The University of Chicago Strikes Out

My alma mater the University of Chicago has managed to get what it’s always wanted: attention from the national press.  Unfortunately, it did so by sending a completely unnecessary letter to incoming students announcing the school’s opposition to trigger warnings and safe spaces, concepts the letter doesn’t seem to understand at all.  So let me wade into this muck in the hope of achieving some clarity.  As the University of Chicago taught me, it’s best to begin by defining one’s terms.

Just as sexual harassment is a form of expression which is nonetheless regulated to make it possible for women to function in the workplace, various kinds of campus behavior are forms of expression which may nonetheless be regulated to make it possible for non-majority students to function in academe. Surely there are ludicrous examples of demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, just as there are egregious examples of on-campus hostility and discrimination (e.g. men parading outside a women’s dorm yelling “No means yes! Yes means anal!”).  The issue in either case is the boundary between free expression and expression designed to intimidate or silence. No one can deny that a burning cross is an example of expression but as its purpose is to terrorize, it’s considered to be on the wrong side of that boundary. So, in Europe, is Holocaust denial, though it’s tolerated on American college campuses (while assertions that the earth is flat, say, would not be).

Thus people who take seriously the possibility that a person calling black women “water buffaloes” intends to demean and silence them are simply engaging in the type of critical thinking to which universities are supposed to be dedicated as well as the complementary analysis of what is necessary to protect an environment of civil discourse.

I’m a passionate advocate of the educational experience I had at the U of C, and nonetheless I think the letter to incoming students could more succinctly have been rendered as “F**k you if you imagine anything you think will be of interest or concern to us; you must have mistaken us for someplace that cares. And if you don’t like it take your female and black and brown and queer sensibilities elsewhere.” And I am revolted that my alma mater decided its reputation was best spent on that kind of dog-whistle right-wing nonsense.

You don’t want to use trigger warnings? Don’t. But there’s no need to denounce them unless your real purpose is to let people (especially, perhaps, donors) know that you’re indifferent to any concerns about mistreatment based on identity, and that any complaints about such mistreatment will be met with dismissiveness and derision because how dare any of these 21st Century concerns impinge on the 19th Century approach to which we’ve apparently dedicated our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor?

When I spoke up at the law school, I was thanked for expressing “what the women think.” When a classmate objected to the teaching of Plato’s Symposium as though it didn’t refer to gay love, he was told that the University didn’t “cater to special interests.” When students and faculty spoke out for diversifying the curriculum beyond the dead white “mods and greats” beloved of the British university system, the response (from Saul Bellow, no less) was “where is the Proust of the Papuans?” though the whole point of his query was to ridicule the idea of our finding out.

There was nothing “micro” about these aggressions; they were perfectly visible examples of the majority’s desire to humiliate and stifle the minorities.  And the University’s admissions policies in those days (though not now, happily) were carefully designed to make sure that black and brown and even female people were in the tiniest minorities possible.

So the U of C has a long history of behaving as if modernity were a personal insult, and this letter to first-years is as much in keeping with that tradition as any boob’s expressed desire to make America great (meaning white) again.

I’ve heard there are donors to other schools who’ve withdrawn their support when their alma maters have acknowledged their role in slavery or in any way made a reckoning with the imperfections of the past.  So just to balance things out, I’m withdrawing my support of an institution which seems to glory in denying there ever were any such imperfections or that any discrimination or hostility continues to exist today. The U of C exercised its privilege of flipping the bird to its incoming students and I’m exercising my privilege to flip the bird to the U of C.

I hope the faculty and administration don’t experience that as traumatic; but just in case I’m providing this trigger warning.

Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

27 thoughts on “The University of Chicago Strikes Out”

  1. "Just as sexual harassment is a form of expression which is nonetheless regulated to make it possible for women to function in the workplace"

    Could you try to at least pretend these sorts of laws protect everybody? It's hard enough being a male in a country transitioning into matriarchy without having my face rubbed in the fact that I can't actually expect equal protection of the law. Watching my son suffer because virtually every teacher at his school is a woman, and they expect the little boys to act like little girls, or else. And, do you really think over 97% of elementary school teachers are now women by accident, rather than sex discrimination? But, eh, so what, sex discrimination only counts if it's against women.

    Anyway, way to pretend there isn't any problem. That nobody is demanding that speakers they disagree with be disinvited, or abusively using claims of being "triggered" to attempt to censor discourse. You're teaching to the choir here, and I'm sure they'll love the tune.

    1. Please, please read the actual article, Brett.

      "Surely there are ludicrous examples of demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, just as there are egregious examples of on-campus hostility and discrimination (e.g. men parading outside a women’s dorm yelling “No means yes! Yes means anal!”). The issue in either case is the boundary between free expression and expression designed to intimidate or silence."

      Could it be clearer that your objection is already covered?

    2. "And, do you really think over 97% of elementary school teachers are now women by accident, rather than sex discrimination?"

      Actually, yes. If you are a male elementary ed teacher, you will have a much easier time finding a job than a similarly qualified woman. Elementary schools are desperate for male teachers. This is according to basically every teacher I've ever met, and I know a lot and am related to some.

      1. also male elementary teachers are pressured to go into administration almost as soon as they start teaching. it took 8 years in my school district to convince them i wanted to stay in the classroom rather than became a principal. over that time i watched 9 men who taught in the elementary grades in my district move into administrative jobs so that out of 6 principal positions and 10 assistant principal positions in the elementary and intermediate grades 14 of those are filled by men and only one of the females is a principal. i think this was one of the five most offensive and uninformed posts mr. bellmore has ever made.

      2. Of my elementary school teachers–there were seven of them–only one was a man. I'd still like to meet him from behind in a dark alley with a two-by-four and explain some things to him in his native language. Seven of the other eight were good to great teachers.

        I had two principals. The woman, I later found out visiting that school, wasn't liked any better by the rest of the school's population (students, teachers, parents, and congregants alike) than by me. The man is the one who saved me from the one male primary teacher I had.

  2. Thus people who take seriously the possibility that a person calling black women “water buffaloes” intends to demean and silence them are simply engaging in the type of critical thinking to which universities are supposed to be dedicated as well as the complementary analysis of what is necessary to protect an environment of civil discourse.

    Shouldn't that critical thinking also extend to considering the person's explanation, and the evidence supporting it, and accepting that the phrase was not so intended if the facts justify that conclusion? That doesn't seem to be what happened in the incident at Penn.

    I've read some of the discussions of the Chicago letter at various sites, and confess to being a little puzzled.

    Certainly some of the coverage of demands for safe spaces and the like suggests that there is an issue of students, with some faculty support, not wanting to have to hear things they don't like, and generally being silly.

    Now maybe it's just the case that extreme examples get publicized, but I think some of the outrage at the letter ignores the public perception of events on various campuses. I'm not an academic, so I'm not really on top of all this controversy, but I do think some events are troubling, and are dismissed too lightly.

    1. consider a veteran of multiple tours of duty during the iraq war is going to college and finding himself rooming in the dorms with an antiwar protester who harangues him every evening when he gets in with diatribes against the military. is it asking too much that his dorm room be a safe space from arguments of that nature?

      1. Of course not.

        But it is asking too much to argue that such diatribes be barred on open public spaces on campus.

    2. I guess this is what I'd say to that: do you think it's more common that (1) people are put into situations in which they legitimately feel triggered without appropriate warnings? or (2) students demand trigger warnings/"safety" from content in situations where it is inappropriate?

      I am in academia, and I've seen both, including an incredibly obnoxious example of (2) that inappropriately targeted a colleague whose research, teaching, and conduct with respect to the issue in question were and are beyond reproach, but I am virtually certain that (1) is more common than (2). If that is the case, and I strongly believe that it is, then is the Chicago letter really appropriate?

