Was It Grandstanding? Does That Matter?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Continuing our series of comments from the University of Chicago community regarding Dean John Ellison’s letter, some alumni and students have expressed that the move smelled, at least partially, like a publicity stunt.

From one current University of Chicago student, who hints that the administration has been trying to change the image of those beloved strange “dark” days of the school I remember so well:

To me, the whole situation reads as a poorly conceived publicity stunt. The University is in this strange moment where its undergrad exclusivity has recently shot up, and it seems to want to do everything it can to bolster its reputation. The College also attempting to rebrand through ditching the doom-and-gloom masochism tone of prior decades and attempting to court a reputation of Fun, Exciting Academic Rigor.

However, this all leaves the College without a coherent identity, and the admins pinned their hopes on riding the 2014-2015 wave of think pieces on the matter, which would allow them to capitalize on dissatisfaction with the Millennial bogeyman’s perceived censorship problem, hostility toward the ivory tower, and the massive moderate frustrated by youth movements in general. It certainly doesn’t represent any actual policy change: the University has explicitly said that this is not a blanket ban on trigger warnings, but that it still allows professors to choose what to do at their discretion.

I have no idea whether it worked. It will have appealed to those forces I mentioned, but of course will also drive away prospective students involved in the social-justice community.

From another alum:

Have you ever actually had a lesson plan or discussion section disrupted because students claimed they felt “triggered” by the material?

Sometimes I find the language and the logic of the “trigger warning” a bit stultifying, but really that’s only in the abstract because no one has ever actually invoked it. I can count the number of times a student has asked to take a step back from a set of readings or a specific conversation on one hand, and then it’s with ample, generous explanation and always when we were dealing with genuinely disturbing material.

I suppose this letter disappoints me because it reads like fairly blatant administrative grandstanding. More insidiously, I am afraid that it will produce the very effects that it claims it is trying to prevent—the foreclosure of a dialogue between all interested parties.

And lastly, an alum questions whether the letter is speaking to the university’s community and how consistent the university’s administration has been on the issue:

I find the letter from U of C to be somewhat embarrassing. On the surface, who can argue with academic freedom? But I take the appeal to it here to be fairly empty posturing and, more importantly, it’s part of a pattern of the administration appealing to academic freedom at the same time as—or in order to—act badly.

When I was an undergrad they were refusing to divest from Darfur because taking a political stance would somehow violate academic freedom. It seemed to me at the time to be a fairly transparent attempt to preserve the status quo and avoid a financial hassle—and I’m skeptical that divestment was in any way contrary to the famous Kalven Report. And we can add to this the University’s treatment of protesters, including those who were agitating for a trauma unit at the hospitals and the more recent threats against the student body president who organized a sit-in. Throw in the anti-union letter that the president just sent, too. Appealing to academic freedom while acting this way may not be acting inconsistently, exactly, but it isn’t great.

What I take away from all of this is that the administrators don’t care about academic freedom. They care about their self-interest. And their interest is in propping up the speech of some and not others. In making their decisions, I have a hard time imagining these administrators sitting around thinking carefully about the meaning of academic freedom in all of its complexity and nuance. That kind of pondering was what my professors taught me at U of C. What I read is a letter with all the nuance and care of a talk radio host.

I’m confident that Chicago will continue being a great school with incredible faculty and students doing amazing things. This letter contributes nothing to the quality of the institution—nor does it detract from it. It’s a shadow on the wall of the cave. I wish it had been something worth our time, because these issues do matter.

I don’t think that trigger warnings and safe spaces are inconsistent with academic freedom—not in the least. But I don’t think that this is about that—it’s just an attempt at branding, as well as ignoring or silencing or marginalizing protest at the University. It sets up those that want the University to act as a better citizen (with respect to its students and the broader community) as anti-freedom. And while those that protest very well might be wrong—that’s debatable, for sure—I think the anti-freedom slant is an insubstantial smear.

If we’re going to have a grown-up conversation about trigger warnings and safe spaces, then fine. The Dean should write the kind of reasoned, deep treatment of the issues that the U of C community deserves.