The U of C Way: Safe Spaces, Trigger Warnings, and Publicity at the University of Chicago


In a possibly, and very likely, apocryphal story that circulated among my social circle at the University of Chicago, one of my friends claims to have asked a wizened older professor what the school was like during the tumult of the 1960s. “A hot bed of inactivity,” he responded dryly. At least, that’s how the story went. Admittedly, no means of authenticating that anecdote exists, but the fact that it pervaded my notably non-political milieu says something about how at least a segment of the university saw the school’s history of social activism: limited to moderate, at best. Truth is, the school witnessed its share of protest. Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid uncovered some of this recently. Sit-ins, administration building takeovers and the like all occurred, even if they failed to garner the attention of, say, a Columbia or Berkeley. Still, as with many things in life, perception trumps reality.

The infamous "letter"; Outside of its content, seriously, what's up with the font at the top? Might want to reconsider that U of C.
The infamous “letter”; outside of its content, seriously, what’s up with the font at the top? Who thought that was a good look?

So when the University sent out letter to its prospective first years in which it touted its commitment to academic freedom by stating “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,” it felt fairly predictable.

From my experience at the university, its undergrads generally expressed your typical collegiate liberalism, while the school itself imposed an educational philosophy that one would label conservative. Classes focused on the Socratic Method and while non-white authors both male and female were assigned and read in various courses, dead white males like Marx, Durkheim, Hegel, and others were featured prominently with no apologies from professors.   Back in the early 1990s, it still had the core curriculum, which in its day was notorious for savaging GPAs. Needless to say, my year of Calculus, Astrophysics, and physical sciences, despite my declared history major, cost my final GPA average upon graduation dearly.

For all the controversy over the release of its letter, I’m not sure that the debate over it has really improved our collective understanding of trigger warnings and safe spaces, or the apparent generational conflict that seems to be expressing itself through the debate. What can we say about the University of Chicago as an institution? Who was this letter really aimed at? What do we mean by safe spaces and trigger warnings? Toward this latter point, judging from conversations I’ve seen online, people have vastly different understandings of exactly what they are.

The school itself

Really is that a fair characterization? fine.

Who goes to the University of Chicago? After all, the school is famous for being described as “self selecting,” which really meant (at least when I went there) inherently nerdy. I mean many of us had to read Foucault freshman year and actually develop opinions on his theories (for the record, my views on the philosopher at the time ranged intellectually between watered down gruel and gruel spiked with chicken broth). I conducted an unscientific, informal poll with many of my classmates who basically said the same thing about attending the school: it was a good school in a cool city, but no one had any clue about its educational philosophy or campus politics.


For Midwesterners, Chicago is basically an Ivy League school; for East Coasters, it’s a safety school when they get wait-listed at Columbia or, worse, Dartmouth. First two weeks of freshman year, if I had a nickel for every time I heard “it was the best school I got into; I was on the wait list at [fill in the blank Ivy League school/Stanford]”. The school draws from the South and West Coast as well. When coming from warmer environs, I have no idea why one decides to decamp for a city that everyone knows has grueling subzero winters and hot breathed summers, but hey they come.

Demographically it wasn’t particularly diverse; plenty of white and Asian American kids, with some African Americans and Latinos. According to the University of Chicago, the graduating class of 2019 consists of the following demographics: 28.7% Asian, 8.46% Black, 14.96% Latino, 9.3% Other, and 13.34% international. Regionally, the Midwest and East Coast make up its two largest contributors to the student body, with the West coming in third.

Honestly, I had a great time there, but it was not your typical college environment. More graduate students attend the school than undergraduates; this might matter less at a larger school but U of C isn’t that big, with only 5,369 young people attending the college and 6,928 students in its graduate and professional schools. Admittedly, in the nearly twenty years since my graduation, I think the school has drawn more, what some observers might describe as “better adjusted” students, than in the past. Expansion and public relations efforts have perhaps reduced the self-selectivity of new cohorts.

