It seems that many who read the “welcome” letter  from University of Chicago Dean of Students, John (Jay) Ellison, were pleased to read a strong statement defending core academic values: freedom of expression and inquiry without fear of censorship, as well as “rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement,” including a refusal to “support” trigger warnings or “condone” safe spaces.
At last, someone willing to stand for something.
I had a different response, though. The letter, for its attempt at projecting strength, actually signals weakness and fragility.
This is a letter written from a frightened and insecure place.
It reminds me of people in the gym who concentrate on the “show muscles,” rather than the “go muscles” stalking the room in too-tight clothes, admiring themselves in the mirror, while knowing deep down the dude in the grey sweats quietly going about his business could probably kick Mr. Olympia’s ass.
The letter is the kind of bluster necessary if you don’t think you can hold up against a genuine challenge.
Let me stipulate, that I hold all those values – freedom of inquiry without fear of reprisal, the necessity of making students “uncomfortable,”  the necessity of bringing in competing points of view.
A college education should be a deeply challenging experience in every sense of that word.
But this is not what the University of Chicago letter communicates. They believe in the free exchange of ideas, except when it comes to “trigger warnings,” which they cannot support.
The letter declares, “The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”
Except “safe spaces,” which are verboten.
Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with the use of trigger warnings or establishment of safe spaces, it’s hard to argue that they aren’t part of the “wide range of ideas.” These are ideas being vigorously and contentiously debated all across the country.
It’s strange to read a letter that declares an intention to challenge students’ world views that is so hidebound as to not have its own world view challenged in return. It allows dissent, but within boundaries.
This is why it comes from a fundamentally weak place.
Perhaps this is the privilege of the elite. As the opening says, “Earning a place in our community of scholars is no small achievement and we are delighted that you selected Chicago to continue your intellectual journey.”
The ethos is clear. Not all may enter, and the price of entry is behaving according to these norms. I have no problem with it. I don’t respect it, but the University of Chicago can do the University of Chicago. I think this has much more appeal to those who believe in the righteousness of authority than I can personally muster.
The letter is an attempted vaccine against something for which there is no cure because it isn’t a disease. The letter is an attempt to inoculate the community against the fallout that happens from the inevitable conflicts and clashes that must happen in places of learning made up of different people with different ideas.
The U of C letter declares a desire for freedom without having to deal with the byproducts of that conflict.
I do not know how we achieve the ideals we all hold without that kind of conflict, without mistakes being made on all sides of a debate, without there being messes to clean up.
I happen to believe these values and our institutions are resilient enough to meet those challenges. The University of Chicago seems to not be so sure about that so it welcomes its students with a shot across their collective bows.
I suppose you could argue that the letter is an argument for a “safe space” for administration, but that can’t be the case because the University of Chicago doesn’t condone such things.