In a welcoming letter to incoming freshmen this week, University of Chicago Dean of Students, Jay Ellison spoke of the University’s commitment to free speech, no matter the topic or speaker.
"[Chicago’s] 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." — Jay Ellison – Dean of Students
Mr. Ellison’s statement was in response to recent controversies on several college campuses regarding free speech, most notably the reaction the ‘Halloween letter’ that occurred at Yale’s Silliman residential college last fall.
The Yale Halloween controversy
Erika Christakis, a “well-respected lecturer” at Yale, submitted her resignation last winter after protests erupted on campus over an email she wrote in response to a letter put forth by Yale Intercultural Affairs Committee asking students to avoid insensitive Halloween costumes:
"Halloween is… unfortunately a time when the normal thoughtfulness and sensitivity of most Yale students can sometimes be forgotten and some poor decisions can be made including wearing feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface." — Yale Intercultural Affairs Committee
In response, Ms. Chistakis challenged the statement, stating that it amounted censorship over individual decision-making:
"Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?. .Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.” — Erika Christakis
Following the release of Ms. Chistakis statement, student activists called for her resignation amid charges that she was culturally insensitive. Both she and her husband, a Yale professor, resigned several months later.
Underlying issue is free speech
Some felt that the underlying issue was not the brouhaha about Halloween costumes, but the right of Ms. Chistakis to express her opinion even if controversial.
Universities and colleges across the country have spent the last year examining the role that free speech, even if it offensive to some groups, should have on college campuses. The president of the University of Chicago released a statement earlier this week that summed up the conclusions of that institution:
"Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments in complex environments. Having one’s assumptions challenged and experiencing the discomfort that sometimes accompanies this process are intrinsic parts of an excellent education. Only then will students develop the skills necessary to build their own futures and contribute to society." — Robert Zimmer – President, University of Chicago