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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 hello@theatlantic.com. (A related reader discussion on campus politics is here.)

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Much Ado About Speakers on Campus?

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.

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:

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:

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.

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.

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.”