Academic Freedom and Institutional Power at My Old School

The University of Chicago, where I did my graduate work in the late 1970s and early 80s, doesn’t make headlines all that often. It’s been a top academic institution for more than a century, but hasn’t had a great sports team since Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg was pushed out the door in 1932. The most famous thing that ever happened there — Enrico Fermi’s self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction in December, 1942 — was secret at the time. [1] And despite the occasional law lecturer like Barack Obama or econ professor like Milton Friedman who wanders into the public eye, the bulk of Chicago’s faculty does research far too esoteric to draw any reaction from the mass culture.

But like a disguised celebrity who succeeds in attending a public event without being recognized, the U of C community takes a perverse sort of pride in its relative obscurity: History will notice us, so CNN doesn’t have to.

Nonetheless, the University caused a buzz this week because of an unusual welcome letter the Dean of Students sent to the incoming freshman class. The letter made the Chicago experience sound more like boot camp than a nurturing environment where young people can find themselves and achieve intellectual maturity. The Dean warned his new flock that the rigorous academic debate they will hear “may challenge you and even cause discomfort”, and that the U of C

does not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not approve the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

The letter received a wave of acclaim from the sorts of elders who think the younger generation has gone soft, [2] or who wring their hands and clutch their pearls about “political correctness”. Like much of the discussion of political correctness, the Dean’s letter struck me as disingenuous. Academic freedom is not the simple issue Dean Ellison is making it out to be, and he is not necessarily on the side of the angels.

To begin with, he pulls together two issues — trigger warnings and controversies over invited speakers — that are related only through the false frame he has constructed for them. In neither case is the alleged over-sensitivity of today’s students the real issue. Most of the commentary on this has focused on trigger warnings (and I’ll get to that), but I think I’ll start with controversial speakers, because I have some history there.

Controversial speakers. The Dean’s statement that “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial” took me back to the only protest I participated in during my years at Chicago: In 1979 a substantial segment of the student body was outraged when the University decided to give a prestigious award (for “outstanding contributions to international understanding”) to Robert McNamara, one of the con-men who had sold the American public the idea that we were winning the Vietnam War. The anti-McNamara demonstration was a true 60s flashback; Chicago cops dragged people away by their throats and everything. (I was on the sidelines and escaped unharmed.)

Nearly four decades later, I remain convinced that we were right and the University was wrong. By mingling Chicago’s prestige with McNamara’s toxic legacy, the administration was failing in its duty to protect the University’s reputation. And this absolutely was the student’s business, since we were working and paying to attach that reputation to our names.

That’s typical of the “controversial speaker” flaps that are still happening today. They’re not about limiting free speech or protecting over-sensitive students from upsetting ideas. They’re about administrators misusing (and hence endangering) their universities’ prestige.

So, for example, when faculty and student protests got former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to back out of speaking at the 2014 Rutgers commencement, the issue wasn’t that a conservative speaker might say something liberal students would find upsetting. The issue was that “commencement speaker” is a position of honor; a university implicitly presents the speaker as a role model for its graduates. Many in the Rutgers community found it inappropriate to honor someone who promoted the deceptions that started the disastrous Iraq War and collaborated in the Bush administration’s torture regime. Rather than expecting honors from universities like Rutgers, Secretary Rice should be happy that she’s not on trial at The Hague.

Appropriate gatekeeping. A university is not and should not be a podium from which all ideas are proclaimed equally. When a university presents speakers in some official context — at commencement, in named lectures, as course presenters, and elsewhere — it legitimizes their message. The university doesn’t necessarily endorse that message as truth, but it does say that the speaker deserves attention and presents a point of view that an educated person should be familiar with.

So while, for example, it could be entirely appropriate for a political science department to host Ben Carson so that he could discuss his experiences running for office, it would be malpractice for a history department to invite him to present his belief that the Biblical Joseph built Egypt’s pyramids to store grain. There are many academically legitimate theories about the pyramids, but that is not one of them.

The Tattooed Professor offers an edgier example:

To move from the hypothetical to the real, the Virginia Tech students who protested their university’s invitation to Charles Murray to deliver a lecture weren’t some sort of intellectual gestapo, they were members of a community calling out other members’ violation of the community’s ethos. Murray is a racist charlatan who’s made a career out of pseudoscientific social darwinist assertions that certain “races” are inherently inferior to others. To bring him to campus is to tell segments of your student community that, according to the ideas the university is endorsing by inviting Murray, they don’t belong there. This isn’t a violation of academic freedom. It’s an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse — you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for, right?

