In late August the dean of students at the University of Chicago, John Ellison, stirred up a hornets’ nest with a letter to incoming students that specifically denounced “so-called ‘trigger warnings’” and “intellectual ‘safe spaces’” as antithetical to the university’s commitment to freedom of expression. The letter followed up on issues addressed in the university’s widely praised 2015 report on freedom of expression. Its tone, however, is very different from that report, and many observers argue that so is its perspective.
I’ve reflected a bit on safe spaces here. But after the recent publication of a critical response to Ellison’s letter from over 150 faculty members, I’d like to offer some additional thoughts about how we can all learn from the three documents coming from the University of Chicago.
Whatever one’s position on the complexities embodied in conversations about trigger warnings, safe spaces, and related issues, there is a crucial point to be made here relating to the discourse on the corporatization of universities. The faculty response could not have happened in a corporation. The employees would most likely be terminated. Even many nonprofits, and certainly most political organizations (left or right), would not permit this level of public dissent by staff. We see here a perfect example of the imperative of academic freedom and the ways in which colleges and universities play a unique role in American public culture.
The faculty letter also serves as a reminder to students that they go to college not just to learn skills that will prepare them to earn a living. This is the time and place where, as the letter puts it, “The best spaces for independent thought and action may be those you create yourselves.” All Americans should appreciate and support institutions that enable and encourage such spaces (as all colleges and universities do, at least in theory). One could even argue that by facilitating and nourishing “independent thought and action” higher education institutions are also enhancing the capabilities of the American workforce.