The University of Chicago, one of America’s most prestigious and selective universities, is warning incoming students starting this fall not to expect safe spaces and a trigger-free existence during their four-year journey through academia.
In a letter sent to the class of 2020, Dean of Students John (Jay) Ellison said one of the defining characteristics of the school was its unwavering commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. Civility and mutual respect are vital to the campus culture, the letter states, but not at the expense of shielding students from unpopular opinions or ideas.
“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 states.
The University of Chicago is consistently ranked one of the top universities in the world, and also one of the most selective. Only about 8% of the more than 31,000 people who applied to enter the class of 2020 were accepted by the school.
The warning from Chicago stands in sharp contrast to many other American universities that have gone out of their way to coddle students by protecting them from ideas they may find offensive or disturbing.
So-called trigger warnings have been issued over everything from newspaper opinion pieces to art exhibits to reading assignments so that students who might find the content distressing or disturbing can avoid being exposed to it.
Safe spaces, where students can shelter from ideas or expression they find discomforting, are the other trend du jour on some campuses. Brown University last year turned a room on campus into a safe space by outfitting it with cookies, coloring books, soft music, pillows and a video of frolicking puppies, along with trauma counselors, after students complained that a speaker invited to campus would be too upsetting.
The University of Chicago is having none of it. To drive home the point, the letter to students includes a link to a report on freedom of expression issued by the university in January 2015. The report quotes a former president of the University, Hanna Holborn Gray, as saying that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.
“Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom,” she stated.