Especially in the internet era, when any kind of wild notion can gain a wide audience and corporate money can create an imposing facade of intellectual authority, this gatekeeping role is an important part of a university’s mission. For example, universities should promote a well-informed and wide-ranging debate about President Obama’s anti-terrorism policies, but not about whether he is secretly a Muslim in league with our enemies. A university that legitimizes baseless conspiracy theories diverts attention from topics that need and deserve it.

The major threat to universities’ ability to perform this function honestly comes not from students below, but from administrators above. Like political candidates, universities face a constant temptation to bend to the will of their funders, and the Koch Brothers and other billionaires are working hard to buy academic legitimacy for ideas that could not compete on their intellectual merit. Like big-name journalists, university presidents can also be corrupted by their exposure to power; once you get accepted into the social world of cabinet secretaries and corporate CEOs, their point of view takes on an authority it does not deserve.

Student protest is a counterweight to this executive corruption, and students should be commended, not condemned, for keeping watch on who their universities honor and which ideas they legitimize. To the extent that Dean Ellison’s letter intimidates students into shutting up, or emboldens other administrators to ignore students’ views, it undermines the mission of a true university.

Trigger warnings. This is not a new controversy, and a very good defense of trigger warnings appeared in New York Magazine in 2014. First, Kat Stoeffel explains the history:

They were popularized in the feminist blogosphere, to warn participants of the self-designated safe spaces about stories involving rape, abuse, or self-harm that might induce flashbacks to their own past traumas

From there the concept expanded to blog posts about racism and various other isms, until eventually they started showing up in university course descriptions. Stoeffel describes how she initially rolled her eyes at the whole idea, but has since changed her mind.

Why should trigger warnings bother me? Like many of trigger warnings’ loudest opponents, I have noticed, I have no firsthand experience with rape or racial discrimination or cissexism. And a few words at the beginning of an article (or on a seminar syllabus) are no skin off my un-traumatized nose.

In fact, what now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite. What is it about about this entirely free gesture of empathy that makes people so outraged? In their distress, critics have entirely overlooked an important distinction: Oberlin students aren’t trying to get out of reading Mrs. Dalloway because they’re special, sensitive snowflakes, or even get it removed from syllabi. They just want a three-word note on the syllabus giving them a heads-up that it addresses suicide. If that’s all it takes for instructors to prevent the shock it could cause a student who has been suicidal, it is, to me, a no-brainer.

Erika Price describes how this works from both an instructor’s and a reader’s point of view.

It is impossible for a professor or teacher to anticipate every student’s triggers, and frankly, I’ve never met a student who was demanding or entitled about having their specific triggers tagged in advance. What I have encountered, numerous times, are students who have a trauma history or a mental illness that involves triggers, who are only willing to gently and quietly request trigger warnings after I have made my pro-TW stance abundantly clear. These requests have always been polite and reasonable, and have never involved scrubbing my syllabus clean of challenging material.

… Because I am a rape survivor with trauma triggers, I know firsthand that the experience of using trigger warnings completely contradicts the anti-TW stereotype. I am not a soft-willed, petulant baby. I am a battle-tested, iron-willed survivor who has faced far more personal horror than any anti-TW demagogue could. I do not use TW’s to “protect myself” from writing that challenges me intellectually. I read writing by people I disagree with on a daily basis, for both academic and personal enrichment; my use of trigger warnings to sometimes avoid rape- and stalking-related content is utterly irrelevant to that. And the use of trigger warnings does not make me weak. Trigger warnings empower me by allowing me to customize my reading-about-rape experience. I get to choose when and how I present myself with upsetting or triggering content. This makes it easier for me to do so regularly. [3] And for the record, when I am faced with triggering material, I am not a trembling, weeping wreck, fuck you very much.

