BY HANK REICHMAN
In a widely publicized letter to incoming freshmen this week, University of Chicago (UC) Dean of Students John Ellison offered a bold defense of academic freedom and freedom of expression, which included this sentence:
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, which in other respects amounts to a rather standard defense of both academic freedom and civility, has been welcomed by some as an overdue rebuke to unruly student protesters. Conservatives largely praised it; for instance, the Heritage Foundation wrote on Facebook that “the letter will make you stand up and cheer.” Others have been more skeptical, however. One historian quoted by the New York Times, called it “a manifesto looking for an audience” that “relies on caricature and bogeymen rather than reason and nuance.” Others, including Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson, asked “who exactly is this letter meant to welcome?”
On this blog, John Wilson went after the glaring hypocrisy of the letter, noting, first, that a ban on trigger warnings would itself be a violation of faculty academic freedom and that “safe spaces” are essential to true freedom of expression. Wilson goes on in great and damning detail to demonstrate that despite UC’s often lofty language, in practice the university’s actual policies are “full of arbitrary power, lack of due process, and multiple disciplinary systems that are never adequately explained.” Indeed, Wilson convincingly concludes, “The University of Chicago is trying to sell a brand identity as a university opposed to political correctness, one where freedom of speech prevails. Unfortunately, its policies don’t match its rhetoric, and its rhetoric often displays a lack of understanding about freedom of speech.”
Everyone should read John’s post, if you haven’t done so already. But I think there’s even more to say about the UC letter and the Chicago administration”s self-righteous hypocrisy. For it is not just the school’s policies that are at odds with its supposed principles. It’s also the administration’s actions, most recently their attempt to expel outgoing student body president Tyler Kissinger, which I discussed on this blog in May. The Kissinger case demonstrates clearly how in practice UC is more than willing to punish students for their speech. After failing repeatedly to get the administration to discuss publicly its opposition to efforts by university workers to win union recognition, Kissinger led a demonstration of more than 200 students, which included a very brief sit-in by about 30 students. Only Kissinger was singled out for discipline, however. In response, 187 faculty members signed a petition sponsored by the campus AAUP chapter, which declared, “The draconian punishment threatened against Kissinger chills dissent. Notably, too, it stands in troubling contrast with the enlightened approach of other universities in addressing campus protest.”
That the university would now specifically target proposals for “trigger warnings,” suggesting, as Wilson points out, that these might even be banned, is troubling. Like Wilson, I oppose trigger warning requirements and I am highly skeptical about the advisability of such warnings. As the AAUP Committee A statement “On Trigger Warnings,” notes, “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement.” While I can readily imagine situations in which I might wish to alert my students to potentially unsettling or controversial material, there is no way I or any other faculty member could predict what material or topics might “trigger” a negative psychological response from any given student. Moreover, I must equally be concerned that any warnings I might issue could inadvertently suggest to students that the topic about which they are being warned is somehow one that they might be advised to steer away from discussing openly and frankly. So my inclination is to avoid this practice.
But the real issue is not individual faculty preferences, but university policies. “On Trigger Warnings” clearly states:
Institutional requirements or even suggestions that faculty use trigger warnings interfere with faculty academic freedom in the choice of course materials and teaching methods. Faculty might feel pressured into notifying students about course content for fear that some students might find it disturbing. Of course there may be instances in which a teacher judges it necessary to alert students to potentially difficult material and that is his or her right. Administrative requirements are different from individual faculty decisions. Administration regulation constitutes interference with academic freedom; faculty judgment is a legitimate exercise of autonomy.
Hence there is no purpose at all to be served by a university administrator issuing a blanket statement about such warnings, either pro or con. Indeed, the irony here is that Ellison’s letter itself is a kind of meta-trigger warning! He writes: “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” (emphasis added). Note that last sentence. It’s a trigger warning, is it not? Yet the very next sentence in the letter declares that the university does not support trigger warnings! As Jay Michaelson wrote, the letter basically tells incoming students, “Beware, you will not receive trigger warnings at the University of Chicago. Consider this your trigger warning.”
As for “safe spaces,” the hypocrisy is even more glaring. For the UC administration itself enthusiastically sponsors “safe spaces”! Follow this link and you will be directed to the website of the official University of Chicago LGBTQ Student Life Safe Space. Here we read: “Safe Space educates the University of Chicago community on the challenges that many LGBTQ students experience through trainings and supports LGBTQ students by developing an ally network and creating welcoming physical spaces for the UChicago LGBTQ community.”
