Grading the University of Chicago's Letter on Academic Freedom

Dean of Students John Ellison gets an A for initiative, a B-minus for execution, and extra-credit for stoking a useful debate.

Jim Young / Reuters

When I was a heretical student at a Catholic high school deciding where to apply to college, I thrilled at the prospect of an educational institution where free inquiry would reign supreme and forceful debate would never be hemmed in by dogma.

A letter like the one that University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison sent last week to incoming first-year students––reminding them of the school’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression," and affirming that those admitted to it “are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship”––would have struck me as a glorious affirmation: that robust intellectual communities truly did exist; that I would finally be free to follow my brain; that college would be a crucible that tested the strength of all my beliefs.

Today, I am more forgiving of Catholic educational institutions, which served me well; and more skeptical that any college’s worth is best measured by its stated aspirations. Still, I couldn’t help but imagine a bright 18-year-old, preparing to leave an intellectually stifling environment to attend the University of Chicago, receiving that letter, opening it with curiosity, and lighting up at what lay ahead, even as she steeled herself a bit more for the intellectual challenges that it promised.

Some critics of the letter, who focused on a passage declaring, “we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” imagined a different sort of incoming college student as the recipient—one victimized in some way that causes them to want “safe spaces” and sensitivity.

“Entering students should expect to have their worldviews shifted and their capacity for discourse expanded,” a returning student commented. “These students, however, should not expect to have their life experiences belittled by the very person who is tasked with advocating on their behalf.” In her telling, the letter was tantamount to “telling trauma survivors that the university does not care about them.”

That analysis begs the question of whether trigger warnings help or hurt the traumatized, or have no effect, a matter that is hotly contested. But with elite high schools increasingly acculturating students to social-justice jargon as a form of college prep, it is likely that at least some incoming freshmen shared that reading of the letter.

For that reason and more, it has become the most debated item in higher education as faculty, administrators, and students return to campus for the fall semester.

Inside Higher Ed offered a summary. “To those who regularly campaign against what they see as political correctness, and to plenty of others, the letter was the message they have been waiting for—and that they think students need,” Scott Jaschik wrote. “But to many others, the letter distorted programs on which many students rely, ignored the hostility many students feel on campus, and belittled the sincerity of faculty members who work to make higher education more inclusive.”

My reaction doesn’t fit neatly into either camp. I cheer the impulse to prime students for freewheeling discourse. There is overwhelming evidence that free inquiry is threatened from the right and left, despite the fact that, as Jesse Singal put it, “There’s a strong case to be made that most students favor a liberal conception of campus free-speech rights; they’re just quieter about their preferences than the activists who believe that open debate of controversial subjects is harmful.”

There are, however, a lot of different ways to champion that ethos. Deciding whether the University of Chicago letter is an effective model for other institutions to emulate or a misstep to be avoided requires closer engagement with its critics.

What “Trigger Warnings” and “Safe Spaces” Mean

One common critique, represented here by Slate’s L.V. Anderson, is that the University of Chicago does not understand the concepts that its missive condemned.

“John Ellison betrays a common misunderstanding of ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’—both of which exist for the exact purpose of ‘building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds,’” Anderson writes. “Trigger warnings are not intended to shield students from controversial material; they’re intended to warn students about disturbing content so that they won’t be shocked by it. For someone who has been sexually assaulted, or someone who has been personally subjected to the n-word, reading texts that include descriptions of rape or racist language can dredge up anxiety and panic; warnings help them steel themselves for the impact.”

If there is solid evidence that “trigger warnings” work like that, helping students to “steel themselves” more often than priming them to be traumatized, I haven’t seen it.

But the larger flaw in this argument is its implicit claim that there is a single, fixed intention behind demands for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” In fact, a “trigger warning” might refer to matters as varied as a warning to a combat veteran that a scene in a war movie might trigger his medically diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder… and a professor caving to a demand (actually made by a Rutgers student) that classmates about to read The Great Gatsby be forewarned that it contains (spoiler alert) depictions of “suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.”

The latter example illustrates why Anderson is on particularly shaky ground when writing that “content warnings are a minor accommodation that allows students who have experienced trauma to participate in the academic community, and, properly used, they don’t infringe on anyone’s academic freedom.” Even if we assume that a warning about suicide in The Great Gatsby does help a trauma-prone student to get through an English class more comfortably, it could still be in conflict with a professor’s belief that, pedagogically speaking, most students cannot meaningfully experience the novel if major plot points are prematurely spoiled.