      1. My answer would be no more than a guess.

        But there are some things I would say in response.

        First, we need to consider all effects of a policy, not just the positive ones, and these include outright negative effects as well as unintentional results of policies being implemented imperfectly.

        Second, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the "safe spaces" issue. The letter says,

        "we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."

        That's far too broad, as James points out below. But surely the default rule ought to be "unsafe." If you want to retreat go to your room, go out with friends, go to a club meeting, go to religious services. General campus spaces ought to open to free expression.

        1. I think that the notion of a campus-wide "safe space" is unwise. But except at the most liberal of liberal campuses, I am unaware of calls for such a thing. Likewise, I think unilaterally declaring that all classrooms are "safe spaces" in the broadest sense of the term would be incredibly unwise, but again, this seems to be something largely confined to your Bards, Swarthmores, Smiths, and the like, as best I can tell, and it has struggled to find traction even in those places. The letter sort of strikes me as a response to a proposal no one made.

          1. That could well be.

            If so, the trouble is that these are the places, along with Yale and Missouri, that have gotten publicity.

            Still, I wonder. Calls for free exchange of ideas in a context of mutual respect are hardly new. Neither is the notion that it is inappropriate to force discussion of whatever on an uninterested roommate, or to introduce political resolutions at a meeting of the cycling club.

            Why then is the "safe space" terminology used at all, if not to extend the notion beyond what would normally be considered ordinary decent behavior.

          2. I am probably responding too much on this thread, so this is likely to be my last post on it, but there's a tendency for "ordinary decent behavior" to be judged relative to the concerns of members of dominant groups and cultures. Safe spaces, in their more basic (and, in my view, defensible) application, are dedicated spaces, physical and otherwise, where members of non-dominant groups (women, people of color, LGBTQ, immigrants, etc.) can exist without the pressures of the dominant culture's expectations and norms. In practice, this remains nebulous, but I don't think it's categorically a bad idea.

  3. I wonder whether letters like that are aimed at the minority students, who will then supposedly know their place, or at the majority ones who (like some donors) will know that they don't have to worry about their status. (And I'm reminded of my ex's story of her grad school days at the University of Chicago and having to ditch her first choice of thesis topic because none of the faculty in her department was willing to take the career hit involved in advising a dissertation on the works of a woman author.)

    1. Probably neither. Near as I can tell, it has more to do with a phenomenon dubbed "The Coddling of the American Mind". If anything, it seems that at least the stereotype of those who insist on being coddled with (ineffectual) trigger warnings is that of someone entitled, middle-class, and privileged.

      ETA: Note, too, that the term "trigger warning" is borrowing terminology used to describe symptoms of PTSD and applying it to situations that are generally outside of that context, often trivializing the meaning of "trigger" in the process.

  4. The letter was just plain bizarre. It was basically a political screed, saying take your political correctness (a term invented by the Right to defend their privilege of saying really inappropriate things in the office without having younger women and minorities get upset at them) and shove it. He might as well have said "we welcome constructive engagement with racists, sexists, homophobes, MRAs, creationists, and global warming deniers, just as much as we welcome donations from rich conservatives". It was gratuitous, and such an unnecessary obiter dicta that I'm delighted it has gone viral. What an ass! He deserves national ridicule.

    I might echo what many commenters on other sites have noted: rich white straight Christian men have more safe spaces than they know what to do with (yacht clubs, golf clubs, corner offices, private dens with cognac snifters where they can tell all the n****r jokes they want), and their wives would soil their capri pants if their kids ever saw a television show or movie that didn't have appropriate warnings for sex and violence.

    1. Not true actually. politically correct was a term invented by the left (particularly Marxists) as a way of self-mocking and chiding each other when things went over the top.

