Academic Freedom, or Privilege with Blinders?

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson wrote a thoughtful response to the University of Chicago’s declaration to the class of 2020 that they won’t find trigger warnings or intellectual safe spaces in Hyde Park, and promises another that specifically addresses safe spaces. I’ll leave him in charge of the cool, level-headed, intellectual arguments, and I’ll post as an angry alum. There was a lot I valued about getting an education at Chicago, but this (attention-grabbing stunt?) move really reminds me of the things that I liked least about being a Chicago Maroon.

The letter in question boasts of the University of Chicago’s long, and often controversial, commitment to academic freedom, referencing a free expression report and coordinated website. All these materials tell a story of an institution that has, for more than a hundred years, permitted and defended hosting controversial speakers, refused to censor controversial ideas, and valued deliberation. The report calls free expression “our inheritance, and our promise to the future.”

A cynic might think that this is a quick turnaround from the threat to expel a student body president who facilitated a protest for campus workers to make a living wage just a couple of months ago. But someone with a long view on the University’s history might think that the University has made a distinction between a narrowly-defined academic freedom, and freedom to/ability to speak more generally – where the former often comes at the expense of or during the suppression of the latter. In fact, one can find this distinction codified, where the University’s “protest” policy, located far away in web-clicks from its “freedom of expression policy” has a very low bar for disruptive behavior (which, ironically, some academic “free speech” might meet, using the letter of the law). The University of Chicago has been noted as one of the institutions that cracked down the strongest (most unreasonably?) on Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s and 1970s. While academic speech in a confined sort of environment (a traditional speaker giving a traditional talk with questions and answers) is highly valued at the University of Chicago, I never got the sense that free expression generally was nearly as valued, especially when it was protest speech.

This is one of the things that makes me angry about the University’s hard line on trigger warnings and safe spaces – the University of Chicago is a place for free expression, among students, in a classroom, about things “outside” the university rather than about how the university is or what the university is or how it works. In fact, on at least two occasions, the University has suppressed protest speech directly related to University practices. This means that UChicago students have a particular sort of freedom – all ideas in the classroom and at talks – but lack other freedoms, particularly participating in the shaping of their institution when the institution refuses to engage their concerns.

That is a problem, but it isn’t my biggest problem. My biggest problem is the University of Chicago touting free expression without there being scrutiny on what the University chooses to be silent about. I think that the University chooses problematic, discriminatory, white-washing silences, and that those matter both in its claims to freedom of expression generally, and the trigger warning/safe space debate specifically.

As an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Chicago, I was mailed driving directions to get to campus from the south, before in-car or on-phone GPS was a thing. I trusted the University to give directions to itself more efficiently than I could figure out on the atlas. The driving directions from the south were to drive up the Dan Ryan to Lake Shore Drive, then south on Lake Shore Drive to campus. For those of you who know Chicago, or can look at a map,  I drove almost 14 miles on four-lane-highway at rush hour from the Dan Ryan exit on 55th Street to getting off of Lake Shore Drive on 57th street – which I think is about two miles on 55th street. The University sent me a ridiculous distance out of my way – why? I can only guess to stop my new-freshman eyes from seeing Washington Park as my first exposure to Chicago? The public transit directions to go Downtown were similarly narrow – they said to take the Jeffrey Bus (at the time it was the #6) or the University bus. You could even the 55 bus to the Red Line over the Dan Ryan, though I remember warnings about that at night. The problem? Between campus and the Red Line on the 55 bus was the Green Line – another way to get downtown.

I am sure the University saw it was public relations, or as keeping students safe, rather than as censorship, or painting a partial picture of the University’s world. The University has a long and storied history of relationships with the surrounding community that try to drive out diversity, which even John Boyer explains have played out on race and class lines. I remember attending a number of events at the University of Chicago which were nominally open to our non-affiliated neighbors but were neither welcoming or accessible. ‘The neighborhood’ was a place that we as students were encouraged to help, but not necessarily encouraged to learn from – the University was a resource for the neighborhood (limitedly, in its own view), but the neighborhood wasn’t treated as a resource for the University. Academic speech was valued in its quality, quantity, and freedom, but what constituted academic speech is narrow, confined by degrees and tuition dollars and an unrepresentative part of the population. This “fits” with a place that suppresses students’ protest speech, especially when that suppressed protest speech is about treating its workers, the neighborhood, its minority students, or its war-objector students with more justice.

At the end of the day, both of these problems – the hypocrisy of the juxtaposition of this statement with the threats to punish a protesting student earlier this year, and the speech the University chooses to promote compared to the speech the University chooses to silent/be silent on – make me angry about what appears to be a self-righteous statement about trigger warnings and safe spaces. I don’t have a well-formed opinion on trigger warnings and safe spaces – I see both sides of the argument – but I worry that the self-appreciating blanket announcement that they will not exist is yet another implicit bias and exclusion in a University that claims inclusiveness but whitewashes its exclusions. The people who need/want trigger warnings are another disadvantaged population that the University of Chicago is not taking serving seriously.

Why do I say that the University of Chicago is not taking serving those people seriously? The letter linked above does not talk about why people ask for trigger warnings and safe spaces; it doesn’t talk about the horrors of war or rape culture of child abuse or child molestation or any number of things that cause serious trauma and psychological damage. It doesn’t talk about resources that the University offers (like the counseling center, or student support groups) to deal with trauma and stress and triggers; it doesn’t talk about the barriers to learning that Patrick deals with; it doesn’t talk about making sure that the University of Chicago is an accessible learning environment. I think that its letter to its 2020 freshman showcases, both implicitly and explicitly, its axes of exclusion rather than its axes of inclusion.