The University of Chicago’s letter to incoming freshman was a sign of insensitivity to the needs of some students.
THE University of Chicago’s recent welcome to its incoming class wasn’t welcoming. The message, conveyed in a letter from the dean of students, revealed a profound indifference to concerns that many students now bring to colleges and universities.
Yet how colleges and universities respond to these concerns often proves critical to the success of students and to the freedom of faculty in educating an increasingly diverse student body.
The dean’s letter gave notice that the university rejects the value of warning students about material in some classes, presentations or debates that may prove offensive or psychologically harmful (so-called “trigger warnings”). The letter also informed new students that the university does not “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Either the university is completely tone deaf to the academic and developmental needs of many students or is launching its own counterattack on what it perceives as an unwarranted assault of political correctness on campus. Or both.
In each instance, trigger warnings can alert students to genuinely distressing content that could otherwise cripple their learning. Colleges and universities must change as the society changes. And unlike 10 to 20 years ago, schools must now acknowledge and address issues they have largely ignored in the past: sexual violence on campuses and its effects on student victims, the impact of war experiences on veterans returning to college and the mental-health challenges faced by increasing numbers of students.
Imagine a rape survivor entering a class in which sexual violence is the subject of academic debate or a veteran just returning from a combat assignment suffering from acute post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety or depression in a classroom where accounts of a war are disputed. These students can make critically important contributions to their classrooms, but if we refuse to acknowledge that they also have unique barriers to participating in that discussion, we send the message that they are not welcome.
As a lifelong educator, I have witnessed firsthand the negative impact that reliving personal trauma in a classroom can have on a student’s academic performance. Indifference to such traumas diminishes a student’s likelihood of success. A simple warning about troubling content acknowledges students’ unique personal circumstances, enables students to prepare and adapt if necessary and fosters a classroom climate focused on the student as a learner with unique capacities and assets.
Equally important are the demographic changes in our society over the past two decades. Many students attending colleges now are the first in their family to pursue postsecondary education. Others overcome enormous personal obstacles often related to family poverty just to get to college. These students and others often lack confidence in their capacity to succeed, believing that they don’t belong at a major college or university (the so-called “impostor syndrome”).
At The Evergreen State College, where I serve as president, 90 percent of our students belong to at least one group traditionally underserved by higher education: first-generation college students, low income, people of color, veterans, people with disabilities or students of nontraditional age. These students face personal challenges that many in previous generations didn’t. Many are reluctant to engage faculty and staff with questions or arguments out of fear of failure or rejection. They and their families have no experience in navigating college studies, debating academic issues and ideas or pursuing critical sources of financial aid.
Providing safe spaces for these students — that is, places and contexts in which they can reflect on and address these unfamiliar issues without fear of failure or rejection by others — proves critical to their success. As colleges and universities seek to increase rates of student retention and graduation, we must (and we are) creating these spaces.
We are responding to the unique needs of many of our students solely for the purpose of increasing their academic and personal success.”
In doing so, are we succumbing to the pressures of political correctness on campus? No. We are responding to the unique needs of many of our students solely for the purpose of increasing their academic and personal success.
Ironically, the University of Chicago’s welcoming message is, in itself, a trigger warning to students — the campus offers no safe spaces or warnings about potentially offensive or harmful content in its curricula or programs.