Before the Class of 2020 joined the University of Chicago community this fall, they received what has now become a controversial welcome letter, penned by Dean of Undergraduate Students Jay Ellison. In the letter, Ellison wrote: “Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship.” In addition to his promise of free speech, both within the academic realm and otherwise, he also insisted that UChicago's “academic freedom” does not allow for trigger warnings or safe spaces “where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Firstly, this topic's presence in a “Welcome to UChicago” letter is, in and of itself, rather strange. Yes, it is exciting to enter a place that prides itself on challenging conversation. However, a letter of this nature completely alienates students who need trigger warnings or safe spaces. Said practices and spaces quite literally make these students' college experience possible.
Those who support Ellison often argue that safe spaces and trigger warnings advocate for the suppression of free thought. However, Ellison's misunderstanding of these terms is most concerning. According to The New York Times, safe spaces formally surfaced in feminist groups of the 1960s and 1970s. They were, and continue to be, spaces where people of like experiences can gather and better understand their own identities and the larger cultures they are a part of. Safe spaces do not attempt to silence anyone. Rather, the vast majority of them advocate for a more inclusive campus atmosphere that allows students with certain experiences and identities to have the support resources that they need.
The same can be said for trigger warnings. For example, when professors preface certain material with trigger or content warnings, they do not do so with the intent of limiting academic freedom or depth of learning. They simply include these warnings to better prepare students who might have difficulty with the material due to past trauma. What results from trigger warnings is not the limitation of learning, but actually the expansion of it. These warnings make it possible for students to immerse themselves in material that they would have difficulty with otherwise.
That being said, as Ellison writes in his letter, institutions of higher learning like our own should not cancel potentially controversial speakers. Colleges should absolutely be places of free discourse, and no one should be barred from the community simply because they have unpopular views. However, the activism that we saw across college campuses throughout the country last year was, in fact, an exact exemplification of the free speech that many like Ellison are quick to defend. Student activism made national headlines as students from the University of Missouri, Princeton University, Occidental College, and nearly 50 others, according to Mother Jones, participated in protests to combat racism on their campuses.
Claremont McKenna College was the most widely affected out of all the 5Cs. After the college's administration failed to follow through on its commitment to create a resource center for students of color, CMC students began organizing for racial justice. In October 2015, more controversy arose when Dean of Students Mary Spellman, in an email to a Latina student who had written an article about her identity, wrote that the student “[did] not fit [the] CMC mold.” In addition, photos of students in sombreros and moustaches surfaced on social media after Halloween, prompting outrage among some students of color. Students then organized protests and even hunger strikes, leading to Spellman's resignation.
Last year's activism on the Claremont Colleges is proof that institutions like the 5Cs cannot pursue diversity of thought without accommodating for those who embody diverse identities. It is up to these institutions to appropriately and adequately accommodate students who help make the 5Cs a more multi-faceted and intellectually involved community. Trigger warnings, safe spaces, and campus activism that advocate for better support for marginalized identities actually work to create what Ellison envisions for UChicago, and by extension, all colleges: “a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds.” If our institutions cannot commit to such resources, they should be prepared for protests and demonstrations that embody the very free speech that Ellison encourages.
Tiara Sharma SC '20 is from Boston, MA. She plans on majoring in English and maybe Philosophy.