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Last August Jay Ellison, Dean of Students in the College at the University of Chicago, sent out a letter to the incoming class of first-year college students. “Our commitment to academic freedom,” the letter reads, “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, and the flurry of responses to it, placed the University of Chicago at the center of a national argument over “p.c. culture.” Several weeks later The Point invited two graduate students, Paul Cato from the Committee on Social Thought, and Theo Beers from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, to discuss the letter. Paul and Theo were chosen because both are members of the University of Chicago academic community—with responsibilities as students and teachers—and because both took clear public stances in the days following the letter’s publication. The conversation, conducted on September 22, was mediated by Point editor Anastasia Berg, who is also a graduate student at the university.

The conversation begins by considering the terms used in the letter, such as “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” and then opens out into a discussion of broader questions about academic freedom and what role administrators, teachers and students should play in deciding what happens in college classrooms. The remarks have been edited and condensed into three parts. What follows is part three. (Read part one and part two.)


Anastasia: When have these issues come up on campus? Do any examples come to mind?

Theo: The number one example that comes to my mind is the event with Dan Savage at the Institute of Politics (IoP). He used—in a way that wasn’t intended to be offensive—the word “tranny.”

Anastasia: …While explaining why he had stopped using the word.

Theo: Right. Then a small group of students wanted some kind of disavowal on the part of the IoP or the administration. That was the demand: that in order to render the IoP discussion hall a safe space for all students, steps would have to be taken to ensure that this kind of thing wouldn’t happen again.

Paul: At Swarthmore, when these dissensions came up, we had what’s called a “collection”—partly because Swarthmore is a Quaker institution by tradition—where students stand up respectfully and share their opinions. This is a very simple tactic: set up an environment where students who might have felt that Dan’s use of the term was grossly inappropriate and let them express it as part of a dialogue.

If we’re going to be talking about free speech, those offended individuals have the right to speak up and express their dissension, so I have to be tolerant of their dissent, their complaints, even their demands. They should be allowed to speak up. Do I necessarily agree with them? Not personally. I do have to be sensitive, because I have to ask myself, How would I feel if I were in a similar situation, if some white person stood up there and said, “This is why I don’t use the n-word anymore”? And I know a number of students who would react in the same way as the students did in the use of the word “tranny” in that context.

Anastasia: Is there room for them to demand, for example, that Dan Savage should not be invited again?

Paul: Yes, they should have the right to express that wish, and the university should tolerate that. The minute we start silencing them in that way, that’s another rejection, a questioning of their identity. These ideas that are connected to who they are.

Anastasia: Are you saying they should be allowed to ask for the measures and the university should be allowed to disregard those demands?

Paul: As long as it’s done in a respectful and tolerant way, yes, this should be the goal. You seem to worry a safe space would be something polarizing that would silence or limit speech—no. If I feel safe I shouldn’t have to worry at all about having to police other people; I should trust that I don’t need to worry that if I express my discontent it will be listened to and taken seriously.

The University of Chicago has a terrible reputation for not taking such expressions of discontent and concern—especially when they deal with identity—seriously. This letter confirms it. It sends that message to the Class of 2020 the minute they arrive.

There are small efforts the university can make to improve the climate: content warnings, or encouraging content warnings. Providing training or access to faculty to learn how to use them is a sign of good faith on the part of the administration that shows they do want to cultivate a better environment.

Anastasia: Why did UChicago get itself into this mess? If they have this reputation of being unwelcoming, why would they send this letter?

Paul: I think the university is trying to figure out its place and its identity in the 21st century. In the mid-twentieth century it was known primarily as a strong research university, with an emphasis on graduate studies, and as a haven for the study of Western cultures and civilization, with its readings and the Core curriculum. And now it’s trying to figure itself out. Its students are seeing things that are happening at Bowdoin, at Yale, and the university has to figure out some response as it tries to navigate its new identity, and these new spaces. They’re trying to establish their institutional policies on these questions.

They executed it horribly, but I think the letter was sent as a statement of identity, about what UChicago is. It didn’t come with the prerequisite reflection or communication with the rest of the university. I understand what that might look like in 2016, so give them a pass in that regard, because it’s a very difficult debate to undergo, but it needs to start.

Theo: I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I don’t think that Dean Ellison spent a great deal of time drafting this letter. I mean, he used the default Microsoft Word font. The whole document to me just looked very sloppy. It was inelegantly phrased. There was some grammatical awkwardness. Anyone who has graded student writing can tell when something has had a lot of thought and levels of revision put into it, and when something has not.

