The Dean of Students at the University of Chicago’s undergraduate college sent a weird letter to incoming first-year students this week.
On the one hand, it welcomed the new kids, expressing “delight” that they’d chosen the University of Chicago. On the other hand, it warned them that those evil bugaboos of college campuses, trigger warnings and safe spaces, will find no quarter in Hyde Park.
Was Dean Ellison responding to a wave of organizing among U Chicago’s notoriously conservative student body? Were its bookish economists and classics majors objecting to the literature of dead white males?
No—I think this was all about donors.
Just two weeks before the dean’s letter, The New York Times ran a lengthy investigation of the decline of donations to Yale, Princeton, and Amherst, profiling seven old white guys (aged 57 to 86) who were writing the colleges out of their will, penning angry letters to student newspapers, and the like.
According to the article, 29 percent of small, liberal arts colleges reported a decline in donations between 2015 and 2016. At Amherst, the alumni participation rate dropped to its lowest level since 1975, when the college began admitting women.
Another report described a drop in donations to the University of Missouri in the wake of now-former professor Melissa Click, who cursed at a police officer and tried to prevent journalists from approaching a student protest.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a letter from the dean telling U Chicago students not to be babies.
Considering that anti-P.C. crusaders often depict students as humorless brats—“they missed irony class that day” said one frustrated Yalie—there were a lot of ironies in the Chicago letter.
First, the university isn’t actually doing anything. “Safe spaces,” for example, are generally declared by student groups, not universities. And trigger warnings are provided, or not, by professors.
And what are safe spaces, really? They’re temporary zones where the usual privileges of being, yes, a straight, white, relatively rich, empowered male are turned on their heads, and other people’s sensitivities come first. If, like me, you’re in that demographic, you’re meant to feel uncomfortable. Ironically, it’s the white dudes like me who need to grow a pair, not the activists pushing back against us. We’re the ones who apparently need to be told to grow the hell up.
Second, by “not tolerating” trigger warnings, Dean Ellison is suppressing free speech in the name of free speech. As one professor wrote in the Times, it’s professors’ business if they want to warn their students before they read texts involving rape, sexual abuse, and other topics that could trigger traumatic reactions. Trigger warnings aren’t for delicate students; they’re for trauma survivors. And if a professor wants to issue one—not so that students can dodge issues they prefer to avoid, but so that they can prepare themselves so they don’t freak out about them—why should the dean of students forbid her from speaking as she wishes, in her own classroom?
In fact, the dean’s letter itself is a gigantic trigger warning.
“Beware,” it basically tells incoming students, “you will not receive trigger warnings at the University of Chicago. Consider this your trigger warning.”
In fact, the letter will likely have the opposite effect on some students. For example, the letter said “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial.” Well, then bring on Rami Kanzu, Monzer Taleb, and other speakers who have been invited by chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, only to be opposed and sometimes banned by conservative pro-Israel groups.
And it seems inevitable that the proposed ban on safe spaces will be discussed by various affinity groups in safe spaces, i.e., places free of angry white men who have a habit of interrupting women and people of color without noticing.
That’s why it’s clear that this letter’s true audience was not the students to which it was addressed, but the alumni who can now read it on the right-wing blogosphere. (Interestingly, the site to which the letter referred its readers, freexpression.uchicago.edu, was down when I checked it today.) After all, for every one Amherst alumnus dismayed at the renunciation of Lord Jeffrey Amherst (who advocated the genocide of Native Americans by spreading smallpox among them), there are hundreds of conservative Chicago alumni. This, after all, is where neo-conservatism was born.
This letter, in other words, was a prime example of virtue signaling, which is when a person makes a statement merely to burnish their credentials within an ideological community. Look at me, the letter says, I oppose political correctness. And that’s pretty much all it says.
Which is why issues like trigger warnings, safe spaces, and political correctness have been so blown out of proportion of late. Of course, there have been occasional outrages like Yale’s ousting of Erika Christakis over an innocuous Halloween note—but then again, she resigned, unlike Professor Click, who was fired by Mizzou. And really, who cares if a professor says “warning, there’s some racist language in this book” or a student group says “we’re not here to discuss whether white privilege exists right now”?
Well, donors care, readers care, potential voters care, and so therefore, people will write letters and blog posts to inflame tempers, or as is likely in this case, to calm them.
By coincidence, the U Chicago dean’s letter came out the same week that the National Labor Relations Board ruled that teaching and research assistants, who work for years as barely-paid serfs, and who until now have frequently been banned from organizing a union, are entitled to do so. The University of Chicago sent out another letter, this time to all faculty and graduate students, alleging (with no evidence, since none exists) that such a union could “be detrimental to students’ education and preparation for future careers.”
That kind of issue points toward the real crises affecting American higher education, issues that have nothing to do with Halloween costumes and everything to do with decreases in state funding, increases in corporate funding, the demise of tenure, and outrageous spirals of indebtedness and even poverty among academics. Funny, Dean Ellison didn’t provide any trigger warnings for those.