Faculty Responds to Dean Ellison

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

Following the controversial letter published last month by Dean John Ellison against trigger warnings and safe spaces at the University of Chicago, we highlighted many responses from members of the U of C community. Yesterday, more than 150 faculty members published a letter of their own in the student paper The Chicago Maroon. Here’s the nut graph:

Those of us who have signed this letter have a variety of opinions about requests for trigger warnings and safe spaces. We may also disagree as to whether free speech is ever legitimately interrupted by concrete pressures of the political. That is as it should be. But let there be no mistake: such requests often touch on substantive, ongoing issues of bias, intolerance, and trauma that affect our intellectual exchanges. To start a conversation by declaring that such requests are not worth making is an affront to the basic principles of liberal education and participatory democracy.

The letter also touches on the idea of mutual respect as a crucial element in “the free exchange of ideas” (a theme we’ve touched on as well) and points out that the administration “confusingly disconnects ‘safe spaces’ it supports (see the list of mentoring services on the College’s own website) from ‘intellectual safe spaces’ that it does not, as if issues of power and vulnerability stop at the classroom door.”

The University of Chicago faculty is a dynamic one, but I can’t remember too many faculty letters in my time. In recent years, faculty members in 2008 protested the creation of Milton Friedman Institute (for ideological bias) and called for the University to divest from fossil fuels. The Friedman Institute happened anyway (it’s now the Becker Friedman Institute) and divestment didn’t.

There’s been a lot written about how “not U of C” the original letter’s language and wording seemed, and the members of staff we’ve heard from seem to agree on this front. Here’s an excerpt of a letter sent to Dean Ellison from Jessica Haley, the University’s Program Coordinator for Creative Writing and Poetics who is also an alum (she gave us permission to post, adding “Thanks for giving alumni a platform outside of social media.”):

The letter is reductive to the point that it diminishes the larger project claimed by the administration’s various statements, reports, and op-eds. It is enormously difficult to set up a classroom environment that can facilitate productive, challenging discussion within a diverse collection of very bright young people, but that is what we should be aiming to do. In our creative writing classrooms this can get especially tricky, as our students regularly read and write about deeply personal topics. It is up to our instructors (mostly OAA instructors) to set a tone for these classrooms that allows for open, honest, and respectful exchanges. It is hard for students to hear criticism about work that feels close to their very being, especially when the work deals with things like sexual assault, race, and grief. That difficulty is real, and it is part of the project of intellectual and artistic inquiry that the University of Chicago has the resources to take on [...]

The terms “safe space” and “trigger warning” mean different things to different people. I understand the criticisms of how these tools are used in practice. I understand concerns about what could happen should the power of these terms expand unchecked. I cannot understand why your office thought it was acceptable to unequivocally dismiss these complicated, loosely-defined concepts in a space posing as a welcome letter to a whole new group of students. Those letters set a tone, of course, that is part of their function, and the complementary media campaign put out by the University over the rest of the week further underscores that this was all very intentional. But who was this specific letter really for? I don’t think it was for the students, which subverts any kind of “welcome” gestured at here.

Many alumni have expressed that the letter seemed like a branding exercise for the University to energize alumni donation, as this new Baffler piece by alumnus Maximillian Alvarez argues. Alvarez ponders who whether the University is simply “cashing in on the culture wars”:

Ellison’s letter may feel a like heroic defense of intellectual freedom, but in the admissions arms race consuming America’s elite campuses, it’s a much more potent weapon in the U of C’s attempts to close the exclusivity gap. The same freshman class Ellison was sternly admonishing emerged out of a U of C applicant pool with a record-low acceptance rate: just 7.9 percent—at last snugly within the Ivy League’s single digit cap. This breakthrough translates into an enormous boon to the perceived prestige value of a U of C undergraduate degree.

Simple supply-and-demand orthodoxy dictates that the most prestigious institutions are the hardest ones to get into. Boosting the number of applicants a university can say “no” to is, particularly in today’s competitive higher-ed market, a tremendously effective marketing strategy that bolsters the prestige of its brand. And, in view of this broader trend, it’s also a cunning strategy of brand differentiation to position the U of C as a hard-nosed, anti-PC environment at a moment when Ivy League schools like Yale and Harvard have fielded a lot of unwelcome recent publicity as prime examples of “political correctness run amok.” The market-savvy administrators of U of C clearly have deemed this a prime opportunity to amend the school’s informal motto—Chicago is now a place where both fun and the righteous airing of PC grievances can go to die.

But then there are also alums who mostly agree with the University’s initiative in this matter (with some caveats on the way both sides have been characterized, which is undoubtedly a big part of the national story on campus politics as well). From our inbox, here’s an alum and former lecturer:

If I were still teaching at the University of Chicago I would feel much more comfortable in the classroom after Jay Ellison’s letter went out to students. I’m aware of the irony in this statement, but I would maintain that the kind of comfort I’m talking about—being free of the fear of frivolous Title IX proceedings or other unjust disciplinary action—is not the same kind of comfort as that which trigger warnings request, which, while perhaps unfairly characterized as a wish by students to be “coddled,” have more to do with emotional wellbeing and subjective experience than with the possibility of direct institutional reprisal and loss of one’s livelihood.

Moreover, the demand for trigger warnings (although not the request for them) and the demand for a certain kind of safe space in the classroom have the capacity to chill speech and threaten the free exchange of ideas on which academic discourse is built. One reason is that, again, as defenders of trigger warnings have argued in response to Ellison’s letter, “triggers” are not a fixed class of phenomena. No one can provide a comprehensive list of possible triggers, meaning that no faculty member should be expected to screen their assigned texts for anything that might serve as one.

Regarding the wisdom of avoiding triggers for mental health, reasonable arguments have been made that trigger warnings are actually deeply unhealthy for sufferers of PTSD. I have no interest in telling students what is good or bad for their treatment of mental health issues, but the demand for trigger warnings requires that I do just that: it seeks to establish the trauma/trigger-avoidance model as an institutionally sanctioned discourse and then asks that I bend my pedagogy around it to fit the needs that derive from it, like the need for individuals to have control over when and how they encounter certain ideas or images.

None of this is to say that I think trigger warnings are pernicious or that they smother free speech in themselves. Intellectual freedom is imperiled, however, when trigger warnings become an expectation and the failure to deliver them a prosecutable offense.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the Class of 2020 digests all of this, but there’s no doubt their educators are taking these issues seriously.