UChicago’s Letter Sparks Trigger Warning Debate


Each summer, incoming college freshmen receive a welcome letter from their future academic deans. However, for this year’s edition of that letter from the University of Chicago, John Ellison, the University’s Dean of Students, sent a letter that sounded more like a personal response to the upheaval and student protests that have occurred at campuses throughout the country rather than the usual bland reminder about the importance of academics and the deans’ availability.

The letter begins by noting that “once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” However, a paragraph later it bluntly attacks student concerns about safe spaces and trigger warnings, stating that:

“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 was eventually circulated on the internet, drawing criticism and praise from people of various political leanings. Among the letter’s detractors, Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, claimed that the letter was at least partially a publicity stunt, and that it was “not coddling students, but coddling donors.” Meanwhile supporters of the letter, including conservative institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, wrote that the letter “will make you stand up and cheer.” Mary Katherine Ham of The Federalist, however, claimed that it was “a sad commentary on higher education that [writing such a letter] is considered a brave and bold move.”

Since this letter came from a person in charge of undergraduate students at a university with almost twice as many graduate students as undergraduates, and since the UChicago administration has been noticeably silent when asked to comment, it is unclear where the letter lies on a spectrum ranging from a misguided attempt by an upper level college administrator to express his views on the past year to a statement of official college policy. Angus Johnston, a historian at CUNY, implied on Twitter that any institution’s opposition to trigger warnings would likely impinge on its faculty’s academic freedom to use them. However, I think that because this letter comes from a dean in charge of students, it is meant to suggest that the university does not support students bringing up these issues.

In contrast to UChicago, I think that administrators here at Connecticut College try their best to be supportive of student concerns about safe spaces and trigger warnings while maintaining an awareness of what the College wants students to experience during their four years here. However, my perspective is admittedly extremely limited given that I do not spend a lot of time thinking about these issues. Therefore, I decided to learn about what the administrators working in our Institutional Equity and Inclusion division thought about the letter.

One thing that people who I interviewed for this article told me was that while the letter had certainly caught the attention of the media, it highlighted issues they had been facing for some time. In explaining his views on the letter, Erin Duran, director of the LGBTQIA Center, said that the release of such a letter “wasn’t a huge surprise because I think these conversations have been happening for a while.” He then went on to note that the letter fits into the vein of articles that make the claim that American college students are overly “coddled,” including a prominent one that appeared in The Atlantic in September 2015. In Duran’s opinion “safe space, trigger warnings, and difficult discussions are not mutually exclusive.” He believes that, “the perspective that safe spaces or trigger warnings allow people to run away from things is a weak argument,”and that “it’s an argument from the perspective of someone who has never needed those spaces.”

During my interview with him, Duran asked me whether I had discussions with other students about the letter, and I had to admit that the only discussion I had about it was with The College Voice staff; even at a recent REF event I attended about safe spaces, brave spaces, and trigger warnings no one brought up the letter. Duran also said he had not been approached by students about the letter although he had conversations about it with his colleagues at Conn and other schools. While I am sure there are students here with concerns about this letter, the letter has not merited widespread scrutiny on campus, which suggests that students feel that our administration is doing a much better job fostering openness to safe spaces and trigger warnings.

Kathleen O’Reilly, interim coordinator of the Womxn’s Center, said that she “found it rather irresponsible of the University of Chicago to have issued basically a public statement…that more or less equates some minor discomfort once in awhile with being triggered…we’re talking about something that’s continual [such as repeated microaggressions], that’s systemic, and can go up the continuum to trauma related issues.”

Antonio Jefferson, the director of Unity House, the College’s multicultural center, also echoed O’Reilly’s statement on the letter’s irresponsibility and said that he felt that the campus community had seen the necessity of safe spaces. He felt the recent creation of an entire Division of Institutional Equity and Inclusion to oversee safe spaces and plan educational opportunities showed that the College is committed to working through these issues rather than brushing them aside.

Jefferson said that he sometimes has to “articulate” the function of Unity House rather than defend its existence to people, he claimed that “I would probably say I get more of ‘I want to know more about Unity House’ versus ‘why it exists.’” O’Reilly suggested that members of the campus community might lack awareness of the openness of Unity House and the Womxn’s and LGBTQIA Centers stating, that “It’s more that there might be some people who think ‘oh that’s not for me because I’m not one of ‘that’’ like a woman or sexual minority or racial or ethnic minority.” Jefferson also noted that a first for Unity House this semester was its use as a space for two classes, one of which is his first year seminar. He said that students who have class at Unity House who might not have otherwise come there get to discover the resources it provides such as its kitchen and lounge spaces.

O’Reilly noted that the decision to use the LGBTQIA and Womxn’s Centers and Unity House as viewing spaces for the first presidential debate was a good example of how safe spaces enhance the campus community. She speculated that students who chose to watch the debate at those spaces might have felt “that they weren’t in a polarizing place that they were in a place that would be safe from their perspective, and I think that’s a great response from the institution.”

Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion John McKnight went even further in his praise of the decision noting that both safe spaces and “generic spaces…are really important spaces to have, and students should have choices.” He went on to point out that “what has been missing from the national conversation about this is that there’s a developmental process that occurs in college. Students in their first year might be trying to find their way on campus, and they might be more inclined to pursue a safe space. They might need to kind of ease into what it means to be in this diverse of an environment.” McKnight noted that this process cannot be treated in a one size fits all fashion, and that safe spaces help some students with this process. He said he hoped that the developmental process would allow students to be able to venture into a wide variety of “braver spaces” by their senior year.

As someone who is still very new to the institution, McKnight feels that he has somewhat of an outsider’s perspective on how well we are doing to create such a process. He said that he felt we have done a great job on creating safe spaces, but not as much on fitting them into the overall four year experience at Conn. McKnight said he is currently working on communicating this process to students during orientation. He believes that the new curriculum is certainly addressing this issue, but that it also needs to be dealt with for programming outside of the classroom. McKnight observed that students will face being triggered and offended after college, and acknowledged that while “it doesn’t make it right that offense will continue to occur throughout one’s lifetime, it is a reality, and so I think a responsibility we have as educators is to help our students be prepared for those moments in their future.”

After discussing the letter with the administrators I realized that what makes this letter stand out among criticisms of safe spaces and trigger warnings is not the language it uses because similar language has been used many times before. Rather, it is the people it is addressed to that are important. This letter was sent out to incoming college freshmen, students who likely have very little understanding of the issues or how the institution works, and thus are easy to influence. The UChicago website contains information about their Office of LGBTQ Life’s Safe Space program, yet this dean wants his students to ignore the fact that his own institution supports these resources and entrust themselves to his vision of a student’s four year experience.

During his convocation address Dean McKnight said that “Here at Conn, we aspire to be more than just a safe space, but we want to be a brave space, where people courageously enter into risky or controversial territory and they do so with care and concern for this beloved community and with respect for the humanity of everyone in it.” This is a markedly different perspective on safe spaces than Dean Ellison of UChicago’s. Both agree that exposing students to a wide variety of viewpoints in a college education is vital, but it’s also important to support at least some outlets for them to process information and express themselves, so that they can be courageous. Ultimately, Ellison’s letter attempts to take those opportunities for student expression away.•