Now not only do I have nothing against this effort to make UC more welcoming for LGBTQ students, I applaud it. But one must ask, how does this comport with Dean Ellison’s blanket declaration that “we do not condone” the creation of “intellectual ‘safe spaces.'” Does the dean somehow believe that none of the activity at the UC LGBTQ Safe Space involves intellectual endeavors? Does he actually suppose that the students there avoid discussing ideas in the safe space provided by a university that does not condone intellectual safe spaces? As the University of California at Berkeley economic historian Bradford DeLong wrote on his blog, “a university is first of all, a safe space for ideas; second, a safe place for scholars.” As such, “to say that you are against safe spaces, without immediately saying that the two overriding purposes of the university are to be a safe space for ideas and for its members as scholars is . . . unprofessional.”
Then there is the letter’s declaration that “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial.” I agree; they shouldn’t. But that’s hardly the point. Why not instead encourage students to invite speakers they want to hear? Why not indicate that students who disagree with a speaker’s viewpoint are free to protest that speaker’s presence, so long as they do not deprive others of the right to hear that speaker? Without any such indications, the message is clear: Accept the speakers we want you to hear; don’t protest, don’t organize opposition, don’t speak out yourselves.
Of course, as several commentators have noted, the real audience for this letter is neither incoming or continuing students, or for that matter UC faculty. It is parents and potential donors. Jay Michaelson makes the point well:
Just two weeks before the dean’s letter, The New York Times ran a lengthy investigation of the decline of donations to Yale, Princeton, and Amherst, profiling seven old white guys (aged 57 to 86) who were writing the colleges out of their will, penning angry letters to student newspapers, and the like.
According to the article, 29 percent of small, liberal arts colleges reported a decline in donations between 2015 and 2016. At Amherst, the alumni participation rate dropped to its lowest level since 1975, when the college began admitting women.
Another report described a drop in donations to the University of Missouri in the wake of now-former professor Melissa Click, who cursed at a police officer and tried to prevent journalists from approaching a student protest.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a letter from the dean telling U Chicago students not to be babies.
Considering that anti-P.C. crusaders often depict students as humorless brats—“they missed irony class that day” said one frustrated Yalie—there were a lot of ironies in the Chicago letter. . . . .
That’s why it’s clear that this letter’s true audience was not the students to which it was addressed, but the alumni who can now read it on the right-wing blogosphere. . . . After all, for every one Amherst alumnus dismayed at the renunciation of Lord Jeffrey Amherst (who advocated the genocide of Native Americans by spreading smallpox among them), there are hundreds of conservative Chicago alumni. This, after all, is where neo-conservatism was born.
This letter, in other words, was a prime example of virtue signaling, which is when a person makes a statement merely to burnish their credentials within an ideological community. Look at me, the letter says, I oppose political correctness. And that’s pretty much all it says.
In short, the letter — or at least its self-aggrandizing denunciation of “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and speaker cancellations — is less about freedom of expression and more about power. “By coincidence,” notes Michaelson,
the U Chicago dean’s letter came out the same week that the National Labor Relations Board ruled that teaching and research assistants, who work for years as barely-paid serfs, and who until now have frequently been banned from organizing a union, are entitled to do so. The University of Chicago sent out another letter, this time to all faculty and graduate students, alleging (with no evidence, since none exists) that such a union could “be detrimental to students’ education and preparation for future careers.”
One of the most perceptive analyses of the letter’s real relationship to free expression and power came from a UC student, Malloy Owen, writing on the website of The American Conservative, where he is an editorial assistant. I can’t agree with all of Owen’s points, and I certainly don’t share his apparent political proclivities, but his take on this is quite enlightening and very much worth reading. Here is some of what he writes:
. . . having sat through two years’ worth of classes at Chicago—which is, remember, a university that prides itself on its students’ intellectual curiosity and commitment to the truth—I understand something of what campus activists are complaining about.
The protesters whom the campus right claims are destroying free speech often portray themselves as the real guardians of free speech, claiming that in a predominantly and historically white institution, the free exchange of ideas is structurally constrained to favor ideas that originate in privileged groups. The unspoken and unproven corollary is that “privileged ideas” are categorically different from “underprivileged ideas,” but in a nation as divided as ours, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that that’s occasionally going to be the case.
Here’s what the campus left says: Imagine a core social-science seminar in which the conversation turns to police brutality and racial bias. If the class consists of 20 students and reflects the racial composition of the college, one or two of them will be black. If these students’ attitudes towards police brutality reflect national averages, the black students will see a connection between police brutality and racial bias while a majority of their classmates won’t.
I can say from experience that young, intelligent, accomplished, opinionated, and arrogant students like the ones who populate classes at Chicago are not always attuned to other people’s most deeply felt concerns. What might be an intensely personal issue for the black students could easily be dismissed out of hand by the white majority.
