Summer 2019 Bulletin

Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education

Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education

On May 7, 2019, John Palfrey (Head of School at Phillips Academy Andover and Incoming President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation) spoke