The University of Chicago’s acceptance letter for the incoming class of 2020 is more than that— it’s a declaration of academic freedom. The college’s Dean of Students Jay Ellison used the letter to welcome students and reclaim the definition of college. An education at the University of Chicago is not about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” he wrote, but “rigorous debate, discussion…disagreement,” and even occasional “discomfort.”
This daring correspondence begins:
Welcome and congratulations on your acceptance to the college at the University of Chicago. Earning a place in our community of scholars is no small achievement and we are delighted that you selected Chicago to continue your intellectual journey.
Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. This is captured in the University’s faculty report on freedom of expression. Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.
Ellison got specific about the trendy retreats from dissenting views in which the school won’t engage, adding that diversity of ideas is part of the college’s diversity strategy.
Our commitment to academic freedom means that 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.
Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority— building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espous and explore a wide range of ideas.
The letter’s content is so countercultural on the college scene, it left some wondering if it was real.
A university administrator forewarning students that they might actually be uncomfortable is so unheard of these days that I worried Ellison’s letter was actually a fake—even though The Chicago Maroon retweeted it. So I emailed Ellison’s office to confirm it.
‘I can confirm that the letter is authentic,’ a U of C spokesperson told Reason.
Bravo, Chicago. Bravo.
Some are under the impression this policy might be disturbing to conservative and libertarian students, who have been so very accustomed to being a coddled majority on college campuses up until now, I guess.
The conservatives gloating about @uchicago's "No Safe Spaces" policy don't appear to think it will apply to them, too, the dear wee lads.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) August 25, 2016
It is glaringly obvious, of course, that “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” are not the creations of a handful of Wellesley College Republicans. But the good news for liberal campus activists is open debate benefits everyone, even (especially) those who dislike it most.
For students who might need more information about the concepts of rigorous debate and freedom of expression— which, let’s face it, many of them probably do— Ellison offered supplemental materials including a history of free-wheeling debate at the university and a committee report by faculty on their commitment to free expression.
It is a sad commentary on higher education that this is considered a brave and bold move, but it is, and the University of Chicago should be applauded mightily for stating what used to be obvious.
Read the whole letter here.
In a welcome letter to freshmen, the College made clear that it does not condone safe spaces or trigger warnings: pic.twitter.com/9ep3n0ZbgV
— The Chicago Maroon (@ChicagoMaroon) August 24, 2016