In defense of the University of Chicago and its letter to first-year students

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.

Trigger warnings:

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.Sorensen

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.

Safe spaces:

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.


  1. DrBrydon
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Well, as a member of the class of ’87, I completely agree with the letter, as do friends of mine from the classes of ’86 and ’84.

  2. George
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I am a UofC alumnus – AB ’78, MBA ’80. I have not heard one complaint about the letter from a single alum. I am Facebook friends with many. The only posts about the letter have been supportive. And this is not just from conservatives. One friend posts about five anti-Trump items a day, supported Sanders – and thinks this is a great policy.

    The only issue is why did UofC have to put out this letter. Most thought this policy is obvious. Keep in mind that the UofC undergraduate student body ranges from a little weird to all the way down the rabbit hole. Chicago is almost by definition a safe space for the weird. Students made up and embrace the unofficial school motto – Where Fun Comes To Die. And proudly wear t-shirts stating that.

    It is also a largely graduate institution with 5,800 undergrads and 12,000 grad students. The feeling amongst my friends is “grow up.”

    The one complaint among alumni (and this is a very UofC things) is news stories referring to “incoming freshman.” UofC has first year students – not freshman. No sophomores, juniors or seniors either. Just n year students where n may be > 4.

    Certain differences, alumni of a certain vintage call the place UofC (sometimes Chicago). Whippersnappers have adopted the internet name, uchicago. Old guys call the business school the GSB. Youngsters say Booth. So things do change.

    • George
      Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      UofC does have at its very core the sense that it is special. This dates back to its founding in 1892. They say 1890 now – but the first classes were in 1892. The founding president, William Rainey Harper, was operating on behalf of a segment of American academia which wanted higher education in the US to follow the model of the German research university. At that time, higher ed in the US was the finishing school for the WASP upper class (men only) and training for mainline Protestant clergy. Johns Hopkins was focusing on biomedical research. The big publically funded land grant universities were just getting started. But nothing like what you saw in Germany.

      The initial Chicago faculty included ten men who had been university presidents. They and many more were part of this project that Harper led. So why locate this project in Chicago – a city which had burned down in 1871? It was America’s great boom town. And it was far away from the prying eyes of the East coast. They could get things done there. And of course there was money.

      Harper had a great source of funds – John Rockefeller. UofC was founded as a Baptist school. There had previously been a University of Chicago from 1857-66. It was Baptist school.

      Harper convinced the devout Baptist Rockefeller that this booming city in America’s heartland desperately needed a Baptist school. So UofC was started – taking just the name of the original school. And there also were all those nouveau riche Chicagoans to tap for money.

      All the scandals in college sports today – they were baked into UofC. Read “Stagg’s University” by Robin Lester. Harper used sports to promote the school. Chicago played 80% of its football games at home – and they were the big events in the city. They even played indoors when the weather got bad.

      Chicago led a huge change in American higher ed. The first School of Education and School of Library Science. When the Ed School (founded by John Dewey) was closed in 1997, there was much outrage.

      Same with the Library School which closed in 1989.

      Many other innovations in many fields. They pretty much invented sociology by studying the city around them. Chicago has been much studied because UofC sociologists split it up into community areas that are still used (including by the Census) and studied today.

      Chicago does rethink itself. I think it spends more time thinking about itself and its place in the academy than any other school. The history of the place is fascinating, particularly under Robert Maynard Hutchins who became president of UofC at the age of 30 in 1929 – and was there until 1951. One complaint I have heard in recent years is that there was nothing to distinguish UofC from other universities. Faculty are said to be focused on their field and departments rather than on the University as a whole. Which is how other schools operate.

      So all this for a rather simple statement – I think the letter was UofC’s way of marking its ground. This is who we are. We don’t care what you think. We think this is the right way. Largely left unsaid but easy to infer – we are special (and better than you). In cat terms, this is the big make lion marking his territory. The message is nominally for current students but the real target is the academy as a whole and alumni who thought UofC might be going soft.

