From the Executive Director

Some Notes on Safe Spaces

James Grossman and Sadie Bergen | Oct 17, 2016

AHA Executive Director James GrossmanIn late August, the dean of students at the University of Chicago, John Ellison, stirred up a hornet's nest with a letter to incoming students denouncing "so-called 'trigger warnings'" and "intellectual 'safe spaces'" as antithetical to the university's mission. The letter followed up on issues in the institution's widely praised 2015 report on freedom of expression, which held that "concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community"—admitting only narrow exceptions. The report affirmed a long history of academic freedom as the university's chosen defining value.

One of us (Jim) reflected a bit on safe spaces in this magazine ("'Safe From' and 'Safe For': Academics, University Culture, and Campus Carry," January 2016). The other (Sadie) is a 2015 graduate of the University of Chicago. After more than 150 faculty members signed a provocative critical response to Ellison's letter, published in the Chicago Maroon, as well as a vigorous conversation among AHA staff, we decided to immodestly offer some reflections on the broader inferences to be drawn from the three documents together: the 2015 report, Ellison's letter, and the faculty response.

The dean's letter declares institutional opposition to trigger warnings. The faculty response stands this on its head by asserting that academic freedom for faculty means that any instructor at the university may use trigger warnings in their classroom. Or not. To require trigger warnings would be an imposition on academic freedom; to prohibit them (in this case, to officially oppose their use) would be as well. As for safe spaces, Ellison's failure to define the term in context belies the principle that academic freedom defines all classrooms as safe spaces in which all speech is protected.

This is what makes universities special—indeed, what makes them "safe" places. Other institutions don't promise such space. Consider the private sector. Whatever one's position on the complexities embodied in conversations about trigger warnings, safe spaces, and related issues, there is a crucial point to be made here relating to the vast literature on the corporatization of universities. The faculty response to Ellison's letter could not have happened in a corporation. These employees would be terminated. Many nonprofits and most political organizations (left and right) would not permit this level of public dissent from their own staff. Taken together, the letters embody and evoke the imperative of academic freedom and the unique role that colleges and universities play in American public culture.

To require trigger warnings would be an imposition on academic freedom; to prohibit them would be as well.

Ellison's dismissal of safe spaces inspires another reminder as well: that everything has a history, including the idea of safe spaces itself. This concept cannot be dismissed as an of-the-moment buzzword. As the faculty response says, it has a history in the "gay, civil rights, and feminist efforts of the mid-20th century to create places protected from quite real forces of violence and intimidation." As the intersections between identity and power have been teased out over the decades, "safe space" has held different meanings depending on how and whether we meant "safe for whom?" and "safe from what?" Moreover, though it is important to note the term's roots in a particular era of activism, it's also true that the idea of a protected space organized around a group's common identity or set of shared principles should be familiar to students of any period. The ahistorical invocation of "safe space" in Ellison's letter stands in sharp contrast to the historical sensibility of the faculty's response, the dean's repeated reference to the legacy of academic freedom at the university, and the decision to enclose with his letter a short history of academic freedom at the university, penned by another dean. Think historically, but only sometimes?

The faculty response also suggests to the university's students that the debate over whether they're there to learn how to earn, or there to learn how to participate as critical thinkers in a democratic polity, represents a false dichotomy. As the faculty response put it, "The best spaces for independent thought and action may be those you create yourselves." All Americans should support institutions that bring such spaces to life and encourage animated debate within them, and all colleges and universities should take care that such spaces not be left to wither on the vine. Creating such spaces requires that we combine the virtues of independent thought with collaborative action and creative spirit: just what a dynamic economy needs.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. Sadie Bergen is assistant editor at the AHA. She tweets @sadiebergen.

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