What You Need to Know About the Past 7 Days

September 05, 2016

Warning: Trigger News

The letter that first-year students received from the University of Chicago last month did not mince words: "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."

The letter — signed by John Ellison, dean of students for the university’s undergraduate college — also said that while civility and mutual respect are vital to freedom of inquiry and expression, "we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement." He added: "At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort."

Not surprisingly, the missive attracted a lot of attention, both at Chicago and at a range of other institutions that have wrestled with calls to warn students when difficult topics come up in class or to rescind invitations to speakers. The Chicago Maroon, the university’s student newspaper, broke the story and quoted critics of the letter who said that the university "disguises hate speech as ‘discourse.’"

One Chicago senior, Elizabeth Adetiba, told The Chronicle that the letter was "very callous," adding that a trigger warning isn’t a form of censorship. "It just gives you a second or two to do what you need to do to prepare," she said. Ms. Adetiba was one of two authors of an eloquent letter about an earlier campus controversy in which Black Lives Matter protesters shouted down the Cook County state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez. Insisting that everyone has an equal right to speak, said Ms. Adetiba and her co-author, Stephanie Greene — even someone they said had attempted "to deny justice for a victim of police brutality" — "privileges traditional modes of political discourse which are largely inaccessible to marginalized communities, thus leaving them silenced."

The Chicago Tribune took the opposite tack, praising the dean’s letter and complaining that "unctuous, squishy administrators at too many campuses have tried to coddle, and thus placate, overly sensitive students." The editorial also took a swipe at DePaul University, saying it had "tied itself in knots over how to respond to conservative student groups trying to bring provocative speakers to campus."

"In a free society, especially in a place of learning, all ideas should be permitted to be heard," the editorial concluded. "They will rise or fall on their merits."

Slavery’s Long Aftermath

Annie Flanagan, The New York Times, Redux
Georgetown University said last week that it would take a number of steps to acknowledge the sale in 1838 of 272 slaves owned by Jesuit priests in Maryland to pay off the institution’s debts. Georgetown had long asserted that all of the slaves died soon after arriving at two sugar plantations in Louisiana, only to learn recently that many descendants of the slaves still live in and around Maringouin, La., where the university’s president, John J. DeGioia, visited in June.

Among other actions, the university will create an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies that will work with the descendants, who will be considered members of the university community — like the children of alumni or faculty members — for admissions purposes. It will also rename two campus buildings formerly named for men who organized the sale, and one of the buildings will be named for one of the slaves.

Meanwhile, two more public universities in Mississippi have stopped flying the state’s flag, which features the Confederate battle flag set within a larger design. Mississippi State University and the Mississippi University for Women have joined the University of Mississippi and all but one of the state’s other public institutions in taking down the flag, which now flies only at Delta State University.

Jim Borsig, president of the Mississippi University for Women, said that "knowing where our campus was on this issue, along with kicking off the 50th anniversary of integration" there, it was time to take the flag down.

Online Upsets

Are online journals the future of scholarly publishing? Maybe, but in the short term there could be complications.

For one, the publishing giant Elsevier has been granted a patent for an "online peer-­review system and method" that prompted worries last week in some circles. The patent specifically protects technology that can send an article rejected by one Elsevier journal on to others published by the company, a process known as "waterfalling." The vice president for corporate relations said in a tweet that there was "no need for concern regarding the patent," which he said was "meant to protect our own proprietary waterfall system from being copied." But others worried that Elsevier could threaten competitors by filing costly lawsuits based on the new patent, a practice critics call "patent trolling." ("This has ‘Blackboard elearning patent’ written all over it," tweeted one critic with a long memory, Martin Weller, a professor of educational technology at the Open University, in Britain.)

Also last week, the Federal Trade Commission said it had filed a civil complaint against what it referred to as "the publisher of hundreds of purported online academic journals." The complaint charges OMICS Group Inc. with "deceiving academics and researchers about the nature of its publications and hiding publication fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars."

"OMICS does not tell researchers that they must pay significant publishing fees until after it has accepted an article for publication," the federal agency said, "and often will not allow researchers to withdraw their articles from submission, thereby making the research ineligible for publication in another journal." The company, based in India, denied the charges.

A Hint From Clinton?

Higher education hasn’t played much of a role in the presidential campaign since Sen. Bernie Sanders conceded the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. But last week Mrs. Clinton named a high-profile advocate for students, Rohit Chopra, to her transition team. Mr. Chopra, a former assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is known for criticizing the practices of student-loan companies and for-profit colleges, and inside the Beltway his selection gave rise to speculation that if she is elected, Mrs. Clinton would keep a wary eye on those two sectors.

By coincidence, one of the for-profit universities Mr. Chopra and others have singled out for criticism, ITT Technical Institute, said last week that it was not accepting additional students. The announcement came soon after the U.S. Education Department said the company could not enroll any more students in federal student-aid programs because of "significant concerns about ITT’s administrative capacity, organizational integrity, financial viability, and ability to serve students."

And Also …

Santa Clara County Sheriff via AP
Brock A. Turner, the former Stanford University swimmer sentenced to six months in prison for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, was scheduled to be released late last week after serving three months of a sentence that many critics have decried as far too short. Demonstrators planned to protest his release outside the jail. … The Board of Trustees at the University of the Incarnate Word removed its longtime president, Louis Agnese Jr., in the wake of complaints from students that he had made a series of offensive comments at an August 15 lunch.

Lawrence Biemiller writes about a variety of usual and unusual higher-education topics. Reach him at