You’ve probably heard about it: the University of Chicago letter that launched a thousand heated online debates across the U.S. this past week.

Last week, the university’s dean of students, John Ellison, wrote a letter addressed to the incoming Class of 2020.

In it, Ellison warned freshmen: “You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.”

He went on to say: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that 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.”

And that paragraph was the point of contention for many.

For some, the terms “safe space” and “trigger warning” stem from the need to be “politically correct”, particularly critics of the whole concept.

But as a New Zealand programmer recently showed us, being “PC” (“politically correct”) could be equated to “treating people with respect”.

So what, exactly, are “safe spaces”?

Kevin Gannon, a history professor at Grand View University in the state of Iowa, posted a long chain for tweets explaining what they are:


But if you want a short summary, here’s one from Vox: “Safe spaces are a specific place where people of certain groups – racial, religious, and so on – can go temporarily to talk to and hang out with peers in a similar place without having to do the kind of cultural translation that a more diverse crowd might require.”

The University of Chicago president Robert J. Zimmer gave his own two cents in an essay published in the Wall Street Journal that supported Ellison’s points, saying free speech was at risk in academia.

“Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments in complex environments,” he wrote.

“Having one’s assumptions challenged and experiencing the discomfort that sometimes accompanies this process are intrinsic parts of an excellent education. Only then will students develop the skills necessary to build their own futures and contribute to society.”

And indeed, students should be challenged. They should grow from their experiences. But they should also be afforded the right to do so within a safe, secure environment.

Because there’s a difference between feeling “uncomfortable” and being “threatened”.

According to Cameron Okeke, a University of Chicago graduate who wrote in response to the debate, safe spaces afforded him, and many other minority students, a refuge when the university ignored their concerns.

“As a first-generation black student, I needed safe spaces like the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs – not to ‘hide from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own,’ but to heal from relentless hate and ignorance, to hear and be heard. My ideas were always challenged, but never my humanity. I mattered,” he wrote.

Okeke argued that having a diverse student body should include having “safe spaces, trigger warnings, or some institutionalized form of respect for people with different experiences”.

“UChicago should know that trigger warnings and safe spaces exist to give those with firsthand experience a way to engage without sacrificing their well-being or safety. This accessibility is the key to a truly open marketplace of ideas and an essential pillar of academic freedom.

“Recklessly painting trigger warnings and safe spaces as enemies to academic freedom will only make UChicago a more hostile environment for marginalized first-years,” he wrote.

And indeed, aren’t universities meant to be safe spaces in and of themselves? Where students can explore and learn more about themselves within a safe environment?

It’s not about expecting universities to coddle students and protect them from controversial ideas. It’s not about taking away free speech.

As Tom Toles wrote in the Washington Post: “This debate is not really about pure free speech. No argument ever is. It’s about speech norms and who gets to set them.”

It shouldn’t even be an issue of having to choose one or the other: safe spaces or freedom of speech.

What universities must do is, instead of washing their hands of the problem altogether by getting rid of one, they must work together with students to learn the delicate balancing act between the two.

Image via Unsplash

Liked this? Then you’ll love these…

Australian universities said to increasingly embrace ‘political correctness’

Overwhelming majority of Americans oppose affirmative action in universities