Safe Spaces on Campus

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The debate continues in wake of UChicago announcement.

The University of Chicago has recently caught public attention with its letter to freshmen denouncing safe spaces and promoting freedom of academic inquiry. Called insensitive by some, John (Jay) Ellison, the Dean of Students at the College of UChicago, sent out a letter to new freshmen, informing them that the College places great value on freedom of inquiry and expression in and out of the classroom.

After congratulating them on their acceptance to the College at the University of Chicago, Ellison explains that the UChicago community is steeped in open debate, discussion, and disagreement, noting that, “At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.” The letter goes on to delineate their commitment to free expression, denouncing trigger warnings, safe spaces, and the cancellation of controversial events and speakers, all of which have restricted ideological diversity on other campuses recently.

For example, Cal State Los Angeles cancelled a scheduled event with Ben Shapiro, a Harvard Law School graduate and conservative political commentator. The grounds on which the event was cancelled were later discovered to be pressure from students who compared the speech to an “undercover KKK meeting” and complained that they were worried for their safety if Shapiro were to come to campus. After the cancellation was announced, administrators faced criticism from university affiliates for censorship of conservative views on campus, but they have stood by their decision.

Oxford University in England has also been highlighted for its new policy requiring law professors to give trigger warnings and the opportunity to leave the classroom when lessons discuss rape or violent crime. Many have praised the action as helpful for those who have suffered from a traumatic experience, allowing them to avoid triggering content that could cause them to relive the violence. Others have criticized the potential for missed material to actually block education on how to prevent violent crime and rape in the future.

Harvard College students have expressed mixed reactions about UChicago’s statement. One Currier sophomore, Sapna Rampersaud, felt very strongly that UChicago should be lauded for their action. “Safe spaces, defined as places where students may freely express themselves without the fear of being challenged,” she said, “are counterproductive to the pedagogical mission of higher educational institutions in this country. Students should have the right to challenge the opinions and beliefs of their fellow classmates, for that is what makes learning so valuable and worthwhile. Safe spaces are destroying that notion and are weakening the next generation.”

On the other hand, Harvard’s Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion published a report on diversity and inclusion that expressed support for safe spaces, particularly for minority groups. The report states, “Cultural centers can have a positive impact on their institutions… [they] can also serve as safe, even therapeutic spaces for underrepresented students.” The report cites students referring to cultural centers as “one of the few safe spaces on campus,” and encourages the development of these cultural centers, including the Harvard Black Student Association and the Harvard Islamic Society.

This echoes sentiments promoted by some women’s groups during the Hear Her Harvard rally in May. A number of female College students gathered in front of Massachusetts Hall, chanting “Safe spaces now!” in protest of Harvard’s decision to include women’s groups in their sanctions on members of single-sex social organizations. That aspect of the debate on Harvard’s campus has not yet come to a conclusion.

When asked for his opinion on the matter, Farid Nemri, a Dudley House student, asked to submit a poem in lieu of a traditional statement. In the spirit of the Indy’s diverse modes of communication, it is included below.

Let me tell you what I see in the so-called “safe space”
I see fear and avoidance taking place
I see youth running and losing the race
Running from discomfort we need to embrace
On a track where freedom and diversity interface
So here’s the gist of UChicago’s case:
Dear Freshman,
If you have an American dream to chase
You don’t sit around like a flower in a vase
You plow the fields of knowledge with dignity and grace
Searching for the truths others try to erase
You walk paths of disagreement at a steady pace
Where your different perspective leaves an intellectual trace
You don’t turn your back on the lessons you have to face
You try to take in as much as you would like to showcase
Be careful of softness and weakness, strength is your only base
And most importantly,
Your American mind do not misplace.

As debate intensifies over the place of safe spaces in the university environment, there will certainly be more headlines about universities or individuals standing up for or against free academic inquiry and expression. UChicago isn’t the first to make such a strong declaration—American University released a statement from its Faculty Senate last fall, saying “Shielding students from controversial material will deter them from becoming critical thinkers and responsible citizens. Helping them learn to process and evaluate such material fulfills one of the most important responsibilities of higher education.” Some universities may take a stand on the other side of the issue, welcoming the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces on their campuses, as Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, did in an article for the Washington Post. His piece defends the existence of their Catholic Center, Hillel, and Black House and argues that, “We all deserve safe spaces.”

Our own administration has thus far failed to make a decisive statement on the place of safe spaces in an academic setting. While the Report of the College Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion encourages long-term development of cultural centers that serve as safe spaces, Dean Khurana has avoided using the phrases “trigger warning” and “safe space” in his messages to students. He instead favors appeals to inclusivity, as he did in an August 2016 letter to the student body, stressing the importance of working for “a more equitable and inclusive Harvard community.” For now, it seems that only time will tell what stance our university takes on the issue.

Emily Hall ([email protected]) looks forward to future developments in this discussion.