A growing number of colleges around the nation are taking steps to protect their students from ideas and words some find hurtful or upsetting. That protection includes a broad blanket of administrative support for things like safe harbors and bias response teams designed to investigate “micro aggressions” and “micro invalidations.”That is how Douglas Belkin described the current status of campuses in the Wall Street Journal. However,
The University of Chicago has taken a different tack. In August it sent a letter to incoming freshmen telling them 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.”
We asked University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer why his administration sent the letter and what he sees as the role of universities in this time of social upheaval. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.
Climate of intoleranceWSJ: You have likened the current climate of intolerance for unpopular points of view on college campuses to the McCarthy era and efforts to ban the teaching of evolution. That’s pretty grim. Is it really that bad?
MR. ZIMMER: The main thing one always needs to keep in mind to contextualize all of these issues is the overarching purpose of universities. The purpose is to be a place that gives the most empowering education to students and creates an environment for the most imaginative and challenging work of faculty. Confrontation of multiple ideas and ideas that are different from one’s own is critical to this.
I think it’s very important not to allow universities to slip into an environment in which they are allowing a kind of suppression of speech, or are allowing discomfort with different ideas to create a chilled environment for discourse.
So without having to weigh what situation is worse and how serious is it relative to one thing or the other, I would just say that the issue on university campuses is important and serious and worthy of everyone involved—whether it’s university leaders or faculty or students—defending an environment in which the highest values and aspirations of universities can be fulfilled.
WSJ: You taught at the University of Chicago in the 1970s. Have the expectations of the students changed much since then?
MR. ZIMMER: From a nationwide point of view there has been a shift.
There is less of an expectation in many places that one is legitimately going to confront ideas that are fundamentally different than your own.
What you’re seeing is a kind of drift of discourse; you see actions by a lot of people which seem to indicate that they feel that they can, in fact, legitimately stifle the expression of others whose views they fundamentally disagree with. …