For those of you unaware of what this article is focused on, The University of Chicago, through the Dean of Students, recently sent out a letter to all incoming students (which can be read in its entirety here) stating that the " [University of Chicago's] commitment to academic freedom means that we do no 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."
I just started graduate school in the Higher Education - Student Affairs (HESA) profession, so I am, in no way, an expert when it comes to how colleges and universities work, nor am I an expert on psychology. Despite both of those things, I am very upset about the acceptance letter that you sent out to the Class of 2020 and its specific attack on safe spaces and trigger warnings. It does seem as if you do not understand what either of these things means, so let’s start with defining them, shall we?
A SAFE SPACE is a space for individuals who are marginalized to come together to communicate regarding their experiences with marginalization, typically on a university campus. A TRIGGER WARNING is a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material. Both of these terms exist because of the traumatic experiences that happen in life, maybe through sexual violence; mental, physical, or sexual abuse or living within a marginalized community that extends through race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and gender expression, religious affiliation, etc.
You are shutting down both of these concepts to defend your right to academic freedom, correct? How is giving marginalized students space where they can discuss their experiences tearing down your academic freedom? This sounds like an easy way out of not demanding higher standards for your teaching faculty, as you’re giving your faculty the ability to disregard a convention that exists to ensure that students who have survived traumatic experiences. Does this apply to veterans who may have their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) triggered by loud sounds or jump scares? How about the fact that a survivor of domestic violence or sexual assault has to relive a moment in their life where they were powerless and violated? How does giving your students the ability to prepare or remove themselves from something that could potentially cause them to relive traumatic experiences damage your academic freedom?
I am a survivor of sexual assault, from someone everyone thought was a good and decent person and who I had trusted on several occasions. Discussion of rape and sexual assault will cause me to revert to that night, feeling powerless and violated and disgusted, so I understand the benefit of having these trigger warnings. Does this mean that I walk away from these conversations? No, I cannot afford to remove myself completely from that conversation but I’ve also had years to work through these issues.
To subject people to this who are still dealing with the ramifications that come with being a survivor of sexual assault or rape is cruel and merciless, but you only care about allowing your teaching faculty to talk about whatever they want freely. Screw the students and the delicate path they walk to make it through school and life, they’re the reason you’re able to fund yourself and continue to function as some martyr for higher education fighting for the right to teach methodology unattached from reality.
Next let’s talk about the student population that you have, in a rough estimate. According to the Class of 2019 survey, nearly 61 percent of your student body are people of color, 49 percent identify as female, and just over 13 percent of your students are international. This policy to eliminate safe spaces and trigger words has the possibility of alienating over half of over your student population because you’re throwing a tantrum about being flexible with your teaching methods.
Do you think the funding from your student population will continue to grow once you’ve established yourself as an institution who cares more about its faculty and academics than those its purpose is to serve? Is this because the majority of your faculty doesn’t reflect the racial makeup of your student body, and you’re just willing to pass off unintentional racism as your students being too coddled or protected?
I am disappointed in you, University of Chicago. Your desire to remain an institution of higher learning with high academic standards isn’t being challenged by the need to protect your students, it just seems to be motivated to protect your faculty from having to be trained and taught how to interact with their students.