  3. Historian
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Here’s what I would do in regard to trigger warnings if I were teaching a literature class. On the first day of class I would hand out the syllabus and review it by briefly summarizing what each book is about. If a book deals with controversial themes, such as race in Huckleberry Finn, I would say something like this: “This book deals in part with slavery and race in mid-nineteenth century America. The language used by some of the characters would not be acceptable in contemporary America. This book is considered one of the classics of America literature because of the issues it confronts.” I would not use the phrase trigger warning. I would then say that all the required readings on the syllabus must be read by the students if they expect a passing grade. I would conclude by stating in a general way that students are welcome to discuss with me any aspect of the course by making an appointment to see me during office hours.

    I think this approach would prepare sensitive students for what they are reading while at the same time making it clear the assigned readings must be done.

    • Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      I agree.

      • fjordaniv
        Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        I do something similar in my composition classes, as we often touch on controversial subjects through readings and discussions centering around the argumentative essays.

    • Posted September 5, 2016 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      What proportion of students studying English Literature don’t know what Huckleberry Finn is about before enrolling?

      That’s like taking physics when you don’t know what momentum is.

      Don’t you at least require a basic level of knowledge before starting?

    • eric
      Posted September 5, 2016 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      I agree; the syllabus is, in general, the right vehicle for an ‘early warning’ communication to prospective class-takers.

      I do wonder, however, how much of the protests about content come from students who are meeting a university general requirement vs. students majoring in the subject. My completely unresearched and data-free guess is that the former group contains most of the complainants; students who feel they ‘have’ to take a course to fulfill some requirement, rather than students who are choosing to study the subject in depth. For the ‘have to’ crowd, the principle of caveat emptor doesn’t apply as well, as they may not see themselves as having any other viable option.

  4. TJR
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Hmm, seeking clarification rather than just jumping to conclusions by putting the worst possible interpretation on a statement.

    It’ll never catch on.

  5. John Crisp
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Hi Jerry. I came across a blog the other day which claimed that the letter is only ostensibly about academic freedom and is in fact an attempt to keep (mainly conservative) donors happy, since according to the blogger a number of universities have experienced falling donations as a result of the safe space movement. I have no reason to argue one way or the other, but would be interested to hear if you have any views on this allegation.

    • Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      I think that view is crazy, an insinuation by people who don’t want to come to grips with what the letter is really about. And I’ve heard NOTHING about falling donations due to the “safe space movement.”

      This is pretty much a distraction technique. And even if were true, we’d still have to discuss the issues.

    • Posted September 5, 2016 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      I think that the fall of donations, if true, is fully deserved by these universities.

  6. Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    I didn’t comment when you first posted about this letter, because I found myself ambivalent. I admire the commitment to free speech. However, the administration proved itself clueless about some of the issues.

    The “safe spaces” issue is one. As written, it made the administration seem to believe your straw-man characterization of “safe spaces” as places with Play-do, puppies, and Disney cartoons where students can go to nap. However, for LGBT students, “safe spaces” are places they can go to drop their normal defensive readiness to deal with harassment and deal instead with questions like, “How do I live a good, valuable life as LGBT in spite of the disapproval I hear?” This kind of space truly can save lives, as someone commented last time.

    From what you’ve written here, I gather that the university actually does support “safe spaces” in this form. I sincerely hope that next year someone less clueless writes this letter. (Simply not mentioning “safe spaces” would have been an improvement.)

    • Alpha Neil
      Posted September 5, 2016 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      The letter specifically said “intellectual safe spaces” so I don’t see how it implied the exclusion of safe spaces intended as a refuge from physical abuse or harassment. It seems that many people read the letter with the goal of identifying something that they can get pissed off about (and then signal their virtuous outrage to the world). Unwittingly, they reveal the intellectual defect at the core of the regressive movement.

      • Posted September 5, 2016 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        One can read that and hope the university really meant to exclude LGBTQ safe spaces and other such spaces, but one can’t be sure, because the hypothesis that the writers are clueless about alternatives meanings of “safe spaces” cannot be dismissed.

