U Chicago to Freshmen: Don't Expect Safe Spaces

After a year of protests nationwide, one university is trying to be clear about what students should expect.

August 25, 2016
U of Chicago

Looking for safe spaces on campus or trigger warnings on a syllabus?

Incoming students at the University of Chicago have been warned they won't find either in Hyde Park.

They all received a letter recently from John Ellison, dean of students, which went beyond the usual platitudes of such letters and made several points about what he called one of Chicago's "defining characteristics," which he said was "our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression." Ellison said civility and respect are "vital to all of us," and people should never be harassed. But he added, "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."

To that end, he wrote, "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 referred to a website where Chicago maintains a report on academic freedom and its centrality to the university.

On social media, the letter spread through sites such as Intellectual Takeout received widespread praise from critics of what they see as political correctness. Those wanting views defending safe spaces might consider the essays here or here. And trigger warnings may be less common than critics of the practice assume. One Facebook post about the letter asserted knowledge of a Chicago professor who had used a trigger warning, but another comment pointed out that this would have been the professor's decision to make, under principles of academic freedom.

Chicago isn't the first institution to try to set a tone on these issues early on.

In the fall of 2014, Peter Salovey, Yale University's president, used his welcome speech to freshmen to encourage them to respect free expression.

"In the last year or two, we have seen more than the usual number of events on college and university campuses across this country in which the freedom to express ideas has been threatened. Invitations to provocative speakers have been withdrawn; politicians, celebrities and even university presidents invited to deliver commencement addresses have -- under pressure -- declined to speak to graduates; student protesters have had their signs destroyed by other members of a campus community," Salovey said. "In the most troubling of these 'free speech' incidents, speakers of various political persuasions have been shouted down and rendered unable to deliver remarks to campus groups who had invited them. Although we have not seen these kinds of episodes at Yale in recent decades, it is important on occasions like this one to remind ourselves why unfettered expression is so essential on a university campus."

Last fall, Yale saw heated debates over, among other things, guidance from the university on how to avoid causing offense with Halloween costumes and a letter criticizing that guidance (and the safe space concept). A professor defending the author of the letter (who was also his wife) was shouted down and had expletives yelled at him when he tried to talk to students about the issues.

Here is the Chicago letter.


Back to Top