Like anything else, the idea can be misapplied. [4] But we don’t abandon the whole notion of product-safety liability just because people sometimes sue for trivial reasons. By rejecting the trigger-warning notion wholesale, Dean Ellison is short-circuiting a potentially fruitful academic discussion: What kind of consideration do individual students have a right to expect, and when are they imposing too much on the group? By declaring this whole debate illegitimate literally from Day One, it is Dean Ellison who is retreating from ideas and perspectives at odds with his own. He “wins” not by marshaling a better argument, but by invoking his institutional power: ME DEAN. YOU STUDENT.

Safe spaces. I think this part of the discussion borders on the ridiculous. Nobody lives 24/7 in an environment of unfettered academic critique. Nor is that a goal anyone should aspire to.

I hope every student finds a safe space somewhere and retreats to it when under stress. Even if it’s just a friend’s dorm room or some remote corner of the library stacks that no one else seems to know about, everybody should have one. And if students collectively decide to create a limited space where, say, no one is going to tell you that rape victims had it coming, I don’t see the harm.

Ali Barthwell nailed it:

Imagine you’re inviting a friend over to your house and before they say yes, you go “Oh, by the way, I have a dog in case you’re allergic.” THAT’S a trigger warning.

Imagine your friend says they do have a dog allergy so you agree to keep your dog out of your living room and vacuum everything so there’s no dander. THAT’s a safe space.

That’s what you assholes are against.

Trauma and empathy. Every life contains some amount of trauma, which really ought to give us all empathy for people who have been through worse.

Twenty years ago, I accompanied my wife to a doctor’s appointment, where we heard an unexpectedly bad diagnosis. For a time, I was convinced that I would spend the next two years or so watching her slide into a painful death. (That didn’t happen; she’s fine.) Afterwards it was lunchtime, so we stopped at a Mexican restaurant we used to go to occasionally. It was the only time since childhood when I literally could not stop crying.

I’ve never been back to that restaurant. It’s not their fault, and I imagine their food is still good. But there are other Mexican restaurants where I don’t have to remember crying my eyes out in public, so I go to them instead. If you’re ever going out to lunch with me and innocently suggest that restaurant, I’ll politely nudge you somewhere else. Indulge me; it’s not that big an ask.

Most of us — even if we were never raped or held hostage by terrorists or forced to watch our parents’ murder — can recall some lesser trauma. And I suspect a lot of us have some place we don’t go or thing we don’t do or product we stay away from. Maybe we could all pluck up our courage and confront those limitations, but most of us don’t. Life is too short and courage too limited to spend it so freely.

Whatever traumatic moment you can remember, imagine somebody who went through something ten times worse. If they’re not asking you for much, maybe you could indulge them. That’s all this controversy is about.


[1] Funny story related to that: Decades before I came to Chicago, Eckhart Hall, which houses the Mathematics Department, was a Manhattan Project building. As a math teaching assistant I had an office in the basement, and for several years I spent about as much time down there as a troll spends in his cave. After I got my degree, I was packing up my books when workmen came in to grind off and repatch hotspots in the floor and walls, because the government had just tightened the standards for allowable background radiation. “Now you tell me,” I said.

[2] By any objective standard (other than maybe background radiation) the current generation of students has it much harder than mine did. Most of them will leave school with a vast amount of debt, and will enter a far more uncertain job market. Older folks should be looking for ways to make their lives easier, not harder.

[3] There’s an analogy here from the history of commerce: The insurance industry did not grow because ship captains became more fearful. Quite the opposite, the protection provided by insurance allowed captains to become more adventurous.

[4] Another resemblance to the political correctness debate is the high urban-legend factor. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who read about a really outrageous example of a demand for a trigger warning (that for some reason could not be answered by a simple “no”). But when you go looking for verifiable examples of real damage to academic freedom, the pickings are pretty slim.

The one example that keeps showing up, Jeannie Suk Gerson’s discussion of teaching rape law at Harvard, seems to me to be as much about faculty laziness as student sensitivity. Gerson concludes:

If the topic of sexual assault were to leave the law-school classroom, it would be a tremendous loss — above all to victims of sexual assault.

Yes it would. But are “cover the topic insensitively” and “drop it” really the only options? I discussed a similar excluded-middle thought pattern with regard to policing in “Rich Lowry’s False Choice“.

