Dear University of Chicago,
The New York Times says that you are striking back against political correctness. In your letter to incoming freshman, you stated that your "commitment to academic freedom means that you do not support 'so-called' trigger warnings." So-called. To me, that means that you don't believe in the legitimacy of trigger warnings, or their dangers, which makes me question whether or not you understand what triggers are. Triggers exhibit emotional responses; they can induce panic attacks or other forms of anxiety related responses that will not allow the student to have the same experience as one of their classmates. There is a difference in preserving academic integrity by addressing topics that are controversial, and causing a student to have a breakdown because you thought that including a warning about the intensity of a particular subject would distract from academic freedom.
I will say that I support your decision to expose your students to unique points of view, and that the desire to challenge them by showing them beliefs different from their own is important, however I would also like to say, as someone with anxiety, trigger warnings matter. They matter because not everyone has had a blissful existence. Not everyone is physically capable of talking about sexual assault without having a panic attack. Trigger warnings matter because rather than distracting from learning, they make it manageable. It gives students time to prepare for what could be, at the very least an emotional discussion, and at the very worst a painful one.
You have stated that it is not your place to shield individuals away from opposing views that they may find offensive, which you are right about. You are also missing the points. When I was seeing a psychologist to deal with my own anxiety, we talked a lot about triggers. Do you know what trigger warnings are for? Trigger warnings are less for people who will find topics uncomfortable and more for people who truly can not handle them. Background is important. A sexual assault victim may not be able to sit in a classroom and talk about rape, and that has absolutely nothing to do with anything that student may find deeply offensive.
You are not alone in this controversy by any means. Universities before you have faced backlash for similar issues but you are large and well-known and prestigious, so you get the attention. You have standards to set, I'm sure, and standards to meet. Perhaps it is a bit harsh to say that you are sacrificing the well-being of your students for this policy, but you are certainly forgetting about some of them. You are forgetting about those with backgrounds a little rough around the edges, the ones who have lived these academic conversations you want to have. You are forgetting that what you are exposing them to is a very personal kind of pain, one that shouldn't be forced on someone for the sake of academic freedom.
You have made this policy about awareness, about learning how to survive in the real world. Good for you. You're right, students should be prepared to deal with complex opinions different from their own. Students should also not be forced to relive their own traumas because you think that it would distract from academic freedom. This letter will join the many that have been written since your letter to incoming freshman was delivered, and I am sure that it will escape your notice, but your error hasn't escaped mine.