Safe Space for Me, but Not for Thee?

If universities sign on to principles to “protect and promote” free and open debate, those principles should apply to all members of the university community, Thomas Day writes.

August 31, 2022
Former senator Heidi Heitkamp, a middle-aged woman with brown hair.
U.S. senator Heidi Heitkamp at a Senate hearing in 2013.
(Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images North America)

One day after the massacre of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., NBC News reporter Frank Thorp V posted on Twitter this summary of an exchange with former U.S. senator Heidi Heitkamp:

Heitkamp was right, of course. She no longer is required to answer a reporter’s question about her votes against gun control measures. But should she be required to directly answer mine?

I am a part-time lecturer at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. Heitkamp is a member of the advisory board of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. In 2014, the University of Chicago issued its Chicago Principles, making clear its support for open dialogue and debate among members of the university community. The university’s Committee on Freedom of Expression wrote that “fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.” That word, “fostering,” would indicate the Chicago Principles aren’t simply a matter welcoming guest speakers who may present objectionable views, but instead implies a responsibility on the part of the institution to actively facilitate and inspire debates that inform and even advance understanding of controversial subject matter.

Because both Heitkamp and I are members of the University of Chicago community, shouldn’t the principles expressed by the university’s principles provide me the opportunity to engage another member of the university community on the issue of gun violence?

I tried. I emailed the Institute of Politics directly, a leading member of the university’s (now-disbanded) Committee on Freedom of Expression and the university chancellor, asking that Heitkamp be engaged on her gun control views. Of course, no conversation was facilitated

The former committee member I corresponded with noted that the idea of “compelled speech” was not among the values endorsed by the committee. Nor would I support this. But I do believe that at a university that has emerged as a leading voice for free inquiry in higher education, faculty members and other powerful members of the university community should be responsible for advancing free and open debate by exposing our own viewpoints to opposing arguments, especially within the university community.

The University of Chicago has not only defined a bold set of principles for free inquiry but has enlisted support from more than 80 universities across the United States in enforcing these principles. It is quite easy to wag fingers at undergraduate students for wanting to block conservative viewpoints from campus. It’s more difficult to actively facilitate discourse between all members of the university community, even conversations that put faculty (or board!) members on the defensive. This especially holds true when the faculty or board member has espoused ideas relevant to the national and international public discourse, or has served in positions of public leadership and made decisions relevant to public concerns in dispute.

For some time now, public officials have moved from elected office into positions at universities. An early champion of the Chicago Principles, Purdue University president Mitch Daniels, is a former governor of Indiana. Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan joined the faculty of the University of Notre Dame months after leaving office. Years ago, Al Gore and John Edwards, after their defeats on successive presidential tickets, joined the faculties of the Columbia School of Journalism and the University of North Carolina, respectively; more contemporaneously, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, who has taught a law seminar at George Washington University since 2011, will not be returning to teach this fall after students circulated a petition opposing his role in the decision overturning Roe v. Wade (the university stood behind Thomas continuing to teach, but he reportedly withdrew, citing a lack of availability).

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This procession of public officials into academia is no doubt alluring to both the former public officials and the universities. For the former, I can only imagine academia provides a respite before re-entering public life, or a comforting closing act where their previous accomplishments can be revered. For the latter, these public officials lend their star power, providing students with viewpoints rooted in policy making at the highest level.

The controlled environments that these and other visible faculty members often operate within seem at odds with the Chicago Principles. To closely control who can engage a faculty member in free and open dialogue is simply taking restrictions to discourse and inverting them to the benefit of the faculty members. I agree that students should have their own views challenged within the university environment. I agree that we should not be taking an overly broad interpretation of what constitutes speech that threatens one’s physical safety. But shouldn’t that policy apply to all members of the university community? And do faculty members have a particular responsibility to engage in debate, even if it puts them on the defensive?

If a faculty member writes an opinion piece in a news publication, should he or she be asked to defend that view before other members of the university community?

What if a university faculty member tweets an unpopular view? Instead of complaining about being canceled, what if that faculty member took a seat in front of students and answered questions in an open format?

And what if a faculty member has had a public record, distinguished in a previous career, that students can question as a part of the learning experience they are on campus to receive?

We all have a right to walk away from or deny a debate if we do not wish to engage in one. However, faculty members and other members of the university community, especially at universities that have signed on to the Chicago Principles, hold a special charge to engage in open discourse.

A faculty member or other member of the university community claiming they are too busy, or above the fray, or simply too senior to entertain opposing ideas is engaging in another form of restricting dialogue on campus. By refusing to be active participants in debate, faculty members simply shift the venue of speech away from the university environment—where I believe dialogue is at its most productive—toward more toxic environments, like social media.

Universities have a choice to make. In Washington, public figures like Heitkamp get to define debates on their own terms, issuing press releases, attempting to mold opinions through messaging and not reason, and making an art form of providing evasive answers to straightforward questions. The Chicago Principles dictate that the price of joining a university community is the willingness to engage in open discourse, and that goes for students, faculty members—and all other members of the university community, no matter how high profile.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Institute of Politics said in a statement that “we embrace the values of free expression and civil discourse and apply them to everything we do. As a member of our IOP senior advisory board, a Pritzker Fellow, and as a guest in our Speaker Series, Senator Heitkamp has led robust discussions and participated in public events at which students and members of the university community were free to question her views and her record. We are grateful to Senator Heitkamp for her investment in the IOP and her adherence to its fundamental values.”

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Thomas Day is a lecturer at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.

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