A typical (?) U of C Saturday night circa 1996
A typical (?) U of C Saturday night circa 1996.

The discrepancy between grads and undergrads along with its proportion of “self selecting students” was larger during my time there, but as noted, over the past 20 years the school has made efforts to expand its undergraduate enrollment and desperately sought to achieve Ivy League status. College colors? Officially maroon, but when I attended, undergrad sartorial choices in this area fluctuated between grey and black. Dostoevsky seemed to be the authorial spirit animal. The seasons were, to put it kindly, not friendly. During Winter Quarter, people became depressed and irritable; not everyone mind you but yeah, it took its toll. Chicago is a world-class city, but in terms of weather you can go a whole month without seeing the sun. For those unaccustomed to such environmental viscitudes, it can be emotionally exacting. There is a reason one sees shirts emblazoned with “University of Chicago: Where fun comes to die.”

Did you doubt that this was a thing?
Did you doubt that this was a thing?

Suicides, regrettably, though not common, were not uncommon. As a result, the university had long been sensitive to issues regarding depression, and while the effectiveness of its efforts might be debatable, it did provide student services in this regard. I can’t honestly say if it was ahead, behind, or right on the curve for developing them. Recently, like many universities, the U of C has struggled with its handling of sexual assault cases. Still, I had friends who worked at the school’s women’s center, I knew plenty of people in its Organization for Black Students (OBS) and its counterparts for East Asian, South Asian and Latino students. During my undergrad years, and in fact twenty years ago this year, the school established the Center for the Study of Sexuality and Gender. George Chauncey, among others, taught a popular class on sexuality.

No one would ever say that racism, misogyny, and homophobia didn’t exist there; it certainly did. In recent years, fraternities have been guilty on several occasions of racist and misogynistic behavior, though, to be honest, compare a University of Chicago fraternity with its counterpart at a big state school or even say a more stereotypically “alpha” school like Harvard and you’d walk away mumbling something about everything being relative. In general, there seemed to be communities and spaces dedicated to minority and gay students navigating the school. All that said, as a now middle aged white guy, I was still white and middle class in 1996 so you can take all this with a healthy heap of salt.


How did we get here

For people offended by the idea of safe spaces and trigger warnings (more to come on what one even means by these terms) and what they see as a chilling of free speech, the most common target of their ire usually consists of some combination of liberalism run amok and baby boomers who have “coddled” millennials far too much with participation trophies. Generation X seems to have dodged this bullet momentarily since many of their children have yet to reach college age.

Let’s address the first point: liberalism gone sideways. Ironically, as Geoffrey Stone, someone who knows a bit about the arc of free speech in America notes, the battle resides as much within the left itself as between left and right. Conservatives might be the current champions “of free speech, which I find is a bit ironic, but the left is divided,” he told the New York Times. Plenty of very liberal people believe that safe spaces and trigger warnings inhibit student growth and chill the exchange of ideas. Last September, the Atlantic published an article that if you’re reading this, you’ve probably if not read at least seen, in which the authors discussed what they saw as the damaging effects of safe spaces and trigger warnings. I don’t want to debate its merits but only note that this really isn’t about our usual left/right political divide; it’s much more generational than that and really the result of decades of struggle over what the role of universities in this regard should be.

This brings us to the second point; how did we get here? Fifty years ago, the Free Speech Movement was in full gear. Having begun in 1964 on the campus of the University of California-Berkeley and gaining momentum thereafter, by 1966 politicians like then gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan flogged the student led movement as a whipping boy in the burgeoning culture wars. Ultimately, he rode Californian anger over it to the governor’s house. Berkeley, Columbia, and other college campuses embodied the desire by boomer undergrads to throw off the shackles of paternalism. Colleges back then imposed curfews and similar restrictions (some like University of Chicago also segregated college housing); administrators generally acted as quasi-parents to their charges aka “In local parentis”. Coeds of the day wanted nothing of this and protests, driven by other factors like opposition to the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and a growing feminist movement, took place.

