Reporter's Notebook

Parsing the University of Chicago Letter
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Readers, staffers, and others from the University of Chicago community discuss Dean John Ellison’s injunction against trigger warnings and safe spaces. If you have something to add, particularly as a professor, alumnus, or current student there, please email (A related reader discussion on campus politics is here.)

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How Alumni Are Reading the University of Chicago Letter

Robert Kozloff / University of Chicago

Over the past week, my alma mater has been all over my (and probably your) news feed. The general dramatic headline: There will not be safe spaces or trigger warnings at the University of Chicago, according to a letter sent by John Ellison, dean of students at the university, to incoming freshmen. The letter immediately became a dot on the timeline of the ongoing national debate on campus politics, political correctness, and academic freedom—the media narrative being that an administration takes a stand on free speech and academic freedom, and that’s followed swiftly by support and pushback from students, experts, and pundits.

I went to the University of Chicago for undergrad in the early 2000s. I studied economics and sociology, and I have very fond memories of the school’s peculiar culture: the way students laughed off the bitter winters, the way pulling all-nighters at the library (shoutout to the A-level) was cool, the super weird school traditions like Scavhunt—so strange that The New Yorker once devoted nearly 4,000 words to it. It’s a place where people knowingly enrolled even though they’ve been told it’s a place “where fun comes to die.” I think we took pride in the image that we were young people who wanted to participate in school that was intellectually rigorous (the “life of the mind”), where a class about Nabokov’s Lolita or Foucault’s History of Sexuality were so popular it was hard to find a seat, where education was its own end, and everyone was a bit odd in their own way.

I think my peers and I worried that culture (beloved by us) was starting to fade when I graduated in 2007: The school had switched from the UnCommon App to the Common App. The school started to rise in rankings, which was favorable for alumni job-wise, but we worried that it was at the cost of the school’s identity and the students it would attract. The University of Chicago is about hard classes, but it’s also about community.  

In New York, where I live now, alumni are often close-knit friend groups—my soon-to-be spouse regularly laments that he knows more alumni from the U of C than his own university—that meet up regularly to have discussions not dissimilar to classes. (It’s also interesting to note that some 20 percent of U of C alumni end up in academia.) With Ellison’s letter, we all pondered what it’s going to mean, and we did that together online.

This week, I’m going to highlight some of the interesting discussions I’ve seen on social media and responses from the University of Chicago community. My colleague Alia Wong will join me in discussing these comments from students and alumni who share deep connections to the school and each other. For them, Ellison’s letter is personal, in contrast to the way the national debate on campus politics can sometimes feel removed.

From one alum, Laura Oppenheimer:

I take an inordinate amount of pride in how hard I worked as a student at the U of C. My courses were not dumbed down, no one held my hand, and I was expected to read, grapple with, and discuss everything—ranging from Plato and Marx, to Four Hours in My Lai and Night. The reading was difficult, and frequently, so was the subject matter.

What I wish Ellison had said was, “as students at the University of Chicago, you will be expected to read, study and discuss many types of work, including work that may be upsetting, or work you may disagree with. This is part of a rigorous, academic education.”

Yesterday, my colleague Bourree Lam looked at how University of Chicago alumni are responding to the high-profile letter their alma mater sent out last week to incoming freshmen. The letter essentially warned students that the university—which for decades has espoused its commitment to “freedom of expression”—would not tolerate “intellectual ‘safe spaces’” and “so-called ‘trigger warnings.’”

The thinking behind the letter, presumably, is that safe spaces and trigger warnings inherently suppress free speech and academic freedom—and, in turn, that the university felt a need to defend those values. As Bourree highlighted yesterday, that premise outraged many alumni, who remember their years at the university as experiences rife with challenging and uncomfortable discussions. Others argued that the wholesale rejection of things like trigger warnings misses the point.

It got us thinking: What is a trigger warning, anyway? What defines a safe space? Lots of people have questioned whether Dean of Students John Ellison, who wrote the letter, actually understands what the terms mean. My colleague, Conor Friedersdorf, chimed in on the topic this morning. Here’s what some from the academic community had to say.

From an alum, Audrey Truschke:

I would say that the letter brought up mixed reactions from me. I wholeheartedly support the basic idea that universities ought to have a strong, unflinching commitment to academic freedom of speech, and I think numerous institutions have dangerously compromised that ideal recently.

That said, I use trigger warnings periodically on syllabi.

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.

Thomas Kienzle / AP

As we sifted through responses to the famed University of Chicago letter, we figured it’d be worth spotlighting what instructors feel about the whole thing. After all, they arguably understand the impact safe spaces and trigger warnings have on the classroom better than anyone else.

