HYDE PARK — After a letter went out to incoming University of Chicago freshmen that the university would not support “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces,” some faculty members and students said the university already does these things and questioned whether officials understood what the terms mean.
One student government leader went as far as to call the university's dean of students, John Ellison, "out of touch" and ignorant of what's offered on campus.
On Wednesday, Ellison wrote a letter to incoming freshmen saying the school's dedication to academic freedom meant it would not support trigger warnings or safe spaces on campus. The letter quickly gained national attention in a debate about whether college students are too sheltered from controversial ideas.
Sam Cholke talks about the confusion being caused by the Dean's letter.
While practices vary from campus to campus, some professors use trigger warnings to alert students to content that deals with potentially traumatic issues like sexual violence, abuse or other controversial, graphic and sensitive topics.
Safe spaces are generally locations where individuals feel they can hang out without being harassed, attacked, unwelcome or fearful due to their race, gender, sexual orientation or identity — basically, hate crime-free zones.
The letter comes after several high-profile incidents took place on local campuses, including last spring when a College Republican event that featured conservative blogger Milo Yiannopoulos was shut down by Black Lives Matter protesters at DePaul University. After initially defending his right to speak, the university later banned Yiannopoulos from returning to campus.
On Thursday, Eric Holmberg, president of the executive committee of the student government at U. of C., questioned whether Ellison understood the terms because he conflated trigger warnings with the idea of cancelling controversial speakers on campus, which Holmberg said are separate issues.
He said the dean's letter was a “poor introduction to the intellectual environment” at the university and said giving warnings about a material’s graphic or traumatic content is meant to push for engagement, particularly at U. of C.
“Coming out against trigger warnings in the name of ‘academic freedom’ does suggest a misunderstanding of the term,” Holmberg said. “Incoming freshmen should be invited to participate in our active intellectual environment with their whole selves, but are instead being told that they must check their compassion and their experiences at the door.”
The campus was quiet on Thursday, with the fall quarter not scheduled to begin until Sept. 26, so it is still difficult to gauge how the administration’s position will be received as students and faculty return.
A handful of faculty that were on campus said there had been no discussion of trigger warnings or safe spaces prior to the letter by Ellison going out and labeled it a faux pas.
Professors, who declined to give their names, said the university's curriculum is full of graphic material and often deals with traumatic subject matters. They said they will give students some warning about the content, but said it should be at each instructor’s discretion.
Among those on campus, there was broad confusion about what the administration meant when it used the terms.
Simone Brandford-Altsher, who works with the Phoenix Survivors Alliance on campus, an organization that helps students that have experienced sexual violence, said the university already has trigger warnings on the section of its website about sexual misconduct.
“On their own, they added a button you could press that would immediately move you from the site when you press it, so that if something is upsetting you can navigate away as soon as possible,” Brandford-Altsher said.
She said she was unclear what Ellison meant by safe spaces and questioned whether the university would now no longer provide private rooms for students to confidentially discuss sexual violence with a dean, a measure set up in response to a federal investigation about how the university was handling sexual assault on campus.
“The administration has a huge problem with transparency, and they have been slow to address issues related to sexual violence, disability injustice, police discrimination and many more,” Brandford-Altsher said. “It is the administration that avoids issues that make its members uncomfortable, or that make them look bad.”
Ellison could not be reached for comment late Thursday. A university spokesman did not respond to questions about how Ellison meant trigger warnings and safe spaces to be interpreted.
Cosmo Albrecht, the community and government liaison for the student government, said safe spaces already exist on the campus, including a program called “Safe Space” at the LGBTQ Office of Student Life, and the university has paid to train much of its staff in safe spaces programs.
“Hundreds of people have taken the training and it has positively impacted many lives, including my own,” Albrecht said. “His ignorance of the very resources already at students' disposal suggests that this letter was nothing more than a publicity stunt and that he is wholly out-of-touch with University of Chicago students' daily lives.”
He said many parents and alumni probably believe the "coddled Millennials" narrative, which he said is not true of the university's students, and said he thinks it's a distraction from the federal investigation, complaints about campus police and efforts to unionize graduate students, all of which have sparked protests on campus.
Staff in the LGBTQ Office declined to comment on whether Ellison’s comments would affect the Safe Space program.
Read the letter from the dean here:
In a welcome letter to freshmen, the College made clear that it does not condone safe spaces or trigger warnings: pic.twitter.com/9ep3n0ZbgV— The Chicago Maroon (@ChicagoMaroon) August 24, 2016
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