen Sorensen at the Daily Kos (click screenshot to go to the article) is just dead wrong about speakers in the panel at upper right and on both panels on the middle line. Sorensen implies that the University will not support peaceful protests (wrong), and will also invite speakers who, by and large, are generally offensive. That last bit is bogus, though of course we have invited some speakers that have offended black students, gay students, anti-Israel students, and so on. Too bad—that’s life! Any speaker who says anything controversial will offend someone, but that’s what college is all about! For example, I would consider it perfectly proper to invite a Holocaust denialist, or someone opposing affirmative action. Those talks, which would undoubtedly be protested, could nevertheless inspire useful discussion among those whose minds aren’t completely closed.
This is what Sorensen said as an update to her invidious cartoon:
(Update: I see some commenters suggesting that I am arguing that students should be shielded from points of view they may disagree with. I have not said that at all. I do think that when a university brings in, say, a known internet harasser who uses his public profile to intimidate and abuse women online, students have the right to protest the legitimacy being granted by the university. If anything, the letter suggests that the leaders of U. Chicago are trying to make a “safe space” for themselves so they can frame criticism they don’t want to hear as anti-free speech.)
What’s she beefing about? Students already have the right to protest the legitimacy of any speaker. What they don’t have is the right to disrupt their speeches. I suppose she’s talking indirectly about Milo Yiannapoulos here, but he’s never spoken at this University. But if he was invited, I’d defend his right to speak. Sorensen’s last sentence is beneath consideration since it’s nasty and untrue.
When the reporter from Reuters talked to me about why some U of C students felt that they were justified in heckling speakers (see this piece, in which I’m quoted), he told me that he had two reactions from students justifying disruption. First, they felt that elected officials should expect to be interrupted and heckled because it is simply behavior expected by those officials. Well, those students are wrong. Election doesn’t carry the expectation of heckling and disruption.
Second, they said that the University doesn’t pay attention to student demands, or for requests to meet with students, and so students are justified in interrupting speakers. I can’t speak for the University here, but I haven’t seen a pattern in which administrators refuse to meet with students. Yes, if students show up at the Administration building, locking themselves to the doors (as they have done), and then refusing to leave until they speak with the President or Provost, then the University has refused these “point of the gun” meetings. But, as I read in the student newspaper, there are and have been plenty of opportunities for students to meet with administrators at all levels. And even if that weren’t true, why should invited speakers be punished by being harassed and interrupted?
Finally, the students have sometimes shown a bizarre but expected attitude towards invited speakers: they affirm the principle of inviting speakers with “challenging” opinions, but then object when their own views are challenged! Here, for instance, is a quote from the Reuters article:
Maurice Farber, a senior who is president of the university’s Israel Engagement Association, supports getting tough with disrupters but would not rule out heckling someone who denied the Holocaust, for example.
“It’s very difficult for me to say that I wouldn’t try to shut someone down who was spreading a message of hate,” he said.
This shows the difficulty of Sorensen’s characterization of offensive speakers as “war criminals/online harassers/extreme bigots/antiscience kooks.” In fact, a Holocaust denialist could be fit into the last two categories. Yet hearing them speak gives us stuff to ponder: “what exactly, is the evidence for the Holocaust and for the gassing of Jews, gays, prisoners of war, and so on?” I’ve recently finished Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman’s book on Holocaust denialism, in which they go into great detail about the evidence for it. (There’s little that explicitly connects Hitler or his high officials to the Holocaust, which denialists love to mention. But there’s plenty of evidence that the Holocaust occurred in the way most people think.) But after reading that book I’m now armed with an evidence-based counterargument. That’s one reason why we should read views we consider offensive. The other, of course, is because we might change our mind or modify our opinions.
This is the most difficult issue to discuss, as nobody, including both the University of Chicago nor its critics, defined “safe spaces.” Are they groups of like-minded people who meet to seek mutual support and affirmation, are they rooms where people can watch puppy videos and use Play-Doh in traumatized reaction to Christina Hoff Summers? Or are they something else?
Note that the characterization in the initial University letter is intellectual safe spaces, which gives you a clue about what I think they mean. First, note the University’s clarification:
The University provides numerous resources for students’ well being, including private counseling and other forms of support. There are also many campus groups that offer mutual support for students and other members of our community.
