In a welcome letter to incoming freshmen, the University of Chicago took a stand against much-debated trigger warnings and safe spaces on campus. The university's position, the letter insisted, was based on the administration's "commitment to academic freedom" and their dedication to "fostering the free exchange of ideas" and "diversity of opinion and background."
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. You've probably heard some version of the recurring brouhaha over trigger warnings, safe spaces and political correctness on college campuses.
MAN: Today’s college kids are so coddled, so protected, they’re the equivalent of a 13-year-old from a century ago. Why give them freedom of any kind?
RADIO HOST STEVEN CROWDER: You're fighting for the right to be a pussy and not hear opinions that you don't like!
[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE/END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The latest iteration of this debate unfolded last week, after a letter sent to incoming freshmen at the University of Chicago had this to say, quote, “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.” The letter sparked glee from some, outrage from others and, to that, UChicago has since said, we’ve been misinterpreted. However, the underlying issue remains: Is free expression on college campuses being stifled by tools like trigger warnings and safe spaces?
Cameron Okeke graduated from the University of Chicago in 2015. He wrote a piece this week in Vox, titled, "I'm a black UChicago graduate. Safe spaces got me through college." As the title suggests, he wrote in response to that welcome letter to his alma mater’s incoming class.
CAMERON OKEKE: I, I was upset when I first read it. In my time at the University of Chicago, I hadn’t really encountered places where I could run away from people's perspectives, but I could find places where people didn’t question who I was. And I thought that’s a very different type of safe space, and so, that’s how it led me to write the piece.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's talk about the unsafe environment that the safe space provides a sanctuary from.
CAMERON OKEKE: So the University of Chicago has been under Title IX investigation for a while now. There has been a task force, dialogue after dialogue, but the fact still remains, there's been a long history of ignoring marginalized populations. There’s been racist parties, there have been incidents of racist costumes, there has been the creation of this place called the [LAUGHS] University of Chicago Politically Incorrect, which included a plethora of hateful, threatening, disdainful speech about students, like personally attacking students. And that doesn’t even speak to the amount of sexual assault mishandlings that have happened over the last couple of years. And so, the climate is one in which if you’re a person of color or if you are a woman or basically if you’re a person who doesn’t have a privileged identity, you don't have the type of institutional support or backing that other students may have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you’ve found a safe space, which turns out to be the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
CAMERON OKEKE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] And when I was there, you know, it, it wasn’t that I wasn't challenged, that no one would take my ideas and kind of run them through the intellectual wringer, but I was never being pestered by other students to explain what it means to be black or being tested in such a way to see if I actually fit the UChicago –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Profile?
CAMERON OKEKE: - int – profile, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] You didn't fit the profile?
CAMERON OKEKE: Not at all. I mean, I was a first generation student born on the South Side of Chicago, and [LAUGHS] I’m black, so it was a very – it was one of those situations where people were like, oh, what are you doing here, is it affirmative action? I can’t tell you how many questions I fielded about black culture, about why black people don't value education, why is the South Side of Chicago dangerous, blah-blah-blah-blah. And in OMSA, if anyone asked these questions they would ask them in a respectful manner. They didn’t assume or demand an answer from me, as if I was only there to be the diversity for them. They cared about me as a person. And I think that having that type of space made me more willing to offer up my perspective and actually exercise my speech.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve made the point that trigger warnings and safe spaces actually are conducive to academic freedom.
CAMERON OKEKE: We have seen, time and time again, that diversity for diversity’s sake is not enough. We can’t just have people of color in a room, we can’t just have women in a room and expect them to speak. Freedom of speech is not something that has ever been equally accessible in our nation. We have to do work for that. And I think that part of what trigger warnings and safe spaces do, they do the work to give people a way to step away from the conversation so they can reenter it when they feel like they can, and it gives people the freedom to engage when they need to and then also step away when they, when they can't. And I think that that enriches the conversation, as opposed to undermining it, ‘cause it, it just doesn't work, trying to force people into a conversation that they don't want to have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Critics call that coddling - your generation’s just so sensitive!
CAMERON OKEKE: Mm [LAUGHS], we are, we are sensitive. I honestly think that the critics who claim that we can’t take the realness of the real world don't seem to understand that being born black, being born a woman, being born whatever way you are that doesn’t fit into the mainstream norm means your life is already hard. I was already living in the real world before I came to the University of Chicago. And I don’t ask the university to coddle me any more than I guess any other student would ask them to accommodate their needs, especially given the fact that universities have spent the larger part of their history catering to and pandering to one demographic of people. And so, I think that there is a certain degree in which we should be able to ask for the university to change the way it functions to accommodate the diversity it claims that it wants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You have to assume that the U of Chicago sent this letter because administrators think that there is a stifling of expression and that it's part of a nationwide trend.
CAMERON OKEKE: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you see that happening?
CAMERON OKEKE: I see it happening but I don't see it happening because of the trigger warnings or because of safe spaces. We are living in what is, I think, an unprecedented political climate, but the university shouldn't use this in their welcoming letter. If they want to have a conversation about this, fine, that’d be great, but a welcoming letter for new high school graduates who are excited to be in this type of intellectually-stimulating, amazing environment is not the time to tell them what you do and don't condone. It’s a time to welcome them into that. We, as a university, we support diversity, we care about people, we’re doing our best - that's what a welcome letter should do. They tried to curb the trend but they didn’t do anything else but fan the flames.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cameron, thank you very much.
CAMERON OKEKE: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cameron Okeke graduated from the University of Chicago in 2015. He is currently earning a Master’s in Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University. His recent piece in Vox is called, "I'm a black UChicago graduate. Safe spaces got me through college."