        I persist in thinking that the letter was written poorly in response to recent inflation of these terms.

      • Posted September 5, 2016 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        “The letter specifically said “intellectual safe spaces” so I don’t see how it implied the exclusion of safe spaces intended as a refuge from physical abuse or harassment.”

        I agree. I don’t see how you could see it otherwise unless you are biased towards giving the statement the most uncharitable interpretation.

  7. Jenny Haniver
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Just yesterday, the radio program, “On the Media” (they are skeptics of the media) devoted a good part of the hour to discussing of these very matters: “Kids these days” There were three interviews, the first in defense of free spaces, the second in defense of trigger warnings; the third an interview with Geoffrey Stone, prof. of law at U Chicago, a first amendment specialist, who offered his analysis of things Whatever one thinks, whether one agrees or disagrees, I think this interview with Geoffrey Stone is indispensable for anyone who has a stake or interest in the matter, at U of C or anywhere else. He not only encapsulates the general discourse surrounding these problems, but breaks things down and makes certain critical and nuanced distinctions which must be made but are usually ignored by those on both sides of the debate. All of these interviews are of a piece, so helps to listen to the other two as well, since they’re referred to; but Stone’s analysis is the one to hear.

    And — Trigger Warning!!!! Don’t click on the next segment of the OTM “Kids the days” program if you’re a Millennial or else you’ll need to find a safe space to recuperate, though it’s quite amusing and informative — but even to say that it’s amusing is surely abusing some Millennial’s hyper-sensitive sensibilities.

    • Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      I’d just listen to Geoff Stone’s take on the letter, which, I was glad to hear, was similar to mine. But he’s much more eloquent. So go to the second link in Janny Haniver’s letter and listen to Stone.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 5, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Excellent interview. Thanks for the link.

  8. Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    The other issue that disturbed me was the blanket dismissal of “trigger warnings.”

    I first dealt with “trigger warnings” long before they had that name. I remember consulting a more experienced professor when I wanted to show a couple of pictures of naked people, and didn’t want the educational point lost in student disapproval. He recommended that I tell the students I was about to show those pictures, and advise them not to look if they didn’t want to see them. I did that. I left the pictures up only briefly and told the students when I removed them (as if I believed they really wouldn’t look). I got no push back.

    I’ve also warned students at the beginning of the “after the basic biology” sex ed lecture that we were going to deal with topics that some of them would find very difficult, like pregnancy gone bad, abortion, rape, etc., and though I was sure they could deal with this, I felt they should know what was coming.

    Acknowledging possible student difficulties seems not just courtesy, but important so that the message isn’t lost in emotional turmoil.

    Once again, your university seems fine with trigger warnings as originally defined. Once again, the letter should be written better next time.

    • Posted September 5, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      I remember consulting a more experienced professor when I wanted to show a couple of pictures of naked people, and didn’t want the educational point lost in student disapproval.

      Good grief, how old are your students? We had explicit sex ed films when I was about 10 years old.

      And you are talking about nudity here, not violence.

      • Posted September 5, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        “We had explicit sex ed films when I was about 10 years old.”

        I recall my high school drivers ed class showing pictures of car accidents to scare us into driving carefully. I bet they don’t do that any longer.

        • Posted September 6, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

          What about the cancerous lungs to dissuade smoking?

    • Posted September 6, 2016 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

      I am under the impression that “trigger warnings” (in this context) are about avoiding re-traumatising victims of traumatic crime, rather than warning about potentially distressing content in general.

      As commonly used, “trigger warning” is an unworkable concept, because any trigger warning that can be devised is, in itself, always a trigger.

      Even more so, when you consider it is impossible to anticipate triggers, as there are so many possibilities.

      When I was a child, there was an abusive teacher in my neighbourhood who took pleasure in molesting little girls and giving small boys vicious beatings. The students at his school called him “Grub”.

      A couple of days ago, I was setting up a Linux virtual machine and had to configure the “GRand Unified Bootloader” (GRUB).

