Christina Paxson is president of Brown University.
New students are entering colleges and universities at a time of fierce debate about whether institutions of higher education are becoming places that stifle speech in the interest of protecting students from ideas and perspectives they don’t want to hear. In the clash over freedom of expression and the supposed coddling of American college students, safe spaces and trigger warnings are held up as the poster children of overprotective universities.
In the setting of private institutions, this is not a First Amendment issue. Private colleges and universities could restrict the expression of ideas and beliefs within their campuses, if they chose to do so. But most private colleges and universities wisely do not make this choice. Instead, colleges and universities protect the rights of members of their communities to express a full range of ideas, however controversial.
That is because freedom of expression is an essential component of academic freedom, which protects the ability of universities to fulfill their core mission of advancing knowledge. Suppressing ideas at a university is akin to turning off the power at a factory. As scholars and students, our responsibility is to subject old truths to scrutiny and put forward new ideas to improve them.
At universities, we also advance understanding about issues of justice and fairness, and these discussions can be equally, if not more, difficult. From the earliest days of this country, college campuses have been the sites of fierce debates about slavery, war, women’s rights and racial justice. These discussions create rocky moments, and they should.
If we don’t have these debates — if we limit the flow of ideas — then in 50 years we will be no better than we are today.
I don’t share the view that American college students want to be protected from ideas that make them uncomfortable. Just the opposite. Over the past few years, our students have addressed topics that make many people very uncomfortable indeed — racism, sexual assault, religious persecution. These are some of the toughest problems facing society today, and we do not shy away from them.
As for “safe spaces” — the term is used in so many different ways that it is impossible to discuss it without being precise about its meaning. The term emerged from the women’s movement nearly 50 years ago to refer to forums where women’s rights issues were discussed. Then it was extended to denote spaces where violence and harassment against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community would not be tolerated, and then extended yet again to mean places where students from marginalized groups can come together to feel comfortable discussing their experiences and just being themselves.
If this is what a safe space means, then, yes, Brown has them. Proudly. And even the campuses that decry these spaces have them also. I’m not talking about rooms with Play-Doh and coloring books like one set up by Brown campus organizers specifically as a resource to support survivors of sexual assault in one instance some years ago. There have been many unfortunate mischaracterizations in the media of the intent of that support space as a so-called shield from ideas.
Rather, we see safe spaces in the choices our students make every day. Students find many opportunities through clubs and organizations to meet those who share similar backgrounds and interests — religious, political and otherwise.
In her memoir “My Beloved World,” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor talks about Acción Puertorriqueña, a Princeton group for students of Puerto Rican heritage. Although she made it a point to develop relationships with people from different backgrounds, that group gave her a much-needed anchor in an unfamiliar environment. Maybe this isn’t what the critics mean when they deride “safe spaces,” but these spaces deserve to exist at colleges across the country.
I would say the same for trigger warnings, which are meant to alert students who have been subjected to trauma, such as sexual assault and combat, that some material in class may be disturbing. Faculty should be free to use them at their discretion.
My final point — often missed in the media debates — is this: Universities are doing something difficult and important. We are grappling with how to create peaceful, just and prosperous societies, even as we live in a society that often feels more divided and rancorous than ever, fractured along lines of race, ethnicity, income and ideology.
With the right of academic freedom comes the moral responsibility to think carefully about how that right is exercised in the service of society to confront these divides.
At Brown, as at many institutions of higher education, we are not coddling our students — or limiting freedom of expression. Instead, we are teaching them, encouraging them and giving them the space to have the discussions that will make them better scholars and prepare them to best serve society.