Then as now, the most radical aspects of this protest, often at elite schools like Berkeley and Columbia, came to stand for the larger whole, distorting the movement itself (see Todd Gitlin and Doug Rossinow among others for more on this). Today, admittedly less critical protests, like those that occurred at Yale over Halloween last year, overshadowed more legitimate ones at places like the University of Missouri, where very questionable acts of racism had been ongoing. Even there, the act of one professor, whatever one thinks of it, came to symbolize the larger protest, which undercut some of its force. Granted, I’m not sure that student leaders took the best course of action in this instance either; can one demand “to be alone” when staging a protest in public areas, but again the forces driving the protest were, and probably still are, very real (see Episode #9 of the Past Present podcast for a more in-depth discussion of campus unrest this past Spring).

If the parents of the ostensibly millennial cohort of today’s collective college student body once wanted to throw off paternalism, some observers have argued that collegians now want to reinstate it, if in a very different form. Rather than the free-for-all that rightly or wrongly came to define college campuses in the 1960s, millennial protesters, at least it would seem those at elite schools, want the university to intervene in student life to impose certain rules about speech and behavior. To be clear, it remains to be seen how much millennials more broadly demand any intervention, but certainly protesters do.Who gets to define what these interventions are seems to be the crux of the issue. In the aforementioned Yale controversy, the letter by a professor of education that sparked all the anger more or less advocated that students hash out what they saw as racist costume appropriation or free speech themselves rather than ask the university to do so.

Then again, perhaps this simply reflects, the insane rising costs of a college education; the increasingly consumerist nature of the relationship between students and schools encourages this sort response. If one has to go into debt for college they might as well tailor their experience as close to personal expectations as possible.  Universities have undoubtedly embraced this relationship as well.

Often, Generation X sits smugly off to the side and waves its finger at both boomers and millennials. To the former, they accuse of passing on the worst aspects of their social activism, notably self-aggrandizement and navel gazing, onto their children while millennials embraced these traits and carried them to their logical conclusion. Yet this ignores the fact that, Generation X played a role as well. During the late 1980s and 1990s, numerous colleges imposed speech codes. Antioch College instituted into its code of student conduct a requirement that each level of sexual intimacy necessitated verbal consent; the idea did not remain isolated. Needless to say, Generation X might want to pretend it played no role in current developments, but the fact is it did. Whether you want to assign blame or give credit for current developments, outside of the “greatest generation,” which only did great things like win WWII and extend segregation (sarcasm), apparently, we all played a part.

But can the public and others actually define "trigger warnings" or "safe spaces" in a meaningful way?
But can the public and others actually define “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces” in any meaningful way?

Indefinite terms make for easy marks

So what should one make of the university’s decision to release its now notorious letter? Well one thing that seems clear, I have no idea what exactly is meant by a “safe space” myself, and I’ve witnessed plenty of protest over the issue while a graduate student at University of California San Diego. Trigger warnings appear more self explanatory, even if the rules that they follow appear more nebulous—is there a standard means of issuing and attending to them? If a reading contains potentially objectionable materials that might trigger particular responses, do professors agree on a common course of action? When I read online debates about these issues, it feels more like people angrily talking past one another; after all, most people acknowledge racist, homophobic talk as noxious and unacceptable, but I’m not sure that’s even really what’s at stake here.

If safe spaces mean services dedicated to hearing out LGBT or minority students, does anyone really oppose establishing those sorts of institutions within universities? As noted, despite its statements purporting not to, the University of Chicago does as well; in 2014 it launched an LGBTQ safe space of its own. However, it would seem that many people don’t think of them that way; rather they see them as something else all together. Even the letter’s use of the term “intellectual safe spaces” seems to be actually eliding its true meaning.