      That triggered some bad memories.

      Yet, even a half-wit oaf like myself can figure out that there was no intent to offend.

      And, if I were to avoid the Linux OS in the future, I would be avoiding a natural healing process and depriving myself of numerous benefits and opportunities.

      So, I think “trigger warnings” (in this context) belittle and infantilise.

  9. Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I guess a rant has been building up in me since the first post about this. Whew! I feel better now.

    I think sending out a letter about the university’s commitment to a free exchange of ideas is a good idea, and I hope that next year the university does it better.

  10. Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    As a UC alum, I wrote a letter to President Zimmer supporting UC’s clear policy on freedom of expression. All expression. Sorenson’s cartoon is an outrageous mixture of lies and misrepresentation.

  11. Posted September 5, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    One can argue that disapproving of the university letter’s treatment of safe spaces and trigger warnings is misreading the letter.

    The writers could have expected that nuance would be lost because these sentences dismiss reasonable ideas (e.g. safe spaces) that have been inflated to uselessness by too many students, and then inflated to stupidity by many critics. Attacking the stupid, inflated meaning of these terms is going to be understood by many reasonable people as attacking the original, useful meaning of the term. It takes better writing than demonstrated here to avoid that pitfall.

    • Pete T
      Posted September 6, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Is there an age at which you think trigger warnings and safe-spaces are no longer either necessary or a good thing? Would you advocate for them in all aspects of ‘real’ life? I have no firm opinion on the issue and ask with genuine interest in your view?

  12. Steve Gerrard
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    U of C BA ’78.

    It is telling to me that Sorensen received comments and felt the need to clarify, just as the letter from the dean caused discussion and comments that led to clarifications. That is how free speech is supposed to work.

    There is huge difference between expressing objection to a speaker, which is fine, and actually shutting down a speaker, which is not fine.

    U of C 101: everything is on the table and remains on the table, subject to further inquiry and analysis. We are never done talking about it, nor should we be.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf, who has emerged as a sane and articulate voice on campus free-speech, also did a piece on the UofC letter here.

  14. Damien McLeod
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    All together pretty good, the post itself and most of the comments, not 100%, but pretty good. Thank you Dr. Coyne, thank you fellow commenters. I enjoyed.

  15. Posted September 5, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    A dean at the University of Washington (UW)tweeted a student’s concerns about the letter, and a potential student wrote me to say that they hoped the UW didn’t adopt Chicago’s policy; he then unfollowed me on Twitter.

    Apparently, if you support Chicago’s policy on free speech you are now a bigot who doesn’t support LBGT and minority concerns.

    It’s disturbing to me that college environments are more about activism than intellect.

    The letter would have been better had a distinction been made between support groups outside of the classroom (safe spaces) and intellectual safe spaces in the classroom. But I suspect that this distinction would not have solved the mass disgruntlement.

    It’s all disheartening to me.

    The regressive left is the new religion. Activism is religious in that opposing ideas can’t be considered.

    I thought I was free of this crap when I left divinity school. Oh no. Academia is so religiously laden, I might as well have gotten ordained back in the day. What’s the difference? At least Christians know they are religious.

    • Posted September 5, 2016 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      This is scary!

      • Posted September 5, 2016 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

        It is. It’s disturbing enough that I don’t want to work for the University of Washington. In fact, they couldn’t pay me to come back here after my postdoc. I’d refuse any offer.

    • eric
      Posted September 5, 2016 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      It’s disturbing to me that college environments are more about activism than intellect.

      I doubt that’s the case. The anti-free-speech push coming from the left is definitely concerning and something we should talk and write about. But I think we also need to recognize that it probably generates media out of proportion to its numbers too. There are 12 million 18-21 year-olds in Colleges and Universities in the US; I doubt even 100,000 of them are fanatic anti-speech leftists.

      The issue is something of a “shark attack” phenomenon; no, we don’t want anyone attacked by sharks, and yes, we want to be smart and serious about stopping them. But just because the news service reports an attack every day doesn’t mean every beach is a shark-infested feeding ground.

