In a letter sent to incoming freshmen to the University of Chicago, the class of 2020 got a pat on the back from the Dean's Office for their acceptance to the prestigious school, along with a clear message that the U of C is not supportive of "safe spaces" or the use of trigger warnings on campus. The school's newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, reported Wednesday that the Dean of Students, Jay Ellison advised new students that:
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 also stated that "Freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others."
For anyone who may not know (including U of C's Dean of Students), a trigger warning is an advisory that comes before sensitive content (be it an article online, a lecture, or a film), alerting readers that the material may provoke feelings of distress or anxiety for those with trauma related to the material. A safe space is a community, meeting, online forum, etc. where marginalized people can talk freely with the expectation they won't be treated with aggression or have their experiences of oppression invalidated.
Maroon reported that Ellison's letter comes after a year of "free speech" tension on campus. Several campus visitors were shut down by protesters during the last academic year. After the college's Republican Club tried to pass a resolution to condemn students from "obstructing free speech," the student government ultimately declined.
The Maroon reported some students have been supportive of Ellison's letter, interpreting it as a sign the school is committed to free speech on campus. Others are less pleased, arguing the lack of support for safe spaces and absence of trigger warnings will protect hate speech.
Aida Manduley, a therapist and sex educator, told Complex in a statement trigger warnings are in fact a crucial part of education:
Trigger-warnings and content warnings, at their useful core, are not a frivolous invention to facilitate censorship, push away difficult conversations, or avoid rigorous intellectual inquiry. Instead, they are a tool for autonomy and empowerment, giving people information so that they may make the best choices for themselves regarding how to interact with something, be it a piece of media or even a conversation.
The letter sent to new freshmen gained traction Thursday, drawing both heavy criticism and praise on social media from the general public and alumni:
While every university campus has its problems (hence the creation and advocacy for safe spaces and trigger warnings from students), the University of Chicago has come under national scrutiny in recent years, especially regarding rape culture and racism.
In February, Buzzfeed reported on leaked emails from members of the U of C chapter of AEPi, a historically Jewish fraternity, which revealed a culture of racism within the frat. Emails obtained by Buzzfeed contained anti-Muslim and anti-black sentiments.
A professor of molecular biology also resigned in February in light of sexual harassment allegations. In 2014, the academic world was rocked when U of C students published a "rapist list," naming male students who U of C women say sexually harassed or sexually assaulted them. The school was investigated the same year for violated Title IX and mishandling sexual assault allegations.
Again, these problems aren't unique to the University of Chicago, and neither is the debate around campus safe spaces and use of trigger warnings in academic settings. But for many, it seems that Ellison's letter to incoming freshman demonstrates either that the school isn't sufficiently interested in making U of C a place where all students can thrive or it just doesn't understand what safe spaces and trigger warnings are.
The University of Chicago did not immediately reply to Complex's request for comment.