What’s more, as soon as “trigger warnings” are regarded not as warnings issued when there is specific evidence that they would avert episodes of PTSD, but labels appended in order “to warn students about disturbing content so that they won’t be shocked by it,” they cease to be tools that are applied in a value-neutral manner, as notions of what may disturb are conflated with notions of what is unjust. The myth of the value-neutral trigger warning is most easily punctured by imagining how a typical college professor would react to a request from an evangelical conservative student that The Vagina Monologues carry a trigger warning for “discussion of female genitalia,” Brokeback Mountain carry a trigger warning for “depictions of sodomy,” or The Origin of the Species carry one for heresy.

Little wonder that numerous college instructors avow that the expectation of trigger warnings imposes a significant burden as they formulate courses and causes them to shy away from presenting potentially upsetting material to their students—and others say trigger warnings have a chilling effect on some groups of students. That other professors do not feel burdened, or prefer trigger warnings, suggest that leaving the matter to the individual discretion of instructors is the best way forward. The letter should have noted that is the approach that the University of Chicago actually takes, in keeping with its commitment to academic freedom.

“Safe space” is a similarly slippery term. It could refer to an environment in which just physical safety is guaranteed; or to a support group for rape survivors that is closed to people who have never been raped to increase emotional comfort; or to classrooms where robust exchanges are protected but interpersonal harassment is forbidden; or to students reacting to a speaker with whom they disagree with counter-programming, as at Brown, where students surrounded themselves with “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma,” as if Wendy McElroy’s presence on campus made them “unsafe.”

I took the University of Chicago’s dean to be denouncing scenarios like that last example. Many critics of the University of Chicago are conjuring the most defensible possible variations on “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” often harkening back to the origins of the terms, without acknowledging that their critics are almost always using their post-concept creep meanings. Students at numerous institutions do invoke “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” in ways that undermine free inquiry. Pushing back against those trends is a worthy and overdue project, and if the University of Chicago letter might have been more precise, its critics could at least acknowledge the excesses that obviously motivated it, rather than treating them as straw men or bizarre, unrepresentative anomalies.

This applies particularly to the “safe space” discussion. The letter’s critics correctly tout the value of domestic-violence shelters, gay nightclubs, gatherings where pregnant women discuss their bodily experiences, and undocumented immigrants grappling with the unique challenges of their circumstances with people who share it. But those hardly run afoul of the dean’s qualified denunciation of “intellectual” safe spaces where individuals retreat “from ideas and perspectives.”

What Is the Chicago Letter Really Telling Students?

At Vox, Kevin Gannon, a professor of history and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Grand View University, declares himself to be “dismayed by how diatribes like the Chicago letter approach students in adversarial terms, implying that they don’t know how to make choices or approach material when it comes to their learning.” He goes on to argue that “the Chicago letter reeks of arrogance, of a sense of entitlement, of an exclusionary mindset—in other words, the very things it seeks to inveigh against. It’s not about academic freedom; it’s about power. Know your place, and acknowledge ours, it tells the students. We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it. And professors and students are thus handcuffed to a high-stakes ideological creed.”

On its face, the University of Chicago letter seems as though it might, in fact, handcuff professors in one way. “Critics have charged that the statement might undermine academic freedom,” the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted. “If UC had banned the use of trigger warnings outright, that would have affected the academic freedom of professors who might choose to use them as a pedagogical tool.” But the organization confirmed that Dean Ellison’s “statement that it does ‘not support so-called ‘trigger warnings’ is not a ban on that practice.”

Since professors “maintain broad latitude to engage in teaching practices as they see fit or to accommodate student requests,” that leaves concern about the message to students.

And contra Gannon’s protestations, it is not only proper, but inescapable, for a college to tell its students, “We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it.” It is the place of the institution to decide what, if any, classes will be mandatory; to hire professors; to decide what classes to offer; and to formulate major and graduation requirements. Insofar as institutions are transparent about the ethos that guides them, the matters on which they are open to debate, and what they consider to be their core values, prospective students will be best served.

Missions will differ wildly. My alma mater put its identity as a residential college at its core, with policies to stymie students who wished to live off-campus. Religious schools like Brigham Young adopt explicit codes of conduct in keeping with their faith. The curriculum requirements at a liberal arts institution like Swarthmore will differ significantly from those of vocational institutions, and Oberlin and Brown ought to be perfectly clear about the role social justice plays in their communities.

“Sure, Charles Murray has a right to his views,” Gannon writes. “But is it OK for us to use student fees paid in part by African American students to bring him to campus, fete him, and give him a rostrum to tell those students they’re doomed by genetics to be inferior to whites?” Feting aside, the University of Chicago’s answer appears to be, Yes, it is okay––just as it would be okay to use the student fees of white students to host a black nationalist speaking on the subject of “the white devil from slave patrols to policing”; or the student fees of male students to host a feminist philosopher who believes men are inherent oppressors and all penetrative sex is rape; or to use the student fees of Christian students to host a prolific abortionist or an atheist who believes no intelligent person could believe in God; or the student fees of Jewish students to host a head of state who has compared Jews to vermin and suggested that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth.