The right tends to ask, well, why don’t the black students just speak up? But the point is that at the University of Chicago, speaking up is not always a simple or risk-free enterprise. You can perform the same thought experiment about rape victims in a discussion that touches on sexual violence: it’s not difficult to imagine how the noisy majority that knows only what it’s read in the newspaper could make class hard to bear for victims of severe trauma. . . .
Pressures on liberal education come from the left and the right—although those terms are inadequate approximations, since campus politics never map well onto the real world. From the left come the campus activists, who believe, more or less, that Chicago’s traditional fetishization of rigor and the Western canon is almost literally destroying the lives of marginalized students. They are brilliant, well-armed with proof texts, and committed to transforming American higher education from the inside out. It’s their ideas and actions that so many universities across the country have reluctantly half-accepted and that Chicago prides itself on resisting.
On the right, there are the future consultants, the pre-professionals, the “organization kids.” They run the College Republicans, and for that matter the UC Democrats; they’re Chicago’s equivalent to the bipartisan coastal elite we hear so much about these days. They want to have fun at college and get some networking done, activities that often overlap if you play your cards right. For them, the core curriculum is a distraction (and sometimes a threat to their GPAs) and amenities are essential. When students complain online about grade inflation, gleaming dorms, and the rapid expansion of the fraternity system, they tend to respond with confusion or disbelief. They too are frighteningly smart; they know what they want out of life, and they are glad to have come to a school that is starting to figure out how to help them get it. They are unsympathetic or even actively opposed to calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces, but, crucially, they also seem uninterested in the kind of abstract, freewheeling debate that the campus left is trying to constrain. . . .
But while university administrators have made concessions to both sides, the pre-professionals are winning. In an effort to attract the well-connected, multi-talented students who populate Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, Chicago has been trying to shake off its monastic reputation for the past two decades. . . .
[T]he university spends enormous sums on glass-fronted residential complexes, state-of-the-art student-recreation centers, a large and growing private army of security guards to assuage parents’ fears about the South Side, and a complex and well-funded career-advancement program. Robert Maynard Hutchins’s university is being managed like a multinational business. Chicago is making a bold investment in the kinds of programs and amenities that attract students with futures in finance—the future major donors of the world. And it’s paying off: the acceptance rate has dropped from 68 percent in 1995 to 7.6 percent this spring, while the percentage of applicants who accept offers of admission has risen sharply. Meanwhile, fully 20 percent of last year’s graduates went straight into jobs in finance or consulting. President Robert J. Zimmer and his colleagues have turned the UChicago brand around.
The war over trigger warnings and safe spaces, which was renewed this week in various online fora, suggests that this dramatic transformation has come at a heavy cost. In a conversation about how we treat one another in the classroom, it might be worth asking how exactly we might learn to make a place for one another, to acknowledge and respect the variety of human experience and suffering, to move beyond the intellectual arrogance that prevents us from having interesting, civil conversations about deeply personal problems. As it happens, those are some of the core aspirations of liberal education.
At one time, the University of Chicago might have been thought to be the one place above all others that was capable of preparing its students to acquit themselves well in difficult, valuable conversations about race, class, and violence. As my experience in seminars attests, though, Chicago is no longer fully committed to humanizing its students the old-fashioned way, through books and discussion. The left’s attacks on free speech may endanger the academic project, but the greater threat to the free exchange of ideas comes from academic corporatization. As long as that process continues unchecked, the university’s bold rhetorical defense of an art that it no longer teaches us how to practice will be nothing better than posturing.
This conclusion, with which I agree, stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, a highly distinguished scholar of the First Amendment and academic freedom, in an essay appearing this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Free Expression in Peril.” While it would seem to be more than a coincidence that the essay appeared almost simultaneously with the Ellison letter, that letter is not mentioned by Stone and, it must be acknowledged, Stone’s approach to “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and controversial speakers is more nuanced than that of his institution’s ham-fisted dean of students. There is no space here to respond to the entirety of the Stone essay, but I want to take strong issue with its central contention, articulated starkly in the very first paragraph:
Until recently, and for roughly half a century, American universities enjoyed an era of relatively robust academic freedom. In the past few years, though, that has changed. Ironically, the threat to academic freedom in the United States today comes not from government and not from the institutions themselves but from a new generation of students who do not understand the nature, the fragility, and the importance of this principle.
