By Wendy Widom

CHICAGO (CBS) — The national debate about creating safe spaces and providing trigger warnings for university students landed directly in Chicago after a digital media nonprofit published a letter by University of Chicago Dean of Students Jay Ellison to incoming freshman.

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“Our commitment to academic freedom means 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,” states Ellison.

What are trigger warnings and safe spaces? Trigger warnings are alerts to readers that the content they are about to read or view may contain distressing material. Safe spaces are environments in which people feel welcomed, comfortable and unafraid.

Matthew Foldi, a University of Chicago political science major, is pleased with Dean Ellison’s message. “The pattern of shutting down speakers across the nation is extremely concerning, and most schools have failed to stand up for their values in the way that University of Chicago just did,” says Foldi. “Other schools look to us as the preeminent defenders of free speech on campus.”

In May of 2016 Foldi, now a junior, introduced a resolution to the university’s Student Government that he says would protect free speech on campus. The Student Government’s General Assembly voted to indefinitely table the resolution.

Jorge Ernesto Clavo Abbass, a University of Chicago sophomore and self-described “first-generation, low-income person of color,” strongly disagrees with Dean Ellison. “Shame on you for being so insensitive and inconsiderate to the fact that not everyone at this university is a privileged, high-income white male,” he writes in a letter to Dean Ellison that he shared with CBS 2. “Shame on you for making my experiences and my identity feel irrelevant to OUR institution.”

Clavo Abbass says he chose the University of Chicago for its intellectual rigor and inclusive student body but believes the administration should do better in accommodating minorities*. “I am more than what my labels suggest, and I stand at the bastion of privilege we call the University of Chicago to prove that I can, and will, beat a system that was never made for me in the first place, regardless of whether you, in the end, understand what a safe space is and isn’t.”

University of Chicago alumnae, Carolyn Purnell, Ph.D., says that while the policy is a good thing, the tone of the letter is demeaning.

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“Part of the role of a college classroom is to challenge students’ assumptions, make them question the world, and teach them how to analytically approach stances that they may not share,” says Purnell. “All that said, this letter makes me really angry. Its tone is callous, and it falls in line with a number of other administrative responses that have treated students and faculty like they are whining children.”

Reaction to the letter on Twitter has been mixed as well.


*This sentence has been updated after clarification from Clavo Abbass.