Friday, August 26, 2016

Fear and Safety at the University of Chicago

By Finbarr Curtis

On a short trip a few summers ago, I decided to visit the University of Chicago. As I looked for directions on the university website, I found routes by bus and light rail but noticed that it said nothing about the elevated subway that stopped close by. As I was staying close to the Green Line, it seemed like a quick route was to ride to the final stop and walk a few blocks north. This worked fine and I was on campus within a few minutes after getting off the train.

It later occurred to me that it was possible that the reason for omitting the L from the website was that University of Chicago administrators presumed that the neighborhood south of campus would make prospective students and visitors feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Therefore, the two mass transit suggestions directed students east of campus to the Hyde Park neighborhood. In other words, the University of Chicago is a literal safe space within Chicago's South Side.

This institutional commitment to safety is ironic in light of a recent letter from the Dean of Students to the incoming class of 2020. In the letter, Dean John (Jay) Ellison asserts that the university does not support "safe spaces" and warns students that they need to get tough: "You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort." While the Dean's letter welcomes incoming students as they "continue on their intellectual journey," it does not recommend that this take them through the areas west and south of campus

I have written previously here and here and here about the language of fear and threat that pervades letters like the University of Chicago's.  Of course, university administrators would make a distinction between intellectual safety and physical safety.  But these forms of safety are unequally distributed.  It is a remarkable social privilege to be able to choose to avoid spaces where fellow citizens live and work while still feeling courageous for tackling difficult ideas.  The intellectual freedom of the classroom depends upon its protection from uncomfortable social and economic reality.  For this reason, academic freedom is expensive. It requires spending millions of dollars to police boundaries that maintain economic and racial inequality.  Whether you feel safe within the walls of the university might say something about the extent to which you benefit from these inequalities.  As with most usages of freedom, then, academic freedom deflects attention from the distribution of social resources and power necessary to produce highly regulated institutional spaces like college classrooms.

Many of the students denounced as politically correct are those who have challenged conventions about who gets to decide what is safe.  This isn't to say that all of the different arguments for safe spaces have equal merit. But it is to say that a preemptive letter written in response to the mere hypothetical possibility that students might make such arguments says more about the fears of university administrators than anything else. In one response to the Dean's letter, the Tattooed Professor notes: "I don't think it's a coincidence that the backlash against so-called 'political correctness' in higher education has intensified in direct variation with the diversification of the academy, areas of scholarship, and-most significantly-the student population. Underlying much of the hand-wringing about the state of the academy is a simple desire to have the gatekeepers remain in place."

If you are wondering where these gates might be, the university website has a helpful map.

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