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Comments

  • Kenneth Sutton  On August 29, 2016 at 10:30 am

    One of my other favorite writers (and Chicago graduate) also covered the letter, and pointed out that ratings (as in movie ratings) and content advisories on music and video games are trigger warnings. http://whatever.scalzi.com/2016/08/28/the-university-of-chicago-trigger-warnings-and-safe-spaces/

  • Xan  On August 29, 2016 at 11:02 am

    Nailed it, as usual. And made me remember my own restaurant-that-I-never-go-to because of something traumatic that happened to me there. Thanks all around for finding the way to make this relatable.

  • Rebecca (@Geaux_RC)  On August 29, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    Nicely said. This particular topic is of great interest to me since I teach some of these “special little snowflakes” in college. And yes, I use that term to mock the people who seem to think Millennials are overly coddled cry babies who shut down at the first sign of not getting their way. (Have they not been paying attention to the GOP since 2008?) Sure, trigger warnings and safe spaces and protests can all go too far or become too ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean you eliminate them entirely. When students do or say or demand things that seem out of proportion to the issue, then you talk about it. You don’t tell them to never ask a question again.

  • @jacquiemardell  On August 29, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    What happens after the trigger warning? Everybody goes about their business and we all study the material, or or the student takes the next step and claims they can’t be held accountable for the material because it triggers something? What happens then?

    • jooyous  On August 29, 2016 at 5:03 pm

      It’s the same as students asking for extensions on things. Maybe they have a legitimate one-time thing going on, or maybe they’re that student whose grandmother keeps dying every few weeks. It’s kind of up to the professor and how they want to structure the course.

      And it’s better in college because you get to know the student and get a sense for what they’re doing. People on the street abuse the food allergy thing all the time — they don’t like some ingredient and they’ll say they’re allergic and the establishment has to scrub down the entire place to accommodate them.

    • Alan  On August 30, 2016 at 12:49 am

      What happens after a trigger warning in a syllabus?

      For most people, they ignore it.

      For some people for whom it will be a problem, they have time to make whatever preparations they need: maybe just psyching themselves up, maybe preparing to have someone to talk to afterward, maybe working with their therapist. Simply knowing in advance can make a world of difference.

      For some people, they cannot handle it. They have the option to talk to the professor about alternate options; in some cases the content in question isn’t essential to the class, or perhaps can be approached differently.

      Alternate options may be possible. If so, the student will need to drop out. Better for it to happen at the start of the semester when the student can scramble for another class and someone on the waiting list can join than for it to be a surprise halfway though.

      If the class is essential for a major, perhaps that major isn’t suitable for that person. In practice it isn’t going to happen terribly often; most people have a reasonable sense of what their major entails.

      Not being held accountable for the material? Not going to happen. I’m sure you can find some teenagers on Tumblr who think it’s a good idea, but it’s not what trigger warning advocates are asking for. I’m also sure some students will try to argue it; there is along history of trying to weasel out of work, and the ability to look a student square in the eyes and say “No,” is job requirement.

  • Abby Hafer  On August 29, 2016 at 7:31 pm

    One thing I have thought about is this: There is a great deal of discussion and imagery about rape of women in a) literature b) history c) law, to name but a few subject areas. Including Shakespeare, for goodness’ sake. He wrote “The Rape of Lucree” when he decided that he wanted to be taken seriously as a poet. There is nearly no discussion about rape of men, which can happen. I remember one time being in conversation with a man and the topic of the homosexual rape scene in “Deliverance” came up. The guy could barely even stand to have it mentioned in his presence, and would only talk about it in an “I’m-doing-my-best-to-not-talk-about-this” sort of way. Basically, the less said, the better, and never mentioning it would have been better still. Contrast this with the multiplicity of scenes involving female rape, that happen in movies, TV shows, literature, history, etc., pretty much on a daily basis. Let us imagine for a moment a college course that specialized in finding every male homosexual rape scene in literature, history, movies, TV, etc. Somehow I strongly suspect that if the course flew at all, it would have had a vigorous trigger warning even in the course catalogue, even before the term “trigger warning” had been invented. Guys just aren’t expected to be so calm about being brutalized as women are expected to be.

    • weeklysift  On September 1, 2016 at 3:32 pm

      We don’t handle discussions of castration very well either.

Trackbacks

  • By Outrageous Empathy | The Weekly Sift on August 29, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    […] week’s featured posts are “Academic Freedom and Institutional Power at My Old School” about the University of Chicago’s denunciation of trigger warnings and its affirmation […]

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