And indeed, the University already has an explicit LGBTQ “safe space” program to train people and then allow them to put signs on their door proclaiming certain areas as “safe spaces.” (Sorenson alludes to this in the panel at the lower right of her cartoon.)
The idea that the University doesn’t want to protect certain classes of individuals from harassment about their ethnicity, sexuality, and so on is just wrong. What the letter means is what it says: “intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” Now it could have been written more clearly, but note that the University already has explicit written policies about students harassing other students as well as about professors saying things in the classroom which constitute harassment and have nothing to do with the academic content of their course. This is what I, as a professor, was asked to adhere to:
Please note that our policy contains a special provision on classroom content: “Expression occurring in an academic, educational or research context is considered a special case and is broadly protected by academic freedom. Such expression will not constitute harassment unless (in addition to satisfying the above definition) it is targeted at a specific person or persons, is abusive, and serves no bona fide academic purpose.”
And I think this is where the idea of “safe intellectual spaces” is challenged: classrooms and other places of academic discourse should not have restrictions on expression unless that expression constitutes harassment under university policy. It’s a call for full and free discussion.
Granted, the dean’s letter could have been clearer by explaining what “intellectual safe spaces” mean, but a bit of inquiry, as I’ve done here, clarifies the issue.
Finally, one last question: What do students and ex-students think of this policy?
Reaction is of course mixed, but surprisingly many students and ex-students support the trigger warnings/safe space statement. Jen Sorensen, in her Daily Kos cartoon, implies otherwise when she gives another update:
Update 2: Another great article providing background on this issue: “What University Of Chicago Students Think Of Their School’s Campaign Against ‘Safe Spaces.’”
But if you go to that article, you’ll find only two students quoted, both activists who oppose the University’s letter. That’s an attempt to quote opponents, not to survey what most students think, and Sorenson is wrong to characterize this as a summary of student opinion.
In fact, there’s one survey of what students think, the Uchicago Safe Spaces Sentiment Survey conducted by Nicholas Xu, an alumnus of the College (economics degree, 2009, MBA, Booth School of Business, 2013). Now this isn’t a professional survey, and of course could have response bias, but it tells us something. Xu got about 500 responses to his Facebook request to answer the question in bold below:
Results On a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree), how do you feel about the Administration’s position on safe spaces and triggers? (Recognizing that safe spaces and triggers can be hard to define and parse, do you agree with the spirit of the position on the relative value of ‘academic freedom/censorship’ versus ‘comfort/discomfort’)
Xu also tells us how to read the chart. The upshot is that he divided the data into three groups: students who graduated this summer or will graduate within four years (>2015), students who have graduated already within the last four years before 2016 (2011-2015), and students who graduated more than five years ago (<2011). He got about 500 responses.
- How to read this chart: I’ll use pretty much the same framework throughout, the left side is just a count of responses by different groups of class year, and then the bar is split by 1-5 scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. The right side, puts all three bars on the same 100% scale, so you can directly compare the % of people answering 1-5, even though there are a lot more people who were 2016 and later than 2010 and earlier for instance
The operant graph is on the right, giving percentages rather than absolute numbers. What you see is that about 50% of current and recently graduating students agree or strongly agree with the Administration’s policy on trigger warnings and safe spaces (the policy referred to in Ellison’s letter, though Xu’s survey was not about the letter itself). Among older ex-students, about 80% agree with that policy—the higher percentage is expected.
In general, then, most students aren’t upset with the University policy, though we still have about 40% of students who disagree, strongly or not, with the University’s policy on safe spaces and trigger warnings. A general problem with these data is that I’m not sure how many of these people actually know what the policy is!
Again, this is my interpretation of what the University of Chicago letter meant, and it’s a personal interpretation based on my experience of 29 years as a professor here, and on investigating University policy that’s in the public domain. Anybody could have done the investigation I did, by looking online or contacting University spokespeople. They didn’t, and so we get unfair criticisms such as Sorensen’s that rest on the critic’s ideological biases and a kneejerk reaction to Dean Ellison’s letter.
I remain proud of my University and its commitment to free speech. I think we’ve struck a very good balance between fostering open discourse and protecting students from harassment.