Free expression: an update

Since my last post on the letter from University of Chicago College Dean of Students Jay Ellison to incoming students, I’ve seen some additional commentary, notably from UChicago fourth-years Jasmine Mithani and Sophie Downes.

Ms. Mithani takes Dean Ellison to task for the phrases “so-called ‘trigger warnings'” and “intellectual ‘safe spaces'”:

Trigger warnings are not about oversensitivity – they are about empathy, and recognizing the varied experiences of all students at this university, “people of all backgrounds.”

She also brings up something that’s been bothering me about this use of the phrase, “safe spaces”:

The University of Chicago, as previously mentioned, is not an intellectual safe space. A student raised to deny evolution would have those claims refuted in Core Bio, an experience that would undoubtedly be distressing. That is an example of an intellectual challenge, whereas “safe spaces” seek to provide support to at-risk populations with the university.

Despite your declaration against them, the university does provide these safe spaces. The Center for Identity and Inclusion works with LGBTQ+ and minority students to provide spaces free of discrimination, as well as mentorship, and a support structure to report abuse. The newly-established Center for College Student Success provides activities for underprivileged, undocumented, and low-income students – those who might otherwise slip through the cracks of such an elitist institution. None of these are founded with the inten[t] to shield students from difficulties. Instead, they seek to equip underprivileged students with the tools and support to succeed at the same level as the majority of the campus population.

Like Ms. Mithani, I disagree with the notion that college students are being coddled, a notion that seems rooted in the “back in my day” way of thinking. I spent most of the past six years at an elite university and saw firsthand the pressures students have now that I frankly didn’t as a college student. That isn’t to say it was easy in times past. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that the competitive landscape for students seeking jobs and the visibility of issues for underprivileged or marginalized students has changed in the past couple of decades. Higher education has been responding with new student services, as Ms. Mithani points out about our alma mater. And that’s a good thing that doesn’t even approach coddling or conflict with the intellectual challenges that college should pose.

In addition to refuting the letter’s position on trigger warnings and safe spaces, Ms. Downes pivots to a broader perspective:

The administration wants to appear as an intellectual force beating back destabilizing waves of political correctness that have rocked college campuses. But the focus of student protests hasn’t been the lack of trigger warnings and safe spaces. Instead, many protesters want the university to evaluate how it invests its money, improve access for students with mental illnesses and disabilities, support low-income and first-generation students, and pay its employees fair wages. They have been pushing for more transparency in the school’s private police force, which has resisted making most of its policies public in the face of complaints.

She goes on to criticize the University administration’s lack of engagement with students on these matters, citing articles from the Chicago Maroon on a meeting requested by student organizations with senior administrators, who reportedly all declined the meeting.

Now, we’re not seeing (and likely will never see) the administration’s side of this, and I’ve seen enough on that side to know there’s always more going on under the surface and that administrators don’t generally have malicious motives. But it’s also noteworthy that all this comes at a time when UChicago’s financial situation has worsened — debt has significantly risen and departments are making significant cuts even as a $4.5 billion fundraising campaign continues (yes, they’re not always correlated, but fundraising for, say, faculty endowed chairs helps relieve appropriations in other areas). Crain’s Chicago Business, reporting on this in June, noted:

Last year, academic departments were required to whittle overhead by 2 percent and nonacademic ones by at least 5 percent. This year and possibly the next, the cuts are going to be even steeper, according to an attendee at a meeting on the topic.

For the 12 months ended June 30, U of C operating margins narrowed as revenue increased 5.6 percent and operating expenses rose 5.9 percent, according to the university’s annual report. Academic salaries grew 4.1 percent, a slower pace than overall compensation’s 6.2 percent advance.

“Obviously people are concerned about what is being done,” says Denis Hirschfeldt, a math professor involved in an informal faculty group addressing issues of university governance. “There’s not a lot of communication about how decisions are being made.”

While I have no visibility to the behind-the-scenes conversations and courses of action around these matters, it’s concerning to me as an alumnus that all of this is emerging at the same time and that open communication and shared governance may be crucial to both the problem and addressing that problem.

Like Ms. Mithani, I’m concerned because I am a big fan of the University of Chicago and grateful for having had the opportunity to study there. It’s one of the best universities in the world, due in large part to its commitment to intellectual rigor, fierce debate among its scholars and students, and uncompromising focus on developing knowledge. I very much want UChicago to retain and build on that reputation, and hope it does so.

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