Why the 'Safe-Space' Debate Is a Problem for Adjuncts

The debate over academic freedom and the desire to make students feel welcome leaves professors’ job security in a precarious limbo.

An overhead shot of students with open notebooks on desks in a lecture hall
Michaela Rehle / Reuters

The University of Chicago lit up social-media feeds last month after its dean of students published a letter informing incoming freshmen that “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” had no place on a campus dedicated to “freedom of inquiry and expression.”

Although some journalists noted that the letter may have been aimed at pleasing high-profile right-wing donors, opposition to such measures doesn’t track neatly along party lines. Neither the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek nor the paleoconservative pundit Ann Coulter has much use for so-called “political correctness” measures.

As is usually the case with blanket denunciations of these terms, the dean’s letter doesn’t bother to define either “safe space” or “trigger warning”—a major problem for adjuncts and other vulnerable university employees, whether they are required to use them or to refrain from doing so. And since safe spaces are now a critical part of modern pedagogy, students may have utilized them in other areas long before encountering harried, at-will instructors thrust into introductory courses at the very last minute.

Safe spaces, researchers note, are never completely safe, even if their implementation offers an extremely modest way of confronting systemic cultural oppression. At the risk of oversimplification, one reason for carefully approaching controversial content in the classroom is the asymmetry between how white, well-off male students engage with ideas relative to their more disadvantaged peers. A “safe space,” then, isn’t some carefully policed setting like Bob Jones University, where for many years interracial dating was banned and skirt length was carefully regulated; rather, it describes an area where subject matter is studied with a full awareness of the students’ own subjectivity kept firmly in mind.

Many college instructors, including some of my former colleagues, rushed to defend the University of Chicago’s statement. Their decisions initially puzzled me, as the construction of safe spaces had always been central to my teaching. But it eventually struck me that perhaps their opposition to safe spaces has to do with the nature of their teaching experiences: Whether tormented by the tribulations of being on the tenure-track or underemployed as adjuncts on short-term contracts, these academics have little control of their professional lives. The classroom, where they essentially dictate the content of their syllabi, offers one of the few places for them to exert themselves as intellectuals deserving of respect.

All too often, that respect is absent. As an academic writing for Vox under the pseudonym “Edward Schlosser” observed last summer, “I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to ‘offensive’ texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain.” Schlosser’s piece was intended as a critique of oversensitive students, but many full-time academics have borne witness to the callous discarding of an adjunct who no longer fits the department’s plans. Contingent faculty members who often lack office space, telephones, and even functional university networking access are subject to a host of stressors that can impair their job performance, a 2014 study found.

This insecurity, endemic to a profession heavily reliant on short-term labor, is usually omitted from discussions regarding safe spaces. But the instructor’s role in the construction of safe spaces is unquestioned: They hold the balance of power in the classroom, even if they know themselves to be nearly powerless in other areas of life. As a result, they need to concede a great deal of that power if a space is indeed to remain safe for their students. “I need to make sure you [as a student] feel emotionally comfortable to take risks, to express your true feelings, and to not feel attacked,” explained the philosopher and online educator Daniel Fincke, who blogs about academia at Patheos. “And when someone belongs to a group that has been historically marginalized, they won’t feel comfortable talking in a context where the majority of people present are part of the groups historically marginalizing them.”

However, dismal market realities mean that professors, who often have little to call their own save their signature courses, have every reason to resist such time-consuming partnerships and continue to enforce a top-down pedagogical dynamic. This academic “precariat,” already stretched to the breaking point by its subordinate role in the labor hierarchy of the universe, may view “safe spaces” imposed from above as yet another impediment to their personal growth and academic survival. “Much depends on how the university chooses to define its safe space, and how that is interpreted by the university’s ‘stakeholders’—students, faculty, administrators, parents, state governments, donors, alumni, and so on,” Ben Labe explained in an e-mail.

Labe, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of North Carolina whose most recent work focuses on the behavior of nonprofit institutions, drew a distinction. He contrasted safe-space policies that “reaffirm the traditional liberalistic commitment to allowing all forms of speech which are not immediately threatening to anyone’s physical well-being” with policies that, because of the unequal power relationship between administrators and contingent faculty and students, serve as a means for “disciplining the activities of the classroom just as often as liberating them, as was recently the case at Ohio State when ‘emotional safety’ was used as a reason to suppress legitimate student protests.” Depending on their interpretation, safe-space policies might, in Labe’s opinion, “either create spaces inclusive of instructors’ interests and respectful of their autonomy or, if used against them, increase the already considerable pressure not to challenge the status quo.”

Lewis Wasserman, an attorney and education researcher who serves as the director of the University of Texas at Arlington’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, noted that resistance to politically correct speech from the left is a relatively recent phenomenon. Nevertheless, there are many protections available through traditional labor law, employment law, and First Amendment litigation—not to mention labor-union protections for certain groups of employees and substantial remedies available to professors protected by tenure. “A long literature has developed on whether this kind of speech regulation violates First Amendment strictures, and as you might imagine, it’s the conservative groups which object most to those regulations, though they are not alone,” he said. “Very often, in cases involving speech regulations as related to employment, it can come down to a case of individual targeting, and that is an area where context matters.”

