In a comfortable looking room in the basement of the SAU, there’s a group of students sitting in a loose circle. Some are browsing their phones, some are doing work on laptops and others are idly chatting while eating. The room seems as innocuous and nondescript as any other place on campus during lunch time. Yet the Q Center, and places like it, have recently become the center of rigorous debate over the nature of speech in a college setting. That’s because the Q Center is a safe space.
This ever-present debate of what constitutes free speech in an academic community was reignited by a recent letter to incoming freshman at the University of Chicago in which it came out vocally against both trigger warnings and safe spaces.
“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,” said the University of Chicago freshman welcome letter.
“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,” said the letter.
This sentiment is not rare. Safe spaces, along with trigger warnings, have received negative connotations as of late; they’ve been described as a form of “self-infantilization” by the former president of Barnard College, Judith Shapiro. They’re pushing back the advances of the Enlightenment, according to British comedian Stephen Fry. Some say in addition to being self-centered and entitled, the ever-maligned millennials are apparently also emotionally fragile regressives, ready to crumble at the first sign of adversity.
However, the reality of safe spaces on campus is a lot more complex than that.
RIT has multiple spaces designed to foster a safe and respectful environment for all members of the RIT community. It also has multiple organizations meant to further support or enhance the college experience of students from diverse backgrounds. The Q Center offers support and information for LGBTQIA+ students, and OUTspoken is a student organization that advocates for LGBTQIA+ issues. Multicultural Center for Academic Success (MCAS) is an academic support group for African American, Latino/a American and Native American (AALANA) students and Global Union is a multicultural student group that encourages communication between all ethnic groups. The Center for Women and Gender focuses on relationship and gender issues. The Center for Religious Life is an interfaith community center.
“Safe spaces are where historically underrepresented, marginalized or oppressed groups can come together to find support and safety so they can go about the business of learning,” said Associate Director for the Center for Women and Gender Cha Ron Sattler-Leblanc. The Center functions as a safe space for anyone who needs it, but also aims to promote a campus environment that is safe and respectful to all.
“They’re a place where students can not have to worry about their identity, not worry about explaining themselves, and sort of recharge so that when they go back outside that space, they can focus on being a student,” she said.
Sattler-Leblanc brought up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a well-known psychological theory that considers the feeling of safety second only to physiological sustenance in human survival.
“If you don’t feel safe,” said Sattler-Leblanc, “or if you’re dealing with another underlying issue, it can be hard to learn.”
"If you don't feel safe ... it can be hard to learn."
“To say that we want to have intellectual discussion — that’s great, but we’re here for students,” said MCAS Senior Assistant Director Jonathan Ntheketha. “It’s important to have not just a level playing field, but open seats at the table."
One way to keep discussion fair and accessible for everyone is the use of trigger warnings, the safe space’s equally controversial cousin. Trigger warnings are a brief heads-up that precede sensitive content, such as content involving rape or bigotry. It may seem ridiculous to some, but trigger warnings can be helpful for those with conditions stemming from traumatic experiences.
“There’s consequences for what we say or that have an impact on other people. There's free speech, but there’s also impact,” said Sattler-Leblanc. Including trigger warnings validates and acknowledges past traumatic experiences, which leads to a more open and fair dialogue.
“Even if there’s only one student who feels that way, aren’t we marginalizing him or her if we just say ‘What you’re thinking is irrelevant, sorry you feel that way'? " asked Ntheketha.
“Even if there’s only one student who feels that way, aren’t we marginalizing him or her if we just say ‘What you’re thinking is irrelevant, sorry you feel that way'? ” asked Ntheketha. He said that one-size-fits-all education keeps everyone from contributing their perspectives to the community.
“We have to understand that things impact people in different ways. It may not be our intent but it's our reality,” he added. Because of this Ntheketha chooses his words more carefully.
Asking for these kinds of concessions often inspires pushback and tension, however. Third year Software Engineering student Chloe Søren Cleo has experienced this tension firsthand.
“Being non-binary, it’s definitely been rocky in terms of trying to get my professor and peers up-to-speed,” said Cleo.
MyCourses doesn’t currently have a system for requesting pronouns, meaning that the burden is on both binary and non-binary trans students to individually correspond with every professor or staff member they encounter.
“I had an instance where a professor did misgender me at the end of one of the class,” they said. Although the professor had no problem using the correct pronouns after a brief email correspondence, Cleo feels that the incident is representative of a larger problem. “It feels like it’s very much built against us. The administration only helps us around the obstacles instead of removing the obstacles,” they said.
“It feels like it’s very much built against us. The administration only helps us around the obstacles instead of removing the obstacles,” Cleo said.
Cleo considers removing institutional barriers like this one a matter of survival, not just of acceptance. Those who do not need a safe space often do not know what it means to be part of a marginalized group; for example, according to a survey by the Association of American Universities, one in four transgender students experience some form of sexual assault while in college. And although RIT is by and large a tolerant community, it’s far from totally accepting.
“I have witnessed multiple events of bullying and intentional misgendering,” said Cleo. “My experience is much different than yours in that the way I process that bullying becomes kind of like not ‘Oh, here's an incident’ — it becomes ‘This is the atmosphere now that I have to walk through. This is what potentially could happen to me.'” For Cleo, the necessity of a safe space is obvious.
The promotion of safe spaces within a university is an issue that is further complicated when considering student responses to controversial guest speakers.
DePaul University, located just miles away from the University of Chicago, found itself at the center of controversy for just that. The DePaul College Republicans had invited Milo Yiannopoulos, alt-right provocateur and Breitbart personality, to speak on campus. Yiannopoulos’ multitude of inflammatory statements about race and LGBTQIA+ people inspired virulent student protests, both supporting and opposing the speech from occurring.
Tension came to a head during the speech when a protester grabbed the microphone from Yiannopoulos. The disruption led to the speech being cancelled and a ban on future appearances by Yiannopoulos on campus. The protest and subsequent ban could be regarded as infringement on free speech, but they may also have been necessary to keep a peaceful campus.
“We do need to be able to have these conversations on campuses,” said Sattler-Leblanc. “We can’t shy away from difficult conversations. The questions is, what’s the appropriate way to do that?”
Although discourse involving controversial opinions and people is valuable, the way in which it's conducted is vitally important.
“Is it appropriate to protest?" asked Sattler-Leblanc. "I would probably say yes. Is it appropriate to rip the mic out of someone’s hands? That might be something different.”
RIT is no stranger to controversial public figures. Just last year, this discussion on free speech was stirred up after Robin Thicke was invited to perform at 98PXY’s Jingle Jam, which was hosted in the Gordon Field House on campus. Many accused Thicke’s 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” of making light of consent and being a promotion of rape culture, which led to Thicke’s ban from over twenty universities in the United Kingdom.
A PawPrints petition proposing that RIT ban Thicke from performing received nearly 1000 signatures. Despite this outcry, RIT’s Student Government decided not to pursue the ban of Thicke from campus, while also officially condemning his performance.
“I like what RIT did,” said Ntheketha. “As members of the community, we wanted to say ‘Listen, we don’t agree with this.’ ”
The official response also promised “alternative programming during Thicke’s performance, which seeks to highlight the issues with "Blurred Lines," as well as education on the other issues concerning rape culture on campus and in popular culture.”
Ntheketha discussed an earlier case of a controversial speaker brought to RIT’s campus. In 2010, playwright and poet Amiri Baraka was invited to perform his award winning play “Dutchman.” Baraka was also known for anti-Semitic statements in both his personal life and work. While Ntheketha was excited to have Baraka at RIT, this controversy created some potential conflict.
“By me inviting Baraka, am I unconsciously making a Jewish member of the community feel unsafe?” he asked. This tension, according to Ntheketha, provided an opportunity for two intersections of identity to have an honest discourse.
"Instead of minimizing it, there's the opportunity to talk about these kinds of things."
“Instead of minimizing it, there’s the opportunity to talk about these kinds of things,” he said.
With our constantly shifting and polarized society, the future of safe spaces can seem muddled. In discussing safe spaces, Cleo spoke about the recent sexual assault of a transgender woman at the Stonewall Inn. The inn, considered one of the most historically significant locations in the history of LGBTQIA+ rights, should by all means be considered a place that individuals can be themselves — yet the assault still occurred.
“There can be no true safe space,” said Cleo. Ntheketha had a different take on the subject.
“The safe space has to be the university. It can’t be one room or my office. It has to be the entire university and we can't stop until it is,” he said. With a concept as intersectional and complex as this, safe spaces can at once be both illusory and everywhere.
Although safe spaces on college campuses are far from a new concept, the sheer volume and fervor of their recent critics are unprecedented. Hyperbolic accusations aside, it seems that both sides desire to see the same outcome: a free and open exchange of ideas.
Having the free exchange of ideas also means having a safe environment in which to express these ideas. While critics pose the idea of a safe space and the exchange of free ideas as two diametrically opposed concepts, in reality they’re complimentary. You can’t have one without the other.