The University of Chicago drew controversy last week when its Dean of Students, John (Jay) Ellison, wrote a letter to their incoming freshman class opposing the creation of safe spaces. The validity of safe spaces has generated endless posts and think pieces, all grappling with the supposed conflict between ensuring tolerant student environments and the freedom of speech.
But there isn’t a conflict. Safe spaces will always be an essential part of student participation on college campuses.
Universities across the country have struggled to form an appropriate response to this increased demand for so-called “safe spaces,” culminating in UChicago’s troubling opposition to places where students “can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” Last fall, the issue reached a boiling point as multiple campuses across the country erupted in massive student protests centered around students’ experiences with racism. Amid the strife with administrators and fellow students, the new activist vocabulary of “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions” filtered into the mainstream.
Those who decry the creation of safe spaces often have very little idea of what they actually are. Safe spaces are simply places where people, especially those who face marginalization, can feel comfortable enough to talk about their experiences. These spaces are not assaults on freedom of speech, or even just places where progressive millennial cry-babies go to lick their wounds — they are vital, thriving hubs of conversation and student activism.
On a campus such as UT, where minority students can feel invisible in the midst of an overwhelmingly white student body, “safe spaces” are places to seek out others like ourselves in order to, if you will, confirm that we exist and that our experiences are valid. These spaces manifest in the form of clubs and religious organizations, as well as UT-sanctioned spaces like the Gender and Sexuality Center and the Multicultural Engagement Center.
Amazingly, a great amount of learning and dialogue erupts from these places, and the conversations are not always comfortable. Last year in the MEC, the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective facilitated a dialogue between members of the Asian and black communities on campus about the case of Peter Liang, an Asian-American NYPD officer who shot and killed Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man. While the ensuing conversation about the role of Asian-Americans solidarity in protests of police brutality may have been uncomfortable for some, it was ultimately necessary. But that conversation could only take place in a space where students could feel respected and free enough to voice their experience.
By hiding behind phrases like “protecting academic freedom,” universities mask the fact that they are only protecting the hegemonic belief systems and the students who are already powerful. No one who understands the function of university wants to hinder academic freedom — it’s a given that challenging ideas and novel perspectives in the classroom are instrumental to the intellectual growth of students. But when a university attempts to shut down these centers of activism, the stifling of student’s perspectives is the true breach of the protection of academic freedom.
UChicago’s letter conjures the worst caricature of entitled millennials, a lie made up by those who refuse to take the experience of those who have faced discrimination and trauma seriously. Every university wants to claim diversity as a strength of its student body, but one cannot do so if it offers no support to its minority students.
But hey — I’m just a millennial. So I’ll be crying in my safe space until all these ideas that I don’t agree with finally go away.
Nemawarkar is a Plan II sophomore from Austin. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @janhavin97.