Like everything else in life, the Onion describes society better than any op-ed writer or analyst ever could. In a recent article headlined “Parents Dedicate New College Safe Space In Honor Of Daughter Who Felt Weird In Class Once” fake parents describe their outrage at their daughter being exposed to unsafe ideas.
When our Alexis felt weird after hearing someone discuss an idea that did not conform to her personally held beliefs, she had no place to turn,” said Arnold Stigmore, standing outside the $2 million space that reportedly features soothing music, neutral-colored walls, oversized floor cushions, fun board games, and a variety of snacks. “God forbid any of you, in your years at this institution, are ever confronted with an opinion you do not share. But if you are, you will have a refuge on this campus.
Sadly, this satirical account is closer to reality than most Onion stories. Last year a sexual assault task force at Brown University took similar precautions because the campus invited libertarian speaker Wendy McElroy, who participate in a debate in which she criticized the term “rape culture.” The task force believed that that McElroy’s mere criticism of the term necessitated a safe space for anyone who found the debate too unsettling or triggering.
Volunteers set up the safe space for any students who found McElroy’s arguments troubling. The room was equipped with coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, pillows, blankets, and a video of frolicking puppies, along with trauma counselors. Emma Hall, a student and rape survivor, briefly attended the lecture, but soon returned to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs.”
The complaint of over-sensitive students has been coming from many different quarters. Jerry Seinfeld recently said that comedians shouldn’t go near colleges because they’re too PC (echoing similar words from Chris Rock). An anonymous professor wrote in Vox that his students scare him – particularly the ones who purport to care about social justice and equality. The student-teacher dynamic has changed so much, he said, that any student can claim grievous harm merely because their emotions were harmed. Emotion discomfort is now the same as material injury.
Non-tenured faculty can lose their jobs from a single complaint by a single student. As such they have no right to due process before dismissal. Therefore they self-censor themselves by eliminating from their course curriculum that could come remotely close to offending anybody. As a result some professors are taking “offensive” texts by Edward Said or Mark Twain off their curriculum.
The inability for a professor to challenge his or her students’ beliefs challenges the core of what it means to be a professor. When I was an undergraduate at Iowa State University, one of the most well-known instructors was Hector Avalos, a professor of Religious Studies who is also an internationally-recognized atheist activist and advocate of secular humanism. He used his classroom as a platform to openly challenge the historical foundations of Christianity.
But he did so in a way that was enormously instructive. Avalos would have an end-of-semester debate with any student volunteers in which he would argue on the side of the historicity of the Crucifixion. He allowed students – theists or non-theists – to take up the other side and argue in the negative. While controversial, Avalos had the respect of some Christians at the university, with some even working as his research assistants. Iowa State has recognized him many times, naming him Professor of the Year in 1996 and a Master Teacher for 2003-2004.
An instructor without tenure would never dare introduce such controversial topics in a classroom for fear of having their job threatened by student complains or being hauled before an administrative kangaroo court. Let’s say that a Christian student felt threatened by such a discussion. Rather than consider this an opportunity to strengthen his faith by subjecting it to the scrutiny of a well-informed interlocutor, he let emotions take over. He then called for the ouster of such an atheist professor because his feelings were hurt. This is called a politics of personal testimony, in which emotions are the essential and even exclusive means of understanding complex social issues. Stage-acting forms of goodness through empty gestures are more significant than using ideas to craft an argument.
What this means for university instructors is that you have to prepare to lose your job if you value the intellectual growth of your students more than protecting them from bad feelings. If you really want to challenge students’ beliefs and engage them with controversial ideas, a few bad evaluations could eliminate your chances of getting tenure. A few complaints could get you fired.
This is not a left-right political issue but one that threatens all professors equally. In February Northwestern film professor and liberal cultural critic Laura Kipnis criticized campus codes that prevented relationships between professors and students. Due to a column she wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, she became the subject of an investigation – what she called an Inquisition – due to a graduate student complaint that she violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. The greatest irony of this episode was that the complaint came against her remarks that Title IX was being interpreted so broadly that even remarks perceived as insensitive to rape was a chargeable offense. The complaint about her criticism of Title IX was filed under Title IX. She was not allowed to have an attorney present with her during her interview with investigators.
John McAdams was dismissed from Marquette University for expressing negative views against a graduate instructor on a blog post. He criticized her for shutting down a classroom debate when an undergraduate student voiced disagreement with same-sex marriage and did not reveal that he recorded his conversation with the graduate instructor.
Not even tenured professors are safe. Last month Louisiana State University fired Teresa Buchanan for “creating a hostile work environment.” Universities tossed her out the door for the crime of using profanity. What kind? She said “F*** no” along with off-color jokes to students about sexuality. For this she was subject to an 11-hour hearing and officially censured. Then administrators fired her.
As an academic, I’m shocked by this. Not by the fickleness of administrator. I’ve argued elsewhere that administrators are the primary reason universities are so overpriced. I am shocked that if profanity is now a fireable offense then every academic hasn’t already lost their job. Academia produces more profanity than any other profession, save theatre or the restaurant industry. Anyone who hasn’t heard a professor swear during a lecture has never been to a lecture. Furthermore, the idea that any American aged 18-22 has never been exposed to profanity is incomprehensible, sans growing up unaware that they are living in a constructed reality TV show like the Truman Show.
The bottom line is that if you ever want to present challenging ideas to students, you need to be prepared to lose your job. You can have job security or a commitment to open inquiry, but not both. You cannot discuss controversial ideas without threatening a reaction from overzealous social justice warriors or Kafkaesque administrators. If you value job security above all else, it means pleasing the ever-changing whims of your most sensitive and emotional students.
And it means making sure there is plenty of Play-Doh and security blankets for your university safe spaces.