Professor Geoffrey Stone argues that sort of standard is vital. “If today I am permitted to silence those whose views I find distasteful, I have then opened the door to allow others down the road to silence me,” he writes. “The neutral principle, no suppression of ideas, protects us all.” (Indeed, that principle is most important to marginalized students.) He goes on to argue that the this is a particularly important moment to reiterate the University of Chicago’s long held ideals:

Students and faculty members used to be willing to take controversial positions because the risks were relatively modest. After all, one could say something provocative, and the statement soon disappeared from view. But now, every comment you make can be circulated to the world and called up with a click by prospective employers or graduate schools or neighbors.

The potential costs of speaking courageously, of taking controversial positions, of taking risks, is greater than ever. Indeed, according to a recent survey, about half of American college students now say that it is unsafe for them to express unpopular views. Many faculty members clearly share that sentiment. In this climate, it is especially important for universities to stand up for free expression.

That isn’t the only ethos that might guide a university, but it is a perfectly defensible one that anyone who believes in diversity among institutions should value. In any case, students about to enter such an institution should know what they’re in for before they arrive! One irony of the debate generated by the Chicago letter is that, in effect, the college issued a trigger warning to incoming students warning them to expect a dearth of trigger warnings in their time on campus.

Gannon writes that he would be “dismayed if my dean sent this letter to my incoming students. Because now they’ll come into my class already having received a clear message about what my institution seems to value—and it isn’t them.” But that both ignores the myriad different ways incoming students will receive the letter and begs the question about the merits of the University of Chicago’s ethos. Those who believe in the propositions set forth in the letter naturally believe that promulgating a maximalist approach to free inquiry, in the clearest terms, is exactly what is required from those who value incoming students. Critics who ignore that wrinkle in the debate are failing an ideological Turing test.

Those critics should grapple with people who believe students are best positioned to receive an excellent education when primed to consider nothing off limits; or that learning to face wrongheaded or even hurtful ideas is, beyond academic necessities, a key life skill; or that, per Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, campuses that police speech “engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.”

Indeed, by failing to accurately state the beliefs and motivations of folks who have cheered the University of Chicago letter, its critics are priming some students to receive it as a willful attack on their identities when, in fact, it is perfectly consistent with an administrator deeply committed to the flourishing of all first-years.

In turn, Ellison could have better anticipated the predictable misreadings of his  least charitable critics, as well as possible misreadings of high schoolers who’ve been acculturated into the erroneous belief that free expression and social justice are at odds.

In his defense, Ellison did write, “Fostering a free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority—building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds.” I wish he would’ve added some of the many reasons why that is so: For example, because nearly every idea espoused at a university will have proponents and opponents of every race and gender; because the presumption that once-victimized individuals, or even whole groups, need to be protected from the free exchange of ideas is insulting, paternalistic nonsense that stigmatizes and falsely stereotypes its objects as fragile and inferior; or because suppressing an idea on behalf of one group causes other groups to compete to suppress other ideas in turn, or to feel disrespected if censors seem less solicitous of their sensitivities.

In my judgement, Ken White of Popehat offered the best critique of the University of Chicago letter by re-writing it using more precise language that he believes to be superior:

Our commitment to academic freedom will govern our response to community concerns about course content and campus expression in general. The community should not expect us to require professors to give "trigger warnings," or to discipline them if they decline to do so. The community should not expect us to prohibit or "disinvite" speakers who offer controversial or offensive ideas. Members of the community should exercise their freedom of association to form groups with similar interests, goals, and values, but should not expect to transform classes or public spaces into "safe spaces" where expression they oppose is prohibited.

He is correct that his version is “clearer that the University isn't telling professors how to teach their classes,” and that it offers a more coherent approach to "safe spaces," insofar as they are “completely consistent with freedom of association when they represent a group of people coming together voluntarily to determine how they want to interact,” but “a problem when people decide they have the right to intellectual manifest destiny — when they have a right to use safe spaces as a sword rather than a shield by telling others what they can say in public spaces.”

White concludes that “if the University of Chicago believes—as many of us do—that the values of academic freedom and free speech are under assault, then it shouldn't encourage misunderstandings of those concepts just for the pleasure of rhetorically spiking the ball.” I concur that colleges would do better to mimic White’s formulation. And I would encourage them to do just that before this academic semester witnesses inevitable calls to illiberally transgress against free inquiry.

Related Video: