Jim Dey: Is New Emphasis on Student ‘Safe’ Spaces Putting Them at Risk?

November 29, 2015

By Jim Dey at The News-Gazette 

Back in February, Northwestern University Professor Laura Kipnis, disturbed about the campus environment concerning sexual harassment, emotional “triggers” and issues involving consent, wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Headlined “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” Kipnis’ piece challenged campus orthodoxy on these sensitive subjects. Some critics challenged her assertions, but two students did more than that.

They filed a complaint alleging discrimination and retaliation with the university against Kipnis under federal law’s Title IX guidelines.

The complaint was laughable on its face. But Kipnis endured months of administrative runaround trying to find out, specifically, what the charges against her were and what was required to mount a defense.

Finally, the professor went public, and embarrassed university officials quickly dropped the charges.

That incident and another involving censorship in a medical school magazine prompted University of Chicago President Morton Shapiro to appoint a special committee to examine the school’s history of and commitment to free speech.

The committee, led by law professor Geoffrey Stone and made up of academics from across the campus, subsequently issued a ringing defense of free speech principles as a mean of fostering discussion by allowing “all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.” That means, the statement declared, that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed.”

Since then, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has pressed other academic institutions across the country to embrace UC’s “zero-tolerance” policy in defense of free speech. Among the relative handful of institutions that have is Purdue University.

These are tense times on college campuses. Increasingly, angry students calling for bans on “microaggressions” or requirements for “trigger warnings” to protect them from hurt feelings are rising up against faculty members and administrators.

That, in turn, has resulted in push-back from the students’ targets. They claim that demands for protection from unpleasant thoughts not only are anti-intellectual but a threat to students’ mental health as well as a career threat to the faculty.

“I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me,” was the headline written on Vox.com by an anonymous professor who claimed his students are so sensitive that he has purged from his instruction “anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergraduate, text ranging from Sinclair Lewis to Maureen Tkacik — and I wasn’t the only one who made adjustments, either.”

“So it’s not just that students refuse to countenance uncomfortable ideas — they refuse to engage them, period. Engagement is considered unnecessary as the immediate, emotional reactions of students contain all the analysis and judgment sensitive issues demand,” the professor wrote.

In recent weeks, students on campuses across the country have revolted against university administrators, demanding “safe” spaces where they will feel protected.

Upset by perceptions of a negative racial atmosphere on campus, students forced the resignation of the president of the multi-campus University of Missouri system. The chancellor quickly submitted his resignation as well, stunning turnover that was followed by campus police advising students to inform them if anyone said anything that hurt their feelings.

Although largely spared the drama elsewhere, black students at the University of Illinois have complained they are subjected to unspecified “anti-black terror” and being targeted for retaliation by “non-black faculty” members.

Feelings of persecution were hardened when Illini White Student Union — a Facebook page believed to be linked to a white-supremacist blog — went up. UI administrators, apparently concerned the page was the work of UI students, quickly denounced the page as antithetical to UI principles. Similar pages linked to other campuses across the country also have appeared on Facebook.

What is the cause of this kind of hysteria that is threatening to turn campuses into self-censorship factories aimed at appeasing select groups whose grievances are unappeasable?

A recent Atlantic magazine article — “The Coddling of the American Mind” — suggests that too many students insist on being shielded from ideas they physically cannot stand to hear.

One extreme example involved female students at Harvard’s law school asking to be excused from listening to lectures about the law involving sexual violence because it is too upsetting.

“The current movement is about emotional well-being. … It presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm,” the Atlantic article states, citing the inevitable demand for campus “safe” spaces where students will be free from anxiety.

The movement, of course, also is about power. He who commands the language — what he says and what he forbids others from saying — has considerable influence on campus and society at large.

But, power issues aside, some analysts suggest students who constantly focus on their grievances, who demand to be shielded from upsetting issues, who constantly look to be offended and insist on feeling safe are putting themselves at emotional risk.

That kind of atmosphere, the Atlantic article states, “is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.”

Experts say that people don’t benefit emotionally by being shielded from their concerns, but instead by meeting them head on. Or, as former University of Chicago President Hanna Gray once put it, “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.”

That mind-set is under attack. The so-called “political correctness” movement, a power trip built on perpetual grievance, is riding high, overwhelming nervous campus administrators, many of whom can’t surrender fast enough.

At Yale, a campus furor broke out when a faculty member advised students not to get upset about insensitive costumes that others might wear. Students were outraged by the professor’s suggestion that they lighten up. In response, some surrounded her professor husband for a campus debate in which he, at least for a while, defended his wife’s assertion that free speech deserves protection.

“Be quiet,” one student screamed.

While he stood quietly like an errant school boy, the student angrily explained that Yale, first and foremost, must feel “safe” for students like her.

“It is not about creating an intellectual space,” she said.

Schools: University of Illinois at Chicago University of Missouri – Columbia Northwestern University Yale University Cases: University of Missouri: Policing of “Hurtful” Speech Yale University: Protesters at Yale Threaten Free Speech, Demand Apologies and Resignations from Faculty Members Over Halloween Email