University of Chicago denounces trigger warnings

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Naman Agarwal, Staff Writer

In an effort to promote intellectual and academic freedom, University of Chicago Dean of Students John “Jay” Ellison released a welcome letter to the class of 2020 that told the students that UChicago does not condone trigger warnings or “safe spaces” on campus, sparking nationwide controversy about values in higher education.

“[UChicago’s] 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,” Ellison said.

Ellison is responding to events on other campuses — in the past few years, several controversial speakers have cancelled events after an eruption of student protests. One of the earliest notable cancellations was that of New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s 2013 speech at Brown University. Students opposed the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, which allows police to stop and search any pedestrian given some suspicion. The students shouted protests until Kelly was inaudible, forcing him to cancel the speech. Supporters believe that protesters are contributing to campus free speech by adding to educational discourse, while detractors believe that these forms of protest are censoring speakers. Since then, controversies over campus speakers have become commonplace.

Beyond speaking events, disputes have also arisen over college course content. Students who have had traumatic experiences have requested exemptions from coursework or lectures that deal with material that might lead to discomfort. However, some argue that part of higher education is feeling uncomfortable and that trigger warnings or content modifications are unnecessary censorship. For example, Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk argued that requests to not discuss rape law or use the word “violate” in criminal law classes would lead to less-prepared lawyers.

UChicago’s decision to choose academic freedom over safe spaces has been celebrated by some and scorned by others. Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute blogged, “I’m delighted to join the many people spreading the news today that the University of Chicago, my graduate alma mater, is bucking the trend at colleges and universities across the country by refusing to pander to the delicate but demanding ‘snowflakes’ and ‘crybullies’ who’ve tyrannized American campuses over the past few years.”

Senior Surya Veeravalli believes students cannot learn properly with safe spaces.

“I feel like students shouldn’t be able to run away from all their problems—the only way to conquer them is to face them,” Veeravalli said. “Student awareness is built through exposure, not hiding.”

Others, like professor of history Kevin Gannon, believe that UChicago’s decision stifles students and hurts campus culture.

“The Chicago letter reeks of arrogance, of a sense of entitlement, of an exclusionary mindset — in other words, the very things it seeks to inveigh against. It’s not about academic freedom; it’s about power. Know your place, and acknowledge ours, it tells the students. We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it,” Gannon said.

Ultimately, striking a balance between egalitarianism and intellectual freedom proves difficult for higher education institutions. Schools like Brown and Northwestern University have publicly stated their support of safe spaces, while the University of Chicago has chosen to side with freedom of expression instead.

Special education teacher David Fehlberg believes that Fremd, too, balances students’ social-emotional well-being while maintaining an academic culture.

“Teachers at Fremd are very cognizant of the growing diversity of our student population,” Fehlberg said. “Staff promote social-emotional learning and put the social/emotional well-being of their students at the forefront of curricular and instructional decisions, and also provide students with the skills and perseverance needed to succeed in their post-secondary pursuits.”

For seniors applying to schools, campus politics may play a role in a student’s fit with the college.

Senior Emma Liu believes that campus politics only matters if it dominates the campus culture.

“It’s not extremely important to me unless for some reason the entire atmosphere of the school revolves around that one aspect, like a religious school,” Liu said.

Senior Abhay Adhyapak agrees, mentioning that political policies can affect his perception of a school.

“Generally, campus politics don’t matter to me that much,” Adhyapak said. “However, in some cases, like for example UT Austin’s concealed carry policy, I think that kind of campus culture can be somewhat alarming.”