      • Historian
        Posted September 5, 2016 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

        The shark analogy is very good.

        • Posted September 5, 2016 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

          Meh, I disagree. Being a graduate student at liberal university, I’m surrounded by anti-free speech dogma. One can’t critique scientific papers that have an activist component, for instance. One can’t talk about race or even use words for race…Forget about critiquing epigenetics if you don’t have tenure…

          • eric
            Posted September 6, 2016 at 6:32 am | Permalink

            Being a graduate student at liberal university…

            …is like swimming at New Smyrna beach in Florida. You’ve self-selected for a University where other self-selected leftists will congregate. It doesn’t mean all Unis are like that. Heck, it doesn’t even mean all departments at your University have the same issue. Though I admit, its disturbing to hear that it impacts the presentation of scientific papers. I went to grad school in Berkeley, and the undergrad student politics typically didn’t impact the science grad students hardly at all.

            • Posted September 6, 2016 at 12:13 pm | Permalink


              I’m specifically talking about the graduate venue at the UW. I have little to no contact with undergrad anything. More distressing, the most censorious and scathing anti-intellectual censoring has come from the ethics faculty, which peddle agenda-and-activist based scholarship–not all of it bad but most of it an uncritically propagating the current consensus of liberal thought. (I’m a liberal; saying that lest someone mistake me wrongly for being conservative.) They set the tone, intentionally, at the UW for genome science, the rest of medicine, public health, and biology. Everyone in the biological sciences is sent to ethics training. And while that is normal and necessary and good, that’s just the start of the normative tone-setting–it doesn’t stop at teaching people about IRBs. It is literally not safe professionally to openly disagree with anyone in ethics, even and especially if you want to criticize the science. Or heck, not even criticize, but just pursue science instead of activism. It marks you as bad. And there goes the job prospects. Now, if you drink the Kook-Aid, as most everyone does, and don’t even think about questioning the epistemological landscape, then everything is fine. But there’s little intellectual growth in the normative herd mentality that marks regressive leftism among the ranks of the liberal elite.

      • Posted September 5, 2016 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

        “But I think we also need to recognize that it probably generates media out of proportion to its numbers too.”

        Ummm. Do you work at a University? Have you been around people in the Humanities? Many, many of these folks are censorious regressives. It’s not a shark attack scare–it’s the norm.

        • eric
          Posted September 6, 2016 at 8:21 am | Permalink

          This university professor (whom Jerry occasionally reads and cites) would seem to disagree.

          And the truisim that anecdotes aren’t data works both ways here; Jason’s personal experience may not be representative of university life in general, however, yours may not be either.

  16. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Sorensen’s cartoon struck me as a very obtuse interpretation of the letter.

    Students who strongly oppose the views of an invited speaker are at liberty to express those views openly. That’s freedom of speech and they have it. Seeking to silence those you disagree with by shouting them down is the antithesis of free speech and is wrong no matter how odious you think the views you are trying to shut down are. Freedom of speech only has any meaning at all if it means the freedom to say things that other people don’t agree with.

  17. Posted September 5, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    People like Sorenson and fellow Social Justice warriors are motte-and-bailey loving postmodernists. According to Hanlon’s Razor they are merely incompetent, perhaps critically impaired. It often looks like malicious propaganda.

    When they talk about “Safe Spaces” they first go with the common sense idea that they want to be free from harassment and personal attacks. This represents the easily defensible motte in the metaphor.

    But that’s not what they really want. When you give them enough space, they’ll say that disagreement was violence and ultimately their whole “Safe Space” is revealed to be about protecting their Critical Race Theory ideology of “lived experiences” and “other ways of knowing”. That’s the bailey side of the metaphor, which is of course hardly defensible. When challenged, they’ll again point to harassers and trolls, hide in their motte and once scrutiny is gone, they’ll again come out an frolic on the bailey fields of postmodernism.

