Saturday, August 27, 2016

Safe Spaces at University of Chicago

This week, a letter from the Dean of Students in The College of the University of Chicago to incoming freshmen received much media attention. The letter by Dean John (Jay) Ellison welcomes incoming students of the Class of 2020, congratulating them on their acceptance and thanking them for choosing to attend the University of Chicago as undergraduates. A large part of the letter is standard and uncontroversial.

One of the entrances to the University of Chicago

However, this paragraph stood out:
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.
Interestingly, both trigger warnings and safe spaces were presented in quotation marks, while academic freedom was not. This guided the reporting on and discussion of the letter in both mainstream media and social media. Many accepted at face value that the university was taking a principled stand for freedom of speech.

However, as a member of a minority religion in the University of Chicago Divinity School's graduate program, I have had many personal experiences that directly contradict the letter's assertions that all perspectives are welcome at the institution. Since I joined the program in 2014, there have also been several reported incidents that suggest the university has ongoing issues with equal rights for many kinds of minorities. These problems are not unique to this institution.

Given these issues, I recently revived the dormant Interfaith Dialogue organization at the school and now serve as president. Upon seeing the dean's letter, I immediately made a public statement declaring Interfaith Dialogue to be a safe space for members of minority faiths.

I was soon contacted by Beth McMurtrie, Senior Writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education. She asked to interview me for "a story about reaction on campus to the U of Chicago's letter to new students about safe spaces/academic freedom." As happened in my past interviews with The Daily Beast, OnFaith, Public Radio International, and The History Channel, only a tiny bit of my answer was used for the article as published. In this case, Ms. McMurtrie only used one sentence of mine.

I completely understand. Journalists must collect and review a great amount of information, then condense and select what they have gathered to create a clear narrative. However, I would like to offer my full answers here, since they place in perspective the small quote that was used in Ms. McMurtrie's article.

What follows are her questions (in bold) and my answers. This is a complicated issue, and there are no easy solutions.

What's your reaction to the letter?

I immediately and publicly declared Interfaith Dialogue, the registered student organization I lead as president, to be a safe space for members of minority religious traditions.

Interfaith Dialogue at the University of Chicago

As the first practitioner of Ásatrú (a modern iteration of Old Norse polytheistic religion) in the Divinity School's graduate program and as someone who had family in death camps in the mid-twentieth century, I feel a particular responsibility to stand with minority faith adherents whose voices have not been widely heard and whose experiences have not been openly addressed.

What do you think the administration was trying to say and why?

One of the things we learn early at the Divinity School is that we cannot know what is in the heart of someone who creates a text. We can only deal with the text as it stands and discuss various modes of reading and interpretation.

The University of Chicago Divinity School

That being said, the online and social media reaction to the letter has been noteworthy.

Members of the extremist alt-right community have been high-fiving the university for standing up for "free speech" and against "social justice warriors" and "cultural Marxists." The same segment of society is using the same terminology to cheer the university as it has been using to cheer the most disturbing elements of Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

Whatever the original intention of the letter, this is troubling and should be publicly addressed.

Any broader comments about the larger debate around safe spaces and trigger words that academia is wrestling with?

There has recently been heated discussion of these issues by academics, students, media, and commentariat. We are taught in the Divinity School to interrogate what is behind questions asked and to examine power dynamics of such interactions.

Projecting an image of diversity at the University of Chicago

Within the academy, who is standing up on either side of this debate? Many very emotional issues are at play here, but I worry that stances against safe spaces and trigger warnings by faculty and administrators in the name of free speech are sometimes made in order to maintain a status quo in which young women and members of underrepresented minority communities do not feel safe questioning the often traditionally patriarchal systems in which they find themselves.

How do we balance the right to free speech of tenured professors with equal rights for undergraduate students whose worldviews have long gone unheard in the academy? I am not sure that receiving such a letter from upper administration effectively communicates the University of Chicago's true and real dedication to an open dialogue in which a young Latina student can raise her hand in class and strongly challenge a statement made by a senior faculty member without fear of reprisal.

1 comment:

Ghillie Dhu said...

I have read your latest blog with interest.i am responding not in critiscm or judgement. It is amazing the things that happen throught the world and we never hear about them. So thanks for publishing.First of all i am not an adherent to your faith, but as a studier of most things in life I do understand it.Should it really matter what one believes? Why do most main religions teach peace,mercy,love,humbleness, yet so very few actually live up to what they believe? It is sad that in the 21st century there is still this prominent superstition of other religions. For mebeing a human being on this planet means that all should be included not, as happens at the moment, exclusion seems to be the mantra.Unconditional love is taught yet it is so limited in so many people.I am a christian and it is to my sorrow that I have witnessed racism,bigotry,false witness,exclusion due to money social standing etc.This is not the christianity that i believe in.So once again thanks for your post what little support i can offer is yours. Be strong be true to yourself and we can only hope that others can be awoken to the realities of life.

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