The University of Chicago’s Dean of Students John Ellison sent a letter to its students on Aug. 24 that included both a welcoming note and a warning regarding conversations on trigger warnings and safe spaces. “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,” Ellison wrote.
While a university certainly has a right to determine its own institutional policies and stances, UChicago’s outright disregard for safe spaces and trigger warnings is misguided and the wrong answer to, as Ellison stated, “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.”
To define both terms, a safe space is a place where people can assemble without fear of judgement, bias or discomfort due to factors or experiences they find troubling. Trigger warnings are statements designed to warn any participant of possibly sensitive material, whether it be sexual assault, drug abuse, racial violence or other topics that could potentially elicit a negative response during a discussion.
Arguments can certainly be made against safe spaces and trigger warnings, including how they potentially limit the voices of those who express unpopular opinions and detract from intellectual discussions. A prime example to support this argument is the protests at the University of Missouri in November 2015, when students protested and staged sit-ins to voice their concerns of racist and homophobic bigotry. A student journalist was threatened for exercising his First Amendment rights when he tried to interview and take photos of a group of protestors before he was pushed away by students and a professor, Melissa Click, who claimed the journalist was infringing upon the safe space.
However, an outright disregard for safe spaces and trigger warnings ignores the real-life mental health concerns of students. If a student is a survivor of sexual assault, a victim of a bias-related incident or any other event that causes trauma, it would be inconsiderate not to issue a warning for sensitive books or material in classrooms. Further, it would be harmful to ban a safe space that could serve as an effective tool for students to cope with such experiences. We come to universities to learn and be challenged, but ignoring mental well-being should never be part of the deal.
Furthermore, trigger warnings and safe spaces represent important methods of student activism. By creating a safe space or by insisting that professors provide content trigger warnings, students engage in important work to effect real change on their campuses. These can be tools for students to create places of sanctuary for their peers — allowing a brief respite from the types of microaggressions or outright harassment that can severely harm students. By unilaterally opposing the creation of safe spaces, the University of Chicago, and any other university that follows in its path, loses the opportunity to work with students and more adequately meet their needs.
It is shortsighted to label these students as entitled or incapable of hearing strong arguments in opposition to their own views. Rather, the fact that students are so willing to challenge authority figures at their universities shows the maturity they possess to make decisions they feel will most benefit their health and their education. By refusing to work with students, the University of Chicago risks polarizing campus culture even more as students feel that they cannot trust their university to advocate for them. Furthermore, they lose out on any potential benefits from finding a balance between freedom of academic expression and important mechanisms to protect students.
Alongside arguments of mental health and well-being, a Gallup poll from March 2016 showed that college students do not support actual restrictions on differing views, but do support a restriction of hate speech, from which students would be protected in a safe space or with a trigger warning.
Issues relating to students’ academic livelihood, health and personal beliefs cannot be decided with black-and- white, all-encompassing bans. There must be nuance to policy to make sure students have the opportunity to learn in places that are positive and conducive to effective learning.