Over the past two years, Northwestern President Morton Schapiro has attempted to distinguish his elite institution from competitors by defending the importance of safe spaces for students. Schapiro’s motivations do not seem cynical or targeted at diminishing the power of that university’s elite faculty. Instead, Schapiro has been arguing for the merits of safe spaces in op-eds and talks that long predate the contretemps at the University of Chicago. In a piece that appeared in The Washington Post in January 2016, Schapiro defended the right of several African American students to eat by themselves in a partially empty dining hall despite a request from a pair of white students to join them, explaining, “We all deserves safe spaces … [and] the white students [who wanted to sit with the African American students] didn’t have the right to unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place.” Those white students who asked to join the African American students at lunch may have wanted to provoke an uncomfortable conversation, but Schapiro argued that “students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable.” In Schapiro’s analysis, emotional safety for underrepresented students was a necessary first step on Northwestern’s campus.

Darren Locke, who works as an adjunct history lecturer at several colleges in the Chicagoland area, has nevertheless been troubled by Schapiro’s public statements on the incident, believing that the school had taken a stance against “liberty and all the discomfort that comes with it.” “It’s not altogether clear when uncomfortable learning can take place, if at all, when it can be unilaterally vetoed by one specific group,” Locke said. His problems with safe spaces aside, he described his own teaching style as “innocuous to the point of being toothless, mostly just slapping grades on online assignments and ensuring my student customers give me good marks so I get renewed for another academic term.” Locke, who sometimes teaches a half-dozen online courses a semester, characterized his student debt as “crippling,” adding that “the danger of student complaints to my bottom line, in the sense that I might get taken out of a school’s teaching rotation and lose some income, far outweighs exposing students to the libertarian intellectual tradition I value so much.”

At the root of much of this tension is a sense of profound vulnerability that suffuses the 21st-century university. Venerable tenured faculty have spent a generation resisting the orders of administrators and importunities of students, and aren’t about to concede their privileges now. Faculty currently on the tenure-track understand how tenuous their own positions are, comprising only about a third of the academic workforce, and remain worried about offending administrators, colleagues, and students, lest they wind up unemployed again if their multi-year contracts aren’t renewed. Adjuncts live day-to-day and hand-to-mouth, sometimes grading full-semester online courses for as little as $700 (the rate paid at Texas-Arlington during my last semester teaching there). And students, particularly marginalized students who have grown up more cognizant of the systems of oppression that surround them than prior generations, get the absolute worst of it because they recognize that they lack power pretty much everywhere on campus. “There’s this persistent, low-grade dehumanization from everyone,” one Oberlin dropout told The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller about the unhappy climate at that liberal-arts college.

Nathan Zimmerman, a lecturer in computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, has thus far managed to avoid any fraught classroom interactions. “The students I teach pay tuition to the university so that I can provide a specific service—coding skills—and in the context of my class, there’s a financial imperative for them to acquire these valuable skills that perhaps diminishes the sort of conflict you’d see in humanities courses.” Zimmerman, who oversees what he calls “useful-for-employment” courses on the fine points of various coding languages, finds himself too busy conveying information and checking work to have tense or uncomfortable interactions with students. Nevertheless, as both a term-to-term adjunct and a former philosophy student who transitioned to coding later in life, Zimmerman believes “what we all need, both students and faculty, is a safe space from the perverse incentives of capitalism that have victimized each of us to a lesser or greater degree—a place to acknowledge that this entire system must be altered to better protect everyone.”

All of the individuals with whom I spoke acknowledged that this debate comes down to a matter of power. Administrators, who earn the highest salaries and control the university purse-strings, have the most. Students, in particular students from marginalized groups long underrepresented in higher education, have almost none—and are in fact going into deep debt for the privilege of recognizing how very little privilege they have.

Some administrators, however, believe that campus-wide safe-space policies do provide the protections needed to create the “liberalistic” and open learning environment envisioned by the economist Ben Labe. Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, responded to the University of Chicago’s blanket ban on trigger warnings and safe spaces by emphasizing how these practices contribute to academic freedom of students and instructors alike. “What if a faculty member wanted to give students a heads up that they would be reading a racist text?” he wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post. Roth, far from seeing these measures as a fig leaf behind which schools can punish wayward employees or overly vociferous students, believed they were absolutely necessary for protecting civil discourse on campus during a time of rising national tensions. Although “freedom of expression is essential for education,” he cautioned that “speech is never absolutely free; it always takes place against a background of some expression that is limited or prohibited … [and] there are some things, after all, that a university should refuse to legitimate or dignify by treating them as fit subjects for academic discussion.”

Roth has a point. Totally unregulated speech, with no safe spaces carved out for underrepresented positions, usually has the effect of leaving the forum in the hands of the richest and loudest bullies. As a result, some degree of safety from hateful or traumatizing speech ought to be provided, and this starts at the top: Everyone in the university community needs protection from powerful campus administrators, who have the ability to terminate non-performing faculty and to distort legitimate student grievances into a convenient shorthand for silencing or expelling the very protesters raising them.