I immediately read it and thought, Wow, this guy must have gotten back from lunch with the board of trustees and said, “Boy, am I going to send a letter to those incoming freshmen…” I can’t imagine that he put an amount of thought into it that was commensurate with the national attention that it subsequently received. And on that level I almost feel bad for him—almost.

Anastasia: People on both sides are taking this conversation very, very seriously.

Theo: And he has a serious job, and he has a large audience. He was in a position to send a book and a letter to well over a thousand people. Money went into this.

On the other hand, one thing that I noticed was that this letter was sent out, and within just a few days there was also a Wall Street Journal op-ed by [University of Chicago President] Bob Zimmer on the same topic, and there was an article by [law school professor and former provost] Geoffrey Stone that appeared in the Chronicle Review. I assume it takes a few days to get an article into these outlets, so the confluence of these things—at least three different statements from either faculty or administrators at UChicago on the same topic in the same week—suggests some prior planning.

Anastasia: So how would you read that? What’s the aim of the coordinated push?

Theo: I’m sure it made donors happy. Older alumni donors went through the University of Chicago in an earlier and, for them, much simpler time, when a lot of the questions that college students now are expected to be sensitive to, just weren’t being asked. They could have gone through four years at UChicago never having to really seriously think about such problems. And so they can look back at their time at UChicago as these halcyon days when they had the Core curriculum, they had the Great Books, you know. There was this spirit of academic exchange that was relatively untroubled—superficially untroubled, I should add, compared to what we have now, where a lot of the deeper conflicts and insecurities and vulnerabilities have been aired. We talk about them now; they’re out in the open, at least.

The donor class, given that it’s older and wants to look at the University of Chicago in that romantic image, would want to see a hard line being taken by the administration against young radical activists who are trying to change what it means to get a college education and to be part of a college campus.

There is also the fact that the university self-consciously cultivates this image of being, perhaps, the most prominent bastion of free academic exchange and inquiry out of all of the top-level elite universities in the U.S. The “word on the street” is that the Ivies have been abdicating that role and have been showing greater consideration to the demands of student protesters.

Anastasia: Another thing that I wondered about is the fact that, as a former dean of admissions at the UofC claimed, UChicago is now trying to fit in the corporate university model and is trying to get its acceptance rate down. It’s courting students in comparable ways to others schools—sending them sunglasses and pizza cutters—as if to say, “We’re just a regular competitive school and you can get a finance job,” instead of the old “We’re a freak show.”

It seems like on the one hand they’re saying, “We’re just a regular school. Forget this old wacky UChicago,” and the incoming classes really reflect that, and the acceptance rate really reflects that. On the other hand, they’re doubling down on this image as an outsider, a particular kind of outsider.

Theo: I think they’re trying to strike a balance between being part of the homogenization of elite private universities in the U.S.—that they’re all supposed to be offering approximately the same thing—and also trying to retain something of the unique spirit of this place.

Anastasia: Let me ask you now, what are the consequences of this letter?

Theo: I think time will tell. I hope that one positive impact of having a letter like this, as inflammatory as it may be, would be to get students arriving on campus already primed to be having contentious, important conversations with one another. And one other possible positive spin on this letter is that almost never, I would have to say, in all my years at UChicago—I’m coming into my seventh year now—I’ve never felt as though UChicago seemed this close to the center of a national debate about really important social issues. Maybe there are positive impacts for students being in a place where—even if it’s done insensitively by the administration—these debates are alive and can take place.

I hope that once they’re actually here, the students will feel as though they have the freedom to critique what Dean Ellison has told them in various ways. And I know that some undergraduates have already been doing so. There was already a New York Times op-ed by a rising fourth-year undergraduate, in addition to the editorial pages of the Maroon, which I’m sure will be full of commentary on these things. So I hope that it won’t have a chilling effect, and that we might be able to look back on this as something that spurred debate and conversation.

Paul: I like to think back to being eighteen years old. If I’m getting ready to move to campus and I get a letter like this, my question is going to be, “Wow, I was told all this stuff about how the college has this relationship with its black community, about how it’s tolerant and appreciates diversity.” This isn’t the message this letter is sending me. I could aspire to break it down and give some deep intellectual analysis to what it really means, but I’m eighteen years old—I don’t have the critical thinking skills to really interrogate something like this. And it’s going to make me uncomfortable the minute I step in. You’re already filled with questions and concerns when you’re in that stage, in between high school and college, and this just adds to it, especially for people from marginalized backgrounds.