I will put aside for now Stone’s failure even to acknowledge that today’s students might have a rather different socio-economic profile and engage in different forms of communication than previous generations, and go straight to the argument itself. It’s dead wrong. Malloy Owen, a student conservative, is far closer to the truth: the main danger to academic freedom and free expression today comes not from students, either on the left or on the right, but from “academic corporatization.” Does Stone really mean to suggest that a handful of protesting students, seeking safe spaces or trigger warnings, offended or even threatened by casual racism, fearful of sexual assault and harassment, are more dangerous than the Koch brothers’ efforts to fund ideologically skewed research “centers?” Does he think protesting students were behind the politically motivated dismissal of Steven Salaita? And at the University of Missouri, which posed a greater danger to academic freedom: peaceful student protests against a callous, racially insensitive administration that soon lost the support of its faculty, or the concerted effort by legislators and trustees to ride roughshod over university policies to engineer the dismissal of a faculty member sympathetic to those protests, Melissa Click, with not even a shred of due process? Does he really think that a relatively small number of mostly peaceful protesters, many of whom are still in their teens, are more dangerous to freedom than the massive erosion of the tenure system, academia’s historic mechanism for the protection of academic freedom, that has led more than half the classes in American institutions — and I would include the University of Chicago here — to be taught by part-time “adjunct” faculty with tenuous job security at best and few, if any, genuine protections for academic freedom?
Stone is not alone in this troubling view that students, not administrators, donors, and corporatizers, pose the real threat to freedom on campus. Such views are apparently spreading among otherwise admirable supporters of liberal academic freedom at some elite institutions. So, for instance, this spring Jonathan Cole, former provost at Columbia University, wrote an article making a similar argument (although Cole was more concerned with administrative acquiescence in student-initiated violations of free expression rights). I discussed Cole’s article at length on this blog, and much of my argument there can be readdressed to Stone’s more blatant version of it as well.
Do student protesters sometimes threaten free expression? Yes, they sometimes do. But, as I have previously argued,
it’s necessary to credit the students for their courage and determination in addressing the sometimes unconscious but nonetheless real and persistent racism that infects our society and our campuses. In doing so, they have made and will again make mistakes. They will offend others even as they respond to deeper offenses against their own dignity. They may demonstrate indifference to the rights of others, as protesters everywhere always have. But, in doing so, they will learn. And that, it seems to me, is the essential point. Student academic freedom, in the final analysis, is about the freedom to learn. And learning is impossible without error.
What is therefore most remarkable about today’s student movements is not their alleged intolerance or immaturity. It is not their intemperance or supposed oversensitivity to insult and indifference. It is that they have begun to grapple with issues that their elders have resisted tackling for far too long.
Cole, I continued,
is silent about the vastly more threatening challenges to free expression in the great majority of public institutions posed by inappropriate political interference (see Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, or Virginia) and massive public disinvestment (see, well, everywhere). Can it really be said that academic freedom is more gravely threatened by student demands for “safe spaces,” no matter how misguided, than it is by these phenomena or by other troubling aspects of the modern university’s growing corporatization? Are student demands to rename buildings more dangerous to free expression than the increasing power that donors, granting agencies, and governments have in how colleges and universities make use of the resources they provide? Is concern over discussion of a racial slur in class more threatening to freedom than the ever-growing censorship of student publications and other media by administrations obsessed above all with their institution’s “image?”
In an essay titled “Does Academic Freedom Have a Future?” that I published in the November-December 2015 issue of Academe, I noted these and other challenges not only to the faculty’s academic freedom but to the free expression of students as well. In that essay I pointed out how “the rapidly expanding use of social media has seemingly intensified controversy. In a growing and distressing trend, college and university administrators, as well as politicians and journalists, may treat faculty e-mails, Facebook posts, and Twitter messages as somehow exempt from the full protections of academic freedom and, arguably, the First Amendment.” And certainly such restrictions can be and far too frequently are applied to student expression as well. Can it really be said that student protests are somehow more threatening than this ominous trend?
Let me conclude with one final quote, this time from an op-ed piece on Inside Higher Ed by writer John Warner, who calls the Ellison letter
an attempted vaccine against something for which there is no cure because it isn’t a disease. The letter is an attempt to inoculate the community against the fallout that happens from the inevitable conflicts and clashes that must happen in places of learning made up of different people with different ideas.
The U of C letter declares a desire for freedom without having to deal with the byproducts of that conflict.
I do not know how we achieve the ideals we all hold without that kind of conflict, without mistakes being made on all sides of a debate, without there being messes to clean up.
I happen to believe these values and our institutions are resilient enough to meet those challenges. The University of Chicago seems to not be so sure about that so it welcomes its students with a shot across their collective bows.
I suppose you could argue that the letter is an argument for a “safe space” for administration, but that can’t be the case because the University of Chicago doesn’t condone such things.