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What the Safe Space Debate is Missing

Whether “safe spaces” benefit college students or not is a contested issue. The term has enjoyed common use since the early 1970s, but did not attach to the college scene until decades later. Broadly construed, a “safe space” implies an environment where members feel safe. Beyond this innocuous definition, however, there is serious disagreement about the value of safe spaces on campus and how administrators and decision makers should address them.

Critics often decry safe spaces as rooms stocked with Play-Doh, coloring books, and puppies where oversensitive students hide from public lectures. Proponents argue that the comfort and assurances these spaces provide prevent stresses and distractions that inhibit student learning.

But there is another view, one that merges critics’ free expression interests with proponents’ student comfortability concerns. Free associations of students like clubs, teams, sororities, and fraternities offer an alternative to the politically motivated safe space definition. Safe-spaces-as-free-associations fulfill the dual mission of higher education: to provide open intellectual exchange while fashioning a welcoming community for students.

Three categories of safe space can be drawn:

  1. Constructed. These spaces build around a set of rules designed to induce behavior. Some constructed spaces are uncontroversial, like private rooms for nursing mothers. Others are created as a reaction to challenging events and result in more controversy. These include areas where students go to recover from lectures they deem harmful, or no press zones which shelter student-protesters from being photographed and interviewed by the media.
  2. Spontaneous. People take initiative to group together around similar values and interests. This category encompasses most safe spaces, which Judith Shulevitz of the New York Times describes as “innocuous gatherings of like-minded people” who meet under certain norms, such as “refrain from ridicule, criticism, or what they term microaggressions.” Students frequently do this without prompting, from Arab Cultural Associations to Philosophy Forums.
  3. Synthesized. Safe spaces can feature a mixture of constructed and spontaneous elements. Some commentators have called classrooms “academic safe spaces.” If so, the classroom synthesizes features of the above two categories. As one 2005 study from the Journal of Social Work Education observes, the classroom must be designed with rules in place. These rules encourage students to treat peers in a certain way. But the classroom is also a spontaneous space; not all students choose to take the same courses, and even in required classes, not all students participate equally.

The increasingly common presence of constructed safe spaces like “lecture hideouts” and “no press zones” shows how easily one type of safe space can dominate the campus quad. Michael Munger of Duke University describes this problem as “the tendency to see the affording of a single, global ‘safe space’ as the first task of the university.” Munger continues, “groups that have every right to use their private safe space are tempted to annex the entire university” and imperil academic freedom.

Spontaneous safe spaces like free associations, on the other hand, offer several advantages that nurture healthy campus communities. For one thing, they acknowledge the reality of plurality—that diverse groups deserve their pasture space and that one group should not control the commons.

Another advantage is that free associations guide students as they learn to live away from home, many for the first time. Student communities need the right ratio of comfort on campus (that is, feeling safe and included) and experiencing the open exchange of ideas essential to sharpen intellect. Often in the safe space debate, inclusion and open exchange are portrayed as either/or issues. In reality, extremes of both can cause problems.

As PEN America points out in its 2016 report, And Campus For All, campuses are a home for students, but of a type. “For the few years of life spent at college,” the report says, “students are choosing to enter into a community that is more open, complex, and challenging than perhaps anywhere else they may ever call home. College shouldn’t be a home that feels as nurturing and protected as the well of a close family.” Instead, college should be a place where new ideas and people foster academic and personal growth.

Nonstop or extreme discomfort also runs counter to the mission of a university. As Slate’s Nora Caplan-Bricker writes: “I believe in universities as spaces where students are confronted with difficult ideas, where they grow through discomfiture”; but to do so requires creating an atmosphere where “even the heaviest debates have a little less gravity than they do out here in real life.” In other words, for colleges to prepare students to deal with hard issues, students must feel comfortable enough to participate in tough conversation.

Spontaneous spaces, like free associations, offer the best of both worlds. Having these spaces on campus create opportunities for open discourse and appropriate levels of comfort. Just like in a household, where family members have areas of privacy as well as communal living rooms, students need places of their own, as well as spaces of exposure to new perspectives.

Unfortunately, free associations have come under threat from well-meaning administrators. In 2018, one public university deregistered 38 student groups. A court twice found that move to be legally questionable. Courts have also intervened in a case against a school in Michigan, and in a lawsuit against Harvard University’s penalization of single sex organizations like sororities.

The goal of campus administrators should be to create an environment that promotes free expression as a norm, while at the same time cultivating a welcoming community where students feel part of something larger than themselves. Free associations of students go great lengths towards nurturing that growth and are worth the space.

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