Anastasia: But are we giving college students the credit they deserve here? Doesn’t this risk disempowering them?

Paul: Engaging with the letter in a critical manner stands apart from having difficult discussions about contentious and potentially upsetting topics. I believe all marginalized students, when offered the opportunity and truly listened to can share deep and insightful thoughts about their identities and the oppression they face. But this letter was embroiled in campus politics and alluded to issues in academia to which the incoming freshmen (let alone most Americans) have not been exposed. They lacked the frame of reference needed to truly engage critically with some of its claims and implications. This isn’t an issue of giving credit, or whether the students are “ready” or “capable” of tackling the topic, but rather whether the issues were framed in a truly accessible manner—and in the case of the letter, they weren’t.

There is no doubt that an eighteen-year-old can discuss these issues in a thoughtful and productive manner: schools throughout the country have woven conversations about safe spaces, trigger warnings, and free speech into freshman orientation and first-year programming. But if we think of the letter as initiating a dialogue between incoming students and the administration, then it stands apart from the these other first-year conversations about content warnings and the like because the dialogue started by the letter is marked by an unbalanced frame of reference.

Anastasia: Are there certain forms of expression that we should penalize or say we don’t tolerate? Are there historical statements that figures have made that you think should disqualify them from coming to campus to speak because it would be too threatening to students?

Paul: Vulnerability and engagement, having the discourse to produce new ideas, are just very important, fundamental aspects of who I am and what I believe in. But if it’s going to be done—and I’ve seen it done before—it should be done in a way that feels safe. Safe doesn’t mean comfortable, safe doesn’t mean enjoyable necessarily; it can mean discomfort, but it understands that I can figure out a way for myself to trust the people around me enough to open myself more, to be more vulnerable, to have this kind of discourse.

So, speaking personally—and this is where I diverge from a number of my peers of color and my fellow progressives—I’m fine with opening up the campus to some bigot who wants to come speak. But it needs to be done with great intentionality—similar to the care you might put into dealing with something physically dangerous. And I don’t think University of Chicago is qualified for that right now, with all due respect. So they can have the freedom of speech, but then they need to be ready to take responsibility for the repercussions when it goes on.

Theo: Figuring out how to deal with controversial events and invited speakers is one of the hardest things, I think. A couple of years ago, there was an event where they were going to give out awards to alumni who were judged as having rendered exemplary service to society. Protesters, who at that point were very upset with the university’s refusal to listen on the issue of the level-one adult trauma center, succeeded in shutting down the event, and as a result it ended up being canceled. And that raises really difficult questions: Does the university need to be able to predict that there’s going to be “a mess” when something very controversial is happening, and purposefully make sure that they’re dealing with it—as you said, “cleaning up the mess”? If so, does that involve allowing events to be totally shut down? I don’t know. I don’t think there’s any easy answer to that question.

As far as the issue of disinviting an invited speaker, I don’t think that’s happened while I’ve been at UChicago. The problem has usually been more about what level of disruption by protesting students is the maximum that can be considered acceptable, or whether the integrity of the event needs to be preserved. There was an Armenian genocide—not exactly a denier, but an academic downplayer of the Armenian genocide—who spoke at the International House in the spring, and there was a student protest at the event. But they made sure to do it in a way where, when they disrupted the event—they marched up and had special shirts and duct tape over their mouths and it said something like “1.5 million people killed, own up to this”—the students, after chanting, marched out and the rest of the event was allowed to proceed. That, to me, looked like a good example of protesters making their voices heard, but not shouting down the speaker such that nothing else could happen.

The only other thing we’ve touched on, or that I think you’ve touched on in your questions is, Are there things in the classroom that should not be allowed? I don’t know. For me, if I were teaching a modern Middle East class and it came to the week where we were going to be talking about the establishment of the modern state of Israel and the Jewish settlements, and we were going to have a class discussion where student opinions were going to be solicited, I might issue a disclaimer beforehand, saying, “Look, I’m not interested in hearing blanket statements about the Jews or the Muslims or the Arabs. We need to maintain an appropriate level of respectful specificity about what we’re talking about. And this is not a place where Islamophobia or anti-Semitism is going to be tolerated as part of a productive class discussion.” You know, I might do that. Still, even there I’m not sure that I’d want the administration of my college or university intervening in that process.

Paul: I’m fine with difficult topics. On the subject of whether to use certain words, it brings me back to an experience I had in high school… I went to an all-boy’s private school. We were reading a book in class—it was either To Kill a Mockingbird or Huck Finn—and there was the question of whether we were going to use the n-word when it came up in the text.

