The ‘Safe Enough’ Campus, 2022

Environments conducive to learning are not risk-free, whether we’re talking about COVID or risks of an intellectual variety, Michael S. Roth writes.

September 16, 2022
An illustration of a face mask blocking virus particles.
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It’s the beginning of the semester, and here on campus, faculty have begun distributing syllabi to students imagining the challenges they will be facing in the coming academic year. Everyone is wondering about the threat of COVID-19. Some want to ignore it completely, thinking it’s just one of the many health risks that we all navigate. Others (especially those who don’t like commuting) want to have as little unprotected contact with other people as possible: all Zoom, all the time. For me, as professor and college president, I’m somewhere in the middle. I want a “safe enough” campus on which we are open to serendipitous and spontaneous encounters; I also want a campus on which we protect people from getting really sick.

Like many universities, Wesleyan University sent most of its students home when the pandemic first emerged in the spring of 2020, and then over the following summer we allowed most of our students back if they were willing to take serious precautions to protect themselves and the most vulnerable members of the community. That meant mandatory testing, of course, but it also meant required masking, social distancing and hybrid classes. I taught in person in the fall of 2020, and it wasn’t much fun. The students were delighted to be back together, but our ability to connect with one another—an essential part of learning—was compromised by the precautionary measures we felt were necessary to maintain a safe environment. I was enormously relieved that our prudent measures made for a healthier campus; I also wrote a song called “The Isolation Blues.”

In 2021 things were better, and once vaccinations became available that spring and summer, we were able to ease up on campus restrictions. Sure, we had some people with COVID, but we were able to take care of those with symptoms, and we did not see transmission in our classrooms. Now, in September 2022, we face more contagious variants, but with booster mandates and basic precautions, we are confident that our students can have a safe enough and deeply rewarding college experience.

A safe enough campus, though, isn’t just about prudent COVID policies—not just about balancing protection and freedom vis-à-vis the virus. “Safe enough” also means balancing protection and freedom with respect to living and learning with others. No students should have to fend off racist remarks, nor should they have to defend themselves against sexual violence. Everyone at a college should be free from intimidation and harassment. That’s not coddling or “safetyism”; it’s cultivating an environment conducive to learning.

But environments conducive to learning are not risk-free. They ask us to take chances, to entertain ideas that we may find troubling and to open ourselves to the possibility that some of our beliefs might be wrong. In a safe enough classroom, nobody has the right to not be offended, but everyone has the right to not be harassed. In a safe enough classroom, you might wear a mask to filter out airborne particles that might harm you, but you don’t wear a mental mask to filter out ideas that might disturb your worldview.

In safe enough classrooms, professors are attentive to opening their students and themselves to new facts, ideas and perspectives. A few years ago, just before the pandemic, I wrote a little book entitled Safe Enough Spaces (Yale University Press). There, it was intellectual life, not contagion and masking, I was thinking about. Today, the dangers that concerned me then have become even more virulent. The forces pushing people to shelter in protective bubbles have gotten even stronger. Being grouped with others in a bubble may feel safe and friendly, but the siloing-off of perspectives is extremely unhealthy for students and for the country as a whole. From social media to economic segregation, forces push us into groups of sameness. A safe enough classroom pushes us instead to encounter difference.

Colleges and universities have an obligation to protect students from disease, and they also have an obligation to build an ethos of inclusion that is the foundation for freedom of inquiry. With such an ethos, students will be less inclined to retreat into self-censorship and more inclined to encounter real intellectual diversity with care and curiosity.

What should a safe enough campus look like in 2022? As part of a broad education, students will be learning prudence and courage, openness and resilience. When that happens, “safe enough” will be a springboard for a transformative college experience.

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Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and the author, most recently, of Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses (Yale University Press) and Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press).

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