Before the start of this academic year, the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students sent a letter to the school’s incoming Class of 2020 students stating that the university would not support safe spaces or trigger warnings. The letter made headlines, with many people outraged by the generalizations and misunderstandings of safe spaces, but with others fully supporting the university’s stance.
In this three-part series, the Hustler examines what safe spaces are, examples of safe spaces on the Vanderbilt campus and the arguments for and against their implementation.
The statement from the University of Chicago defined an “intellectual safe space” as a place “where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” The concept of a safe space, whether a fault of the media or due to premature assumptions, seems to be broad and up for debate.
In national media, safe spaces have been defined as everything from a place to recuperate after the presidential election to a place where students of a particular identity can gather with the expectation that those who oppose them will not disrupt the conversation.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of consensus on the true definition of a safe space. The conversation itself is centered on freedom of speech and expression, and how exposed students are to viewpoints other than their own. For the first part of the series, the Hustler talked to 13 key campus players about their overall views on what safe spaces are, what is done in a safe space and whether safe spaces are necessary on college campuses.
Carol Swain: Professor of Law and Political Science
“If you think about it, it defeats the whole purpose of the integration arguments about diversity, where people are around each other and supposed to learn from each other. If minority students are either being encouraged or deciding that they don’t really want to interact with people outside their group, certainly not beyond the classroom, that defeats the whole purpose of having integration.”
Chris Purcell: Director of the Office of LGBTQI Life
“There have to be spaces on campus where [students] don’t have to be challenged about who they are consistently, to have their identity questioned, to have people continuously lean on them as the educator… We see this with queer students of color, students of various religious backgrounds. They’re called on consistently to do the job of the educator in a moment in a place where they’re trying to learn themselves.”
Laura Rice: Co-founder of Vanderbilt’s chapter of Active Minds
“I’ve seen some people interpreting it as a literal, physical place and I think that yes, you do need physical places that are safe spaces, but I also think that it’s important to have relationships and organizations and communities that are safe spaces that may not exist in one physical place but that can go beyond that and transcend that.”
Carly Stewart: Co-founder of Vanderbilt’s chapter of Active Minds
“It’s my ultimate goal that this whole campus will eventually be a safe space… but then anywhere anybody goes on this campus in any group of people would be a safe space because there’s no judgment and people feel like they can talk about anything.”
Dr. Rory Dicker: Director of the Vanderbilt University Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center
“I studied the history of feminism in the United States and I teach about the second wave of the Women’s Movement in the 60s and 70s, and we talk about how in consciousness raising groups feminists didn’t want any men to be part, it was a women only space. Was that a safe space? No, because women had very diverging points of view and perspectives and they disagreed with each other, but they felt they needed to set the parameters for that space and keep certain people out and police the boundaries and some women really questioned that but other women were very much ok with that…They perceived that it wouldn’t be a safe space if men came into the space, this would have been in the 60s or early 70s but what I’m saying was that it was maybe a naïve thing on their part to believe that just because there were only women that it was a safe space, because the women disagreed with each other anyway.”
Vanessa Beasley: Dean of the Commons
“I think the other piece that’s missing is listening. The safe space conversation, particularly when you’ve seen it in the media portrayed in some sort of tension with freedom of speech, very frequently ends up being about what people want to say and what people want to share and that’s absolutely part of it, but the second part of that is if we’re just all sharing our stories and not feeling that anybody is actually listening to us, then I have to go back to the first principle of what’s the point of this sharing because we have to agree and be able to support that agreement that the sharing itself is meaningful.”
Dr. Laurie Woods: The residing faculty member in McGill Hall
“We have an almost impossible time in class talking about race and it’s something that students just don’t want to talk about because they’re afraid of offending people or afraid of sounding a certain way. Those are the kinds of things that, conversations I wish we could have in safe spaces.”
Alexander Spanopoulos: President of Vanderbilt College Republicans
“I am a big proponent of a free and open exchange of ideas and I feel like sometimes the false dichotomy is drawn between people who support safe spaces and those who don’t. I disagree with that premise. I believe that it’s very important to have an area where a true free and open exchange of ideas can be achieved but what that means is that you can’t eliminate topics altogether. You have to be able to talk through what’s going on and what you’re doing in a way that’s deliberately not hostile not aggressive and not malicious but if you remove those elements of it.”
Lo Meisel: Sophomore
“Way in the future, I would like to see a society in which safe spaces aren’t even necessary, because I feel like the reason why safe spaces are necessary is because there are certain groups of people who aren’t listened to in society at large so you need to create these spaces for them to feel comfortable and safe. I would love to see a societal shift towards respecting everyone in all areas and in all spaces so that we don’t even need to create these particular spaces, but that’s long term.”
Katherine Drotos Cuthbert: A director for the Center of Student Wellbeing
“It is a buzzword that’s being used a lot now but I also think that it’s important to have not only to have safe spaces but safe people on campus. I think that having designated spaces for students to go to and feel like their identity is visible and they don’t have to have any shame or stigma attached to that is really important. I think that the BCC and Project Safe Center and also Vanderbilt Recovery Support really help to do that.”
Dr. Frank Dobson: Director of the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center
“I don’t know if I believe in the concept of a safe space. I believe there are safe people and I believe where those people are, where those people gather, that place is safe. If you go back and you look at the history of black students in Vanderbilt and you look at, for example, Walter Murray, Perry Wallace and all of them, they had a place that I believe was in Towers where they all gathered and that place became a safe space. Nobody dedicated it and said ‘this will become a safe space.’ Because they all gathered together there, they made it a safe space. I think the same is true of this building.”
Cara Tuttle Bell: Director of Project Safe
“People have a very specific idea of what that means and then it becomes comedic…It’s not just about retreat, it’s about reeducating the public. There’s a really complex relationship––it’s not just a room where people can go sit on the floor and be comfortable, and sometimes I think they’re just imagining that it’s limited to that. Sometimes it is that; we have some students who just come over here when they want a quiet lunch and want to eat alone, but it’s also a place where they can have a quiet lunch and eat alone and know that they don’t have to interact with the person that maybe has assaulted them. And so if you think about a safe space in that respect, the space part is very important, but it’s also a hub of activity a dialogue of shared experiences of identifying connections across the student body to feel supported by other students who have shared your experience.”
Matt Colleran: Junior
“I don’t think anyone should have a formalized place where dissenting opinions aren’t tolerated and free expression and free exchange of ideas is completely ignored. The whole point of being out in public on a college campus with people who believe all sorts of different things, from far right to far left and everything in between, is to actually be exposed to different ideas.”
Illustrations by Robyn Kweon