UChicago inhibiting student empowerment

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Photo Courtesy of books-not-bombs.com
Photo Courtesy of books-not-bombs.com

Phil Brown
SENIOR STAFF WRITER

Who doesn’t believe in the ideals of free speech? As a student newspaper, our journalistic integrity depends on our ability to freely report the news and comment on it to the best of our ability and to our own discretion, without fearing censorship from the institutions that govern us. Those of us that write and have written for this paper would doubtless all value free speech. Free speech is an ideal anyone can get on board with, it’s a toss-up.

The University of Chicago sent out a letter late last month to incoming freshman positioning itself as a champion of “freedom of inquiry and expression,” and as such, claimed that “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces” and the removal of “controversial” campus speakers would infringe on this value of free speech. It’s a response to a student movement that has become widespread on campuses across the nation to make classrooms more critical, equitable, and yes, “safer” for students.

Here at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, many professors and faculty members have implemented some of the elements of that movement into classes and programming across campus. The Student Safety page on UNO’s website claims “All members of the UNO community are responsible for ensuring the safety and security of our students while treating them with honesty and respect.”

In practice, this means that the university has made many concrete steps towards providing a more equitable experience for students in the classroom and out. A recent example would be ensuring access to gender-neutral bathrooms in many of the buildings on campus for those who feel unsafe or uncomfortable in the public gendered bathrooms. In one of my recent class syllabuses, a professor pledged “to provide an environment that is free of bias, discrimination and harassment.”

The school also provides Safe Space Training to those who “wish to understand more about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex campus community.”

All of these things are part of the movement UChicago is responding to, but which of them actually constitute an infringement of “freedom of inquiry and expression?” The “safe space” movement, if UChicago is to be believed, is a suppressive one, a movement that aims to censor and neutralize dissent. However, this is not grounded in reality. Far from being a movement of suppression, of intellectual “retreat,” and one opposed to “academic freedom,” this movement is truly about empowerment and democracy for students. While the UChicago letter portrays safe-space advocates as simply wanting to shrink from ideas that cause them “discomfort,” this is an uncharitable, if not malicious, misrepresentation.

Safe spaces on college campuses don’t endanger academic freedom, they ensure academic freedom. An unsafe environment, or an unequitable environment, is not one that promotes the voices of all students.

Providing students with this modicum of safety, this small area of equitable treatment, empowers them, and enables them to truly partake in what UChicago loftily idealizes as “the free exchange of ideas.” The only ones who should tremble at the advance of “safe spaces” are those who would make them unsafe, those who would be inconvenienced at having to accommodate all students.

There we arrive at the reality behind the grandly-worded UChicago letter. It’s not a letter in defense of free speech as it would have you believe. It’s a letter against the growing empowerment of students in universities. It’s an expression of the fear this particular university has of a campus where students feel safer and more powerful.

This is not the first time the university has expressed this fear. UChicago has a long and sordid history of suppressing student movements, including the worst response to any student movement in the history of the “student movement” era, in which they expelled 42 students and suspended 81 in response to a sit-in protest in 1969. They have continued these anti-student tactics into the modern day.

Tyler Kissinger, former UChicago student body president, was threatened with expulsion for helping organize a sit-in protest, and was only allowed to graduate this spring on disciplinary probation. Kissinger spoke out on Facebook in response to the letter, claiming that “while the university tries to whitewash its supposed commitment to free speech and ‘rigorous inquiry’ by flashy PR grabs, my four years at UChicago convinced me that administrators were the most coddled and unwilling to engage with ideas they found challenging out of all the members of our community.”

A university that punishes and threatens its own students for making themselves heard through protest on campus and attempting to influence their own education cannot possibly be said to be a champion of “freedom of inquiry and expression.” The UChicago attack on safe spaces is nothing more than an attack on students themselves.

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