by Lil Tuttle

The University of Chicago's welcoming letter to the incoming Class of 2020 sent shock waves through higher education for its overt rejection of 'trigger warnings' and 'safe spaces' and its renewed commitment to academic freedom.

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.

This, alone, is a refreshing breeze to many who are choking in the politically correct smog of modern university life. Yet there was so much more in the letter and accompanying monograph that is noteworthy.

Turning Mirrors into Windows

UChicago's letter lets incoming freshers know they are being welcomed as respected adults, not immature children.

Small children, by nature, are cocooned in self-absorption. They view everything in their world through the prism – the mirror – of self-interest. Toys are always "mine" even if they belong to another. Their typical response to being refused what they want is to throw a temper tantrum.

"The purpose of education," respected Chicago journalist Sydney J. Harris said many years ago, "is to turn mirrors into windows."

As children grow intellectually, they acquire an ability to "see" beyond themselves. Their eyes are transformed from mirrors to windows, through which they can begin to understand and logically evaluate ideas, perspectives, experiences and struggles that may be very different from their own. They develop an ability to rationally debate ideas.

While trigger warnings and safe spaces may be appropriate for very young children, they are deadly to the intellectual growth of college-age adults. They serve only to perpetuate the cocoon of self-absorption. Worse, they are breeding grounds for intolerance of others, which Harris argued "is the most socially acceptable form of egotism."

UC’s welcoming letter is a powerful statement of faith in the incoming class that the incoming class is fully capable of rising to the intellectual challenges it face at The College.

Reaffirming Commitment to Academic Freedom

Cyclists and pedestrians move along a walkway near Hull Gate framed by colorful fall leaves Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, on the campus of the University of Chicago. (Photo by Jason Smith)

(Photo by Jason Smith)

The letter, along with the accompanying monograph, is also a powerful assertion of UC's commitment to academic freedom.

Academic freedom – of staff and students alike – was one of the UChicago's founding principles. This principle was reasserted in a 2015 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression (emphasis added):

The University's fundamental commitment is the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not be seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.

The underlined phrase is particularly noteworthy in this era. UChicago has no intention of dictating to students what to think or which ideas to adopt or reject.

Contrast UC's policy with Oregon State University's, particularly its new mandatory online 'Social Justice Training' for incoming freshers, as reported by Reason.com:

The modules will brief students on the history of social justice activism at Oregon, stress the importance of diversity and inclusivity, and provide students with resources to “incorporate the pursuit of social justice within their university experiences.” It will let them know about the Bias Response Team, which provides a website where students can report each other for perceived harassment.

In OSU’s case, the institution has made judgments for its staff and students. Independent thought and/or dissent are not an option. As writer Robby Soave noted, "A student has no method of dissenting during an online training session on the necessity of complying with the university's diversity dictates. Indeed, students might reasonably fear that agreeing with the ideology of the trainers is a precondition of coming to campus."

UC's Unique Response to Campus Clash of Ideas

UChicago protest

(Photo courtesy ABC7 News)

Campuses have always been – and will always be – hotbeds of strongly-held opposing viewpoints, and UChicago has certainly had its share. The question is what campus officials do to keep the clash of ideas civilized.

UC answered that question in its Freedom of Expression report:

Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

So while most other colleges are responding by actively suppressing free speech, UC is working to identify ways to discipline those who disrupt free speech.

Following three high-profile incidents earlier this year "in which speakers invited to campus were shut down or interrupted by protesters," UC established a committee "to review and make recommendations about procedures for student disciplinary matters involving disruptive conduct, particularly interference with freedom of expression, inquiry and debate." The committee's report and recommendations are due on December 15.

UC's response is so unique that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education launched a campaign last year asking colleges and universities to adopt it as well.

For the sake of university staff and students everywhere, we hope UC's small shock wave will ultimately produce a tsunami of similar campus reforms across the nation.


University to Freshmen: Don't Expect Safe Spaces or Trigger Warnings, Pete Grieve, The Chicago Maroon
Oregon State University Will Force Incoming Students to Take 'Social Justice Training', Robby Soave, Reason.com
FIRE Launches Campaign in Support of University of Chicago Free Speech Statement, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, University of Chicago
Faculty Committee on University Discipline for Disruptive Conduct, Office of the Provost, University of Chicago