    Atheist blogs that adopted this social justice ideology also have used the “Safe Space” reasons to get rid of annoying criticism and when their assertions where challenged. That enabled a sizeable portion in the organized-side of US atheism to fabulate entire alternative histories of events.

    Trigger warnings are a similar case. The genuine distress is again the motte. Who would want to deliberately shock and traumatize? Of course, most will show understanding at first. However, once works of art are indexed with trigger warnings, they’ll be used to discrimminate in “well-intentioned” ways. “Should we really use this book tagged TW: ‘sex binary’. We have this other book that dispenses such harmful social constructs as biological sexes”. And again, that’s the bailey side, about to promote an ideology.

    The writers of the letter seems to see it in a similar way. I applaud them for combating the postmodernist rot, but that’s just my personal truth I find written in the letter. 😉

    • Posted September 5, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      This comment seems a pretty good example of the three stages of meaning change for these terms.

      1. Initially, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” are actually useful concepts.

      2. Some students use the words to demand places that are not just safe, but devoid of argument.

      3. Critics expand the ideas to further. Rejecting trigger warnings with “Who would want to deliberately shock and traumatize?” (Some people; and is all shock caused deliberately?) Possible future rejection of books that carry possible future trigger warnings about depictions of sex as binary?

  18. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Thinking about the disinvitation thing I can envisage several situations with different implications and which I would approach differently:
    1) a student group invites a “controversial” (i.e. holding views offensive to some other group or groups on the campus) speaker such as a pro-Israel speaker, an anti-Israel speaker, a speaker with strong views on sexual politics in one direction or another) etc. In this case – unless the speaker is expected to incite violence or other unlawful acts she or he should be allowed to speak. Opponents should be allowed to run a counter demonstration, counter meeting or attend and debate the speaker in the question period at the end but should not be allowed to prevent him/her speaking or prevent or deter by intimidation others from attending.
    2) a faculty invites an academic speaker with controversial views on a particular subject – such as a holocaust denier. The faculty does not endorse the speakers views through its invitation but hopes to foster debate, promote critical thinking, challenge received opinions etc. Again such a speaker should be allowed to speak though others can protest as in case 1.
    3) A university invites a controversial figure to give its commencement address. In this case it can be argued that the university is conferring status and approbation on the individual and this may be odious to many. In such a case it seems reasonable to me that prior to the event itself, opponents could campaign to have the speaker disinvited. For example if Harvard were to invite Robert Mugabe, say, or some other despot it would seem reasonable to me if protestors sought to reverse the invitation. Of course for the university the decision as to whether to agree to the disinvitation demands would not be easy and it would need to distinguish carefully between the vociferous demands of an easily offended minority and a genuinely widespread revulsion. One would also hope, of course, that the university would give careful thought to who it invited in the first place and seek to ensure that the invitee is genuinely appropriate to receive the honour. I should add that the right to free speech is not the same thing as the right to speak at a commencement ceremony at Harvard or other prestigious university so the disinvited speaker would not have grounds for complaint in that regard.

  19. Posted September 5, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    The problem with clarifying many of these issues is that many of the critics, often by their own admission, do in fact want intellectual safe spaces that will protect students from “bad ideas” that they fear their impressionable young minds might adopt. And that’s unquestionably true when it comes to disinviting, or shouting down “controversial” speakers.

    • eric
      Posted September 6, 2016 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      Yes exactly. The idea of refusing speakers makes this pretty clear; IMO the ‘lending reputation’ argument is baloney – particularly when the school or sponsoring group is known to bring in tendentious speakers. The only reputation being supported in that case is the group’s rep for bringing in tendentious speakers.

      Or to put it more humorously, the safe space advocates demand their Uni not give a safe space to holocaust denialist (etc.) speakers.

  20. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    You know that you are being silly when The Onion makes fun of you.

  21. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Editorial cartoons are by their nature tendentious, and I like them that way (even when I disagree with their politics). But Sorensen doesn’t just spin the facts in hers; she cooks them straight through.

    With her complaints regarding the right to protest speakers and to mount counter-demonstrations, she wastes her effort knocking on open doors.

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