The University of Chicago. (Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

As the nation’s colleges seek to curb bigotry and promote a more welcoming and inclusive campus culture, the University of Chicago this year has staked out a provocative position in academia as a skeptic of “safe spaces” and defender of freedom of expression.

U-Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer said Monday that free speech must be upheld “as an enduring value of universities,” one that is “absolutely intrinsic to delivering quality education.” Zimmer said universities are obliged to teach students how to engage in robust and open discourse.

University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer (courtesy of the university) University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer. (Courtesy of the University of Chicago.)

“It’s a learned skill,” Zimmer said in an interview. “Most people really are very comfortable with their own free expression and not with everybody else’s. That’s just the way it is. And helping students who come in — they’re 18 years old — it requires work to help people learn how to be in this type of environment and have a productive experience out of it. And I think that’s part of a university’s responsibility, to help people do that.”

Zimmer spoke with The Washington Post’s editorial board two months after penning an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal that declared free speech is “at risk” in American universities. In the piece, Zimmer questioned schools that rescind invitations to speakers “because a segment of a university community deems them offensive.”

In late August, U-Chicago’s dean of students, John “Jay” Ellison, wrote incoming freshmen a letter in which he warned that the school does not support “so-called ‘trigger warnings’ ” — a term signifying an alert for listeners or readers who may encounter potentially traumatic content — and “does not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Zimmer’s opinion piece and Ellison’s letter struck a nerve with students and academic leaders around the country who believe that safe spaces are not necessarily in conflict with free speech and that colleges are not coddling students.

“I don’t share the view that American college students want to be protected from ideas that make them uncomfortable,” Brown University President Christina Paxson wrote in September in The Post. “Just the opposite.” Paxson said Brown values freedom of expression while “proudly” maintaining safe spaces in which “students from marginalized groups can come together to feel comfortable discussing their experiences and just being themselves.”

The president of U-Chicago’s student government, Eric Holmberg, has sharply criticized Ellison’s letter. “It’s a messed up letter. I think the tone is condescending,” Holmberg told the Chicago Maroon student news outlet. “The University is creating this threat of trigger warnings and safe spaces that really isn’t an active conversation on campus.”

Zimmer told The Post that the university would have no problem if individual professors choose to give their students trigger warnings on occasion. “Faculty need to be able to conduct their classes in a way they feel is appropriate,” he said. “They can say whatever they want to students about the materials they’re going to be reading.”

Regarding safe spaces, Zimmer said the phrase itself is subject to debate and interpretation. “You say ‘safe space,’ and different people will have a different view as to what you’re talking about,” he said.

Sometimes a group of people with “a common set of views or experiences” might want to get together to talk about them, Zimmer said. “I think that’s fine.”

But when the environment becomes exclusionary “and people don’t want to engage in discourse … I think that’s not so fine,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer, a mathematician who has been president of U-Chicago since 2006, said he is disturbed when he hears reports of colleges and universities that cancel invitations to speakers.

“The situation’s actually quite serious,” he said. “It’s deeply problematic when universities allow a situation in which some segment of the population is uncomfortable with what somebody’s saying, and consequently they are disinvited from speaking.”

As Halloween approaches, many educators worry about students who might wear offensive costumes that play on racial or ethnic stereotypes.

Asked what the university should do if a student wears blackface or some other offensive costume, Zimmer said, “You want to have an environment in which people are respectful of each other.” Schools need to address these issues with students, he said. “You do want people who are actively working with students to be talking about how we act in a civil society that respects other people.”

But Zimmer warned that rules about expression can backfire. “The minute you start saying that we’re going to systematically decide what can be said and what cannot be said, and you set up the committee for making such decisions, you’ve now got the ‘speech police committee,’ ” he said. “Which is not what you want.”

Zimmer added: “It’s absolutely the case that it’s important to create an inclusive environment, one that embraces diversity. I think it’s actually a critical piece of what a university needs to be. But that’s not the same thing as suppressing free expression. It’s a separate issue.”

Of about 5,900 undergraduates at the university, federal data show that 44 percent are white, 17 percent Asian American, 8 percent Hispanic and 5 percent African American. Eleven percent are foreigners, and the rest are multiracial or of unknown race and ethnicity.

The private research university is one of the most selective in the country, admitting slightly fewer than 8 percent of undergraduate applicants. Tuition and fees total about $52,000 a year, not counting room and board. The university’s admissions policy is need-blind, and it pledges to meet the full financial need of admitted students without requiring them to take out loans. The university also awards “merit scholarships” that are not based on financial need, in contrast to schools in the Ivy League and other elite institutions that offer only need-based grants.

The share of undergraduates at U-Chicago who qualify for need-based federal Pell grants — a key measure of access for the disadvantaged — has been falling in recent years. Federal data show that 18 percent of its undergrads qualified for Pell grants in 2010-2011. In 2014-15, the latest year for which data is available, the share was 11 percent.

“It’s one metric,” Zimmer said when asked about the drop. He said the university’s financial aid budget has grown substantially during the past decade. He also pointed to the university’s no-loan policy for financial aid packages, which aims to allow students to graduate debt-free. “I want to be able to ensure that students are able to come independent of their financial background,” he said.

U-Chicago was a founding member of the Big Ten athletic conference, but it withdrew decades ago. It now participates in NCAA Division III athletic programs and has no desire to change, Zimmer said.

“We actually have a very robust sports program now,” he said. “It’s actually made for students at the university who want to participate in sports and participate in intercollegiate competition. But what we want is to do it in a way that comports with a very rigorous academic program.”