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UChicago To Freshmen: We Don't Do 'Safe Spaces' Or 'Trigger Warnings'

By Stephen Gossett in News on Aug 25, 2016 3:08PM

University of Chicago / Facebook

A letter recently sent by the University of Chicago to incoming freshman notifies students that the school does not support “so-called ‘trigger warnings’” or “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces.’” The note has prompted vigorous debate among students, alumni and outside observers.

The letter, delivered from the Office of the Dean of Students, states that the decision is rooted in “our commitment to academic freedom.” It also states “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial,” which is perhaps a reference to DePaul’s denial to host Ben Shapiro, founder of The Daily Wire, earlier this month.

The letter was also accompanied by a monograph called Academic Freedom and the Modern University: The Experience of the University of Chicago, by Dean John W. Boyer. According to John (Jay) Ellison, Dean of Students, the book “recounts the history of debate, and even scandal, resulting from our commitment to academic freedom.”

Users on the Facebook forum Overheard at UChicago argued the merits of the university’s decision along with the letter’s tone:

"There are plenty excellent schools that have embraced the hugbox model of education," wrote one user. "If you want a hugbox friendly school, go to a hugbox friendly school."

“The language is overly condescending for an official university statement,” wrote another user who identified herself as an alum.

“The majority of the people who appear to be so vehemently against safe spaces and trigger warnings are those who would never seek them out, so why is there such an attack on people who could really benefit and use safe spaces?" a current student wrote. "Whatever happened to empathy?”

Osita Nwanevu, a formerly Chicago-based writer who now works at Slate, pointed out the ideological dissonance between the letter and the inclusive policies of UChicago’s own organizations:

"I'm honestly just intrigued by the University's branding strategy. They reach out to incoming students and parents jittery about activism and/or minorities by scribbling out an anti-safe space letter that checks all the right anti-activist boxes even as they reach out to minority students and activists with diversity & inclusion initiatives and by literally running something called the "Safe Space Program."

In a heavily circulated blog post, Grand View University professor Kevin Gannon denounced the canard that intellectual freedom must exclude safe spaces and trigger warnings:

“Students ought to be challenged, even made uncomfortable, in order to learn in deep and meaningful ways. And, of course, collegiate education is where students must encounter perspectives different from their own… and that’s what this Dean and the anti-trigger-warnings, no-safe-spaces crowd are counting on-that the surface veneer of reasonableness in these admonitions to the Class of 2020 will obscure the rotten pedagogy and logical fallacies that infest this entire screed...”

“...Displaying empathy for the different experiences our students bring to the classroom is not a threat to our academic freedom. Allowing for a diversity of perspectives to flourish, even when that diversity might challenge the very structure of our course and its material, is not a threat but an opportunity.”

Early this year, the Washington Post published an opinion column by Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro in which he argued for the necessity of safe spaces. “…Experts tell me that students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable,” he wrote. “Safe spaces provide that comfort.”

Representatives from U of C's LGBTQ Student Life declined to comment to Chicagoist. The university's News Office and Public Affairs department did not return multiple requests for comment. The full text of the letter can be read below.