U. of Chicago’s Condemning of Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings Reignites Debate

A letter to incoming freshmen at the University of Chicago has reignited a debate over political correctness, the perceived coddling of college students, and academic freedom.

The letter, signed by John Ellison, the dean of students, states that the university does “not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” nor does it cancel controversial campus speakers or “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Read the full letter, posted by the university’s student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon.

Critics of perceived political correctness run amok have hailed the letter as a necessary corrective to a culture of oversensitivity on campuses.

An editorial in the Chicago Tribune praised the letter as “refreshingly direct,” applauding its “commitment to the marketplace of ideas, the implicit endorsement of democratic freedoms, and the sheer feistiness.”

But defenders of trigger warnings and safe spaces have ripped the letter, saying its statements actually undermine the “commitment to academic freedom” cited as their motivation.




Jeet Heer, writing for The New Republic, condemned Mr. Ellison’s letter as “perverse.” He continued:

Prior to Ellison’s letter, University of Chicago professors had the right to use trigger warnings or not use them. Now, if a professor decides to use them, he or she will face administrative opposition. Academic freedom means that professors get to design their syllabus, not administrators like Ellison. His letter is a prime example of how the outcry against “political correctness” often leads to policy changes that limit free speech.

According to an article on the website of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the university told the foundation that its letter did not amount to a ban on the practice of issuing trigger warnings.

University administrators did not return multiple phone messages seeking comment on Thursday afternoon.

As for safe spaces, some observers on Twitter shared a Washington Post op-ed from January written by Morton O. Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, another prestigious Chicago-area institution. It was titled “I’m Northwestern’s president. Here’s why safe spaces for students are important.”

“I’m an economist, not a sociologist or psychologist,” Mr. Schapiro wrote, “but those experts tell me that students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable. Safe spaces provide that comfort. The irony, it seems, is that the best hope we have of creating an inclusive community is to first create spaces where members of each group feel safe.”

Similarly, advocates of trigger warnings have said the practice is meant to protect victims of traumatic events from becoming retraumatized. In 2015 a survey of members of the College Art Association and the Modern Language Association found that more than half of participating professors had issued a trigger warning at least once.

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