Educators recognize the value of challenging students intellectually; they know students should, at times, feel uncomfortable with the learning material. But they also know that absolutes are dangerous—that sometimes safe spaces and trigger warnings are conducive, and not antithetical, to the robust, stimulating intellectual environment they seek. And at the end of the day, they don’t like being told how to run their classroom.

Here’s what some current or former university instructors had to say:

This comment comes from alumnus Joel Avila, who lives in Chicago and works as a program manager at CVS Health. It’s so good that I’m posting the whole thing (bolding is my own). Joel touches on one particular angle I’ve been thinking about a lot regarding the national coverage on campus politics: If the premise of good faith is important for academic freedom, then do letters such as Ellison’s build or erode that trust between people who disagree with each other?

From Joel:

“Love your neighbor as yourself” seems like a decent rule from which university communities are trying to create some kind of secular analogue to address this controversy. To me much of the controversy is actually about trust and respect (and the lack thereof) among students, faculty, and administrators. Hot-button contemporary social problems (e.g., student debt, sexual discrimination, racial prejudice) are typically deliberated on campus in ways less encumbered than in society at large, for the simple reason that you have unstructured time to talk about them with lots of different people.

Having said all this, I have little faith in trigger warnings and safe spaces, from which standpoint I would make a few observations and comments:

Continuing our series of comments from the University of Chicago community regarding Dean John Ellison’s letter, many alumni have expressed that the letter seemed more geared towards the problem regarding speakers on campus than safe spaces. (My colleague Conor Friedersdorf wrote yesterday about this topic at Syracuse University.)

From current student Adam Thorp, who is a news editor at the University of Chicago’s student paper The Maroon:

As a reporter and editor I follow campus activism fairly closely. I think it is true that there are a lot of people at this school with intellectual commitments on issues like trigger warnings and safe spaces, and when the issue comes up people are willing to argue vehemently about this from either side. But as a matter of practical activism, I haven’t seen concerted calls for mandatory trigger warnings, school-supported safe spaces or disinvitation of speakers. This might be because these things are clearly a non-starter with the administration; it might also be that the student body is less enthusiastic about these ideas than students at other institutions. Eric Holmberg, the incoming student body president who I’d generally characterize as activist-friendly and left-leaning, told the Maroon in the aftermath of the letter that he did not support disinvitation.

There have, however, been high-volume debates about freedom of speech on campus.

Robert Kozloff / University of Chicago

In our ongoing conversation about the University of Chicago’s letter telling its incoming freshmen not to expect trigger warnings, this description of the school’s culture from a 2006 alumna, Susie Gutowski, caught my eye:

The message, “The quest for knowledge has no boundaries!” is what the University of Chicago prides itself in and consistently, relentlessly congratulates itself for. That is our identity.

My school and its constituents are proud academic sadists. It’s legit a place where people forget to eat because they got lost studying all day. During finals, someone would always gripe about how Harvard has a full week’s reading period and we have only two days. AND WE LOVE IT.  There is satisfaction in the struggle. It gives us fuel to keep going. It’s not “Work hard, play hard.” It’s “Work hard and be content that you are excellent.”

Meanwhile, as reader Joel pointed out yesterday, “The controversy over trigger warnings and safe spaces seems to be a phenomenon specific to elite institutions.” To me, those two observations—the prestige of the colleges with trigger-warning controversies, and the “proud academic sadism” of the people who go there—point to something revealing about the campus culture in which these controversies tend to arise.

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”:

A reader who teaches college in Missouri can relate to our recent piece from Oliver Bateman on the tension that many adjunct professors feel over the growing demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings. First, a passage from Bateman:

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.

I wonder: Do adjuncts, in all their precariousness, often tread very carefully on controversial curriculum—or scrap it altogether—because it might provoke a reaction similar to the one “Edward Schlosser” experienced? Are you an adjunct who can attest to that, or do you think Schlosser is an aberration? We’d love to hear from you:

Our reader in Missouri essentially argues that adjuncts will have less friction with students over their emotional needs if the former’s job is more secure and better paid. As she writes, “when both the professor and the student feel financially unsafe, no one has any patience for anyone else’s emotional concerns when they feel attacked, denigrated, or downplayed as ‘oversensitive.’” She elaborates:

I’m a 31-year-old female and have been an adjunct instructor for about nine years, at two giant state schools and a community college. I have been in and out of full time Non-Tenure Track (NTT) status. Like most of my adjunct colleagues, I have cobbled together as many courses as I could while juggling health problems and constantly shifting access to health insurance.

When it comes to safe space, Bateman’s article really hit the nail. As he mentions, I’ve seen a whole range of reactions/responses from my fellow adjuncts over the years. What most of us have not thought about enough is how our own lack of safety contributes to our classrooms.