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U. of C. warns new students: No ‘safe spaces,’ ‘trigger warnings’

Graduate students at the University of Chicago voted in October 2017 to form a union. | Getty Images

The University of Chicago welcomed the Class of 2020 to the simmering national debate over free speech on college campuses with a letter informing incoming students not to expect “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings” on the Midway.

In an undated letter posted on Twitter on Wednesday by the student newspaper, The Maroon, Dean of Students John “Jay” Ellison delivered to students a manifesto on the elite college’s commitment to “rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement.”

“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,” Ellison wrote.

The U. of C. has not seen the sort of student outcry that shut down speeches by conservatives speakers at DePaul twice last year, but university leaders have repeatedly waded into the national debate over the perceived threat to academic debate that some say is posed by an increasingly thin-skinned tenor of college protest.

The university’s stance received plaudits from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group that monitors free speech issues on college campuses.

“It’s very positive,” said Samantha Harris, director of policy research for FIRE. “Over the past few years, we’ve really seen an increase in the demands for censorship and a chilling effect on speech, coming from students themselves.”

Harris noted the university made clear that U. of C. is not giving license to harassment, and the group spoke to university officials with questions on whether the school was outlawing “trigger warnings,” a ban the group thought could abridge the academic freedom of professors who want to give warnings. U. of C. officials told FIRE there was no ban. Trigger warnings refer to the practice of announcing in advance material that might be offensive or uncomfortable for certain groups, such as images of violence.

Ellison’s letter goes on to refer the incoming students to review a monograph by Dean John W. Boyer, titled “Academic Freedom and the Modern University” recounting the school’s “history of debate, and even scandal, resulting from our commitment to academic freedom” as well as a university web page about free expression.

Based on more recent history, former student body president Tyler Kissinger said the letter seemed overly self-congratulatory — and hypocritical.

Last spring, Kissinger was nearly barred from graduation for helping protesters enter a campus building to hold a sit-in over graduate student wages and divesting the university’s holdings tied to fossil fuels.

“We did that after trying to hold meetings with the administration for months and months,” Kissinger recalled. “They really weren’t interested in having any discussion with us.

Kissinger also noted that the letter’s ambiguous statement that they don’t condone “safe spaces” seemed insensitive, given an ongoing federal Department of Education investigation of the university’s handling of sexual assaults. He also noted the campus is covered in stickers promoting the Safe Space program, supported by the university’s Office of LGBTQ Student Life.

“They really don’t meet their own standards on discussion and debate,” Kissinger said. “I think this is kind of a flashy statement to get them media attention.”

A spokesman for the U. of C. did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.