At that point, I was very cynical, but I had to laugh to myself because the teacher—a white man who was very kind, very understanding for the most part—thought, Let’s decide as a class. Here I am going to school with some of the richest people in the DC area, perhaps in the country I’m the only black person in the room. I’m the only person who will be affected by hearing this term, in a deep, personal way. Other people might just feel uncomfortable with it, and they might shudder, but the decision is being left in to the democratic process, so I didn’t even express my opinion, because I knew it wouldn’t matter, it wouldn’t count in that way. These were teenagers deciding this. They voted for saying it, because otherwise it wouldn’t be authentic to the book.

People were looking at me throughout the discussion and, again, we were teenagers—I didn’t hold it against them. I remember I had to go and talk to my dad, who graduated from Morehouse College, because I had been uncomfortable—I didn’t know how to process that sort of thing.

Anastasia: And you never said anything?

Paul: Every time they were reading a passage and it came up, they looked at me, but that was just the reality. I knew other students who would not have put up with it at all, and they pushed hard in the classroom, and the class ended up voting no, because they felt guilty, they didn’t want to use the term that would upset the one black kid in the class.

If the onus is being put on the students to have difficult conversations, where is the letter to the faculty saying, at the same time, we want to encourage you to open up and share a similar level of vulnerability that we are expecting of our students? Or, we’re not going to stand up for censorship… because it’s a different sort of censorship.

I was censored in that classroom. It wasn’t the teacher’s fault, he didn’t intend for that, and my classmates didn’t intend for that. But there I was, letting white people who live in a very segregated city pretty much vote and decide whether the n-word could be used. I realized either I was going to have to be militant and push back, but even if I tried to make Dr. King-type speeches, they would roll their eyes.

We need to expand our understanding of what counts as censorship, what counts as freedom of expression, on both sides, if we’re going to take advantage of this opportunity, of being at a wonderful school with all of these different communities. The university has the resources to foster a wide range of ideas, to push for that.

Theo: My sense is that the relationship between the administration and the faculty is not one of great trust, and you can see that reflected, I think, in the open letter. And the faculty feel they’re losing any semblance of governance—so maybe the relationship just doesn’t have the level of trust needed…

Anastasia: So if we want the faculty to be much more open, what do you think would be more effective?

Theo: One tactic would be to take a kind of if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach, where you create resources to help instructors be sensitive to these issues, without hinting at a requirement that they use those resources. That would be a first step. Another strategy would be to implement changes on a department-by-department basis, so that the faculty still feel like they’re the ones in control of the process.

Paul: I agree that in an environment as disjointed as the university it could be helpful to do this on a department-by-department basis. In the College, though, the problem can emerge where even if Student X decides to be a philosophy major, they don’t have the same involvement in the college that you do as a graduate student. And it’s very difficult to go and tell the department head that you don’t feel comfortable.

Anastasia: And you’re saying the letter puts it on the students… You’re saying if the administration isn’t saying this who’s going to do it?

Paul: Exactly.

Theo: One other thing that I would be remiss not to mention is that other universities in Chicago have been going through, sometimes, serious problems with negotiating freedom of expression and academic inquiry. They’ve had issues at Northwestern… A political science professor at Northwestern was removed from her teaching responsibilities, barred from campus, and allegedly ordered to have a mandatory psychiatric evaluation, to be carried out by a mental health professional chosen by the administration. You look across town to Evanston where things like that are happening, and that adds a different kind of context to what is going on at UChicago, which maybe gets less attention. They also had a speaker who got shut down at DePaul—Milo Yiannopoulos, the Breitbart writer, the same person who had the rare distinction of being permanently banned from Twitter, as a result of the harassment of Leslie Jones.

He was giving an event at DePaul, which was shut down by protests, and he had to leave. I don’t anticipate that someone like that would be invited to UChicago—it doesn’t seem to happen here as much—but these issues are percolating in Chicago, at other universities in the metropolitan area. And especially, a couple things that have happened at Northwestern have raised flags—not just what’s happening now with this political science professor, but also the investigation of Laura Kipnis…

Anastasia: I think it’s important to note that your concerns—no matter how you decide on them—are grounded in real fears.

Theo: Although not as real as Dean Ellison suggests, right? A lot of the trigger warning issue has to be called out as a red herring. Ellison, in a way, invented a controversy with the stroke of a pen. But there are also real issues that are tough—how do we navigate this?