      1. Heh heh, I didn't actually look up the etymology, but I first heard it in the late 80s, in very liberal academic and professional environments, and it was invariably from right-wingers, Libertarians, bigots (same thing, I know), and almost exclusively male. They felt oh-so-aggrieved that in Boston and New York and San Francisco it was becoming increasing difficult to use degrading terms for gays and lesbians, or call a co-worker "babe", e.g., and would raise holy hell that they were now expected to say "Asian" rather than "Oriental", as if their whole world was crashing down upon them. When every other decent person in the peer group simply started saying Asian. So maybe the Left invented it, but the Right sure as hell appropriated it by 1990.

        1. I remember the appropriation happening in a big way right around 1988. It became a thing during the presidential campaign; George HW Bush made a speech about the menace of political correctness, and this was a fairly novel thing on the national political scene at the time.

      2. What KH says corresponds to my recollection from my time as an undergraduate at Chicago in the mid 1970s.

  5. The way I read the letter was roughly:

    **Trigger warning:**
    UoC does not do trigger warnings.
    **Safe spaces:**
    UoC is a safe space for white male a**holes.

    But then I wondered: is this actual policy? I see no sign of an order to instructors not to issue trigger warnings of potentially emotive material in class (which would be a violation of their professional autonomy and incitement to malpractice). I see no sign either of a refusal to provide facilities to affinity groups (Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Trekkies, lesbians ….) so they can talk things over with the like-minded, i.e. create safe spaces.

    So it comes down to posturing. This is Chicago, Pulp Academia! Gritty, aggressive, no holds barred! If you can't stand the freezing winds off the lake and the economics department, stay away from the Windy Campus!

    There is something to be said for this style, and it suits some young people and scholars. But "gritty, edgy, hard-hitting" shades into "vulgar and unconsidered macho posturing". The very bright students UoC is seeking out can draw their own conclusions as to where on this spectrum the current university administration resides.

  6. I thought their handling of "trigger warnings" was the weakest part of the letter, partly because they did not define the term. But they clearly define their use of the term "safe spaces." It seems somewhat disingenuous for kelly to overlook that. And they explicitly state that freedom of expression does not mean the freedom the harass or threaten. They didn't say they are shutting down Hillel house, or LGTBQ support groups, or any other of student groups that should easily be considered safe spaces. I am beginning to think the term dog whistle is either being used too often, or misused, but maybe it is apt here. Kelly heard this whistle and howled (and not because she is a "woman" and therefore a "bi***"…if you thought that, or thought I meant that, what does that say about you?"). Kelly says, "I’m a passionate advocate of the educational experience I had at the U of C,", but when offered a letter that seems to reaffirm the same policies that underwrote that education, she recoils in horror? Did I miss the point in history where UofC was a liberal utopia where radical leftists frolicked in the Milton Friedman center for Keynesian studies? It seems like some of this discussion is as much about the people being outraged, as it is about a specific criticism. I.e.," I support UofC, and liked what I learned there, but please don't think of me as conservative because I happened to go there."

  7. When a classmate objected to the teaching of Plato’s Symposium as though it didn’t refer to gay love, he was told that the University didn’t “cater to special interests.”

    Kelly, could you give a bit more detail about what happened here? Was the class format a seminar or a lecture? Was there a professor standing in front of the class telling them that it was a fact that the Symposium had nothing to do with man-boy love? Or were the students and faculty sitting around a table discussing the meaning of the text as they would at St. John's College, the "Great Books" school? It appears that they approach Plato differently at U of C than they do at St. John's, but I do not quite understand what happened.

  8. A very basic question with which I need help: what is a trigger warning, and are there clear, agreed upon criteria for what circumstances require one to be given? Does it apply to classroom material or course content? If a trigger warning is given, does this mean that students can leave the classroom without fear of consequences, for example, of missing questions on the examination based on the potentially triggering class material? These terms are cryptic to people outside academia.

Comments are closed.