Biologist PZ Myers has written about trigger warnings and safe spaces well before the U of C controversy, but in a recent blog post he also reduces them to the following: “Let’s start with safe spaces. Does Dean Ellison have a private office? Does it have a door on it? Does he sometimes meet with other deans in closed meetings? Then he creates safe spaces, and works in one. He is simply unaware of it, and takes the privilege for granted.” The way he describes it here, a critic might respond, “Yes, everyone has one: their dorm room.” The post is worth reading because Myers to his credit does more here to take on the issues at hand in the letter, but knowing how the internet works, I’ve seen that quote alone used to summarize the issue. Moreover, he attributes support for the UC letter to people who “detest feminists and Black Lives Matter,” telling progressives who have expressed some support for the letter that they have aligned themselves with “Breitbart” and (gasp) Libertarians. This seems to be reductive, though if you watched the Libertarian Convention this year, also pretty funny.

The fact is the University of Chicago does have safe spaces, as noted, and allows professors to use trigger warnings. What the university did by releasing the letter is perform a well executed publicity stunt meant to shore up alumni donations. The letter intertwined the issue of safe spaces and trigger warnings with the right of the school to invite unpopular speakers and the chilling of class room debate or, as historian Kevin Gannon, hysterically put it, the school basically wanted to declare: “WE ARE A MIGHTY RACE OF INTELLECTUAL WARRIORS.” (Though I disagree with aspects of Gannon’s article, it too deserves a reading because it does well to articulate the views of those who support trigger warnings and safe spaces in a clear and even handed manner. Unlike Myers, Gannon avoids lumping critics together in a sort of guilt-by-association shaming.)

In the end, I would argue, and a point I believe Gannon raises as well, the letter operates as a calculated public relations effort meant to burnish the school’s nerdy bonafides while perhaps increasing alumni donations. At smaller liberal arts schools like Amherst and Claremont McKenna, donations have been down in recent years, due in large part to alumni alienation over student protest. Chicago has always struggled with its endowment in comparison to other schools that it sees as its peers: Harvard, Stanford, and so forth. Soon after the letter’s release, the school president published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that doubled down on the contents of the letter. The school knew full well that one, most incoming students probably don’t consider activism or safe spaces when applying to schools; U of C, in all likelihood was simply the best school they got into, so hey they decided to enroll. Two, critics like Gannon are right, the university does use ideas like safe spaces and trigger warnings rather freely in the letter, in which they operate as undefined threats to intellectualism or as he puts it “relies on caricature and bogeymen rather than reason and nuance.”

Where I part ways with Gannon has to do with the letter as a means of squashing dissent. Nowhere does it ban or prohibit protest. Students are encouraged to question and debate. I know all the arguments about structural racism and inequality and I largely agree, but deconstructing that edifice requires uncomfortable debate, which again Gannon does nod too. When speakers come that students detest, they should protest. (The school’s history on this is actually not bad; I remember Angela Davis speaking at the university one year.) If Gannon is correct that much of the discomfort with safe spaces and trigger warnings has resulted from white America’s unwillingness to accommodate greater number of women and persons of color into universities and positions of power, then that should be addressed, but that too feels reductive. Does it mean someone who has reservations about these issues is just a closet racist? To his credit, Gannon doesn’t make this assertion but observers could draw this conclusion from his argument.

As for cries of elitism, well yeah, it’s the University of Chicago; it drinks from those waters daily, that’s why it gets nearly 30,000 applications a year and accepts less than 10%. The Ivies, Stanford, and numerous other schools with even lower acceptance rates and greater numbers of applicants, do much the same. Calling U of C elitist is like stating that the sun sets in the West.

The outrage that ensued really does exactly what the school hoped it would; in the dog days of summer, the letter made it the center of attention, something that, trust me, it always desired. For once it wasn’t about Harvard, it was about U of C. The letter generated, as they say, “more heat than light” which really was what President Zimmer and administrators wanted.

[Ryan Reft attended the University of Chicago from 1994-1998 and graduated with a B.A. in European History. It remains the best institution of higher learning he ever attended.]