Paul: After the letter came out I saw a lot of grad students expressing their approval on Facebook. And in almost every case, they were making some “slippery slope” argument. In response not so much to Theo but to these other people, because the slippery slope idea gets raised so often, I think the focus needs to be on those vulnerable and at-risk students who are coming to the university, or who are here now, versus trying to prevent some 1984 thing from happening here at UChicago.

You can’t talk about community, and you can’t talk about this engagement of ideas, when there are students who feel disenfranchised and marginalized from that community as it stands. If the university is going to be pushing for freedom of expression, what will they do to ensure justice and a sense of security and safety for those students who have clearly made it known that they don’t feel safe?

I’ve witnessed students crying here and that’s not okay. I know professors who, if people did start crying in their classroom, they might go up to that student later and might say, “No, you can’t… this is a place for rational discourse, we’re supposed to be academic and professional.”

Anastasia: Isn’t that a bit of a caricature?

Paul: No, I’ve seen it done before, multiple times, especially at St. Albans, at my high school. I’ve been told to keep my feelings out of the classroom, that I’m getting too emotional. Now, mind you, if I’m being honest, there were times when I did get very excited, but still. It is a strange experience to have to serve as representative of an entire population of people, and have that population be discussed in an American history classroom. I’m flooded with fear… and what should I do? Should I hide that? Should I doodle? Or should I just get up and leave?

When they diagnosed me with epilepsy, it became clear the biggest trigger is stress. Most of my seizures are caused by these kinds of intense discussions. I don’t exactly know how it works, but you can try to push off the seizure if you feel it coming on, so it’s less severe.

It got to a point where it was just easier to have the seizure, because it’s this physical, disruptive thing. No one’s going to say, don’t seize next time. Whether or not they made the connection that I had the seizure directly after that comment was made, or it was clear my hands were shaking and I was trembling—no, these situations have happened to me before and I’d bet that if you interviewed various students from marginalized backgrounds, it’s not a caricature.

Anastasia: I think what you’re pointing to is not so much that something on the syllabus would have helped, but a whole attitude on the part of the instructor that is basically a very simple issue that you’ve been raising again and again: that the experience of listening to this alone in this classroom is different than it is for other people.

Paul: One thing that marginalized students do a lot is we ask each other, What’s this professor like? How is he or she going to deal with this topic if it comes up? And students stray away from certain classes taught by certain professors, which is disappointing.

Later, once I was able to figure out how to manage dealing with having seizures in class and my emotional triggers, I realized that I could offer a different perspective that some of these other students maybe hadn’t heard before. I do have a place in this. But it means taking a big risk, and I have to decide if this is good for the sake of my wellness. A content warning, I think, is an outstretched hand. It’s a small sign of good faith.

Theo: Especially if offered freely by the instructor.

Anastasia: I noted earlier that your disagreement explicitly concerns the role of the administration: Should it be given the authority to mandate policies or should we ultimately trust students and faculty to negotiate together how to create respectful learning environments. But the same disagreement can be captured in the question of whether it is, first, practical and, secondly, just, to trust the faculty and especially students with this responsibility.

Paul’s story about his high school English class was a great illustration of the pressures on minority students in the supposedly democratic context of a classroom to advocate for themselves as individuals and for the groups they belong to. It reminded me of Obama’s statement on safe spaces from last year:

I do worry if young people start getting trained to think that if somebody says something I don’t like, if somebody says something that hurts my feelings that my only recourse is to shut them up, avoid them, push them away, call on a higher power to protect me from that. You know, and yes, does that put more of a burden on minority students or gay students or Jewish students or others in a majority that may be blind to history and blind to their hurt? It may put a slightly higher burden on them. But you’re not going to make the kinds of deep changes in society—that those students want, without taking it on, in a full and clear and courageous way.

So that raises the question: What duty does an individual from a marginalized group have to speak out? What responsibility do they have to their classmates and teachers to communicate their boundaries and to challenge insensitive views? 

Paul: While speaking up for one’s community is certainly laudable behavior, and one that many people feel called to do, I don’t believe marginalized individuals hold any sort of obligation to speak out against oppressive behavior or speech. Structural and interpersonal oppression is born of society’s failures, and so society and its constituent communities (in this case the academic community that is the University of Chicago) bear the responsibility of pushing against problematic behavior. Such outspokenness on the part of the marginalized can be encouraged, promoted and facilitated—especially during college—but it should never be demanded or expected.

This is the third installment of a three-part conversation on academic freedom, trigger warnings and safe spaces in the American university. Part one can be read here; part two is published here.

Photo credit: Anh Dinh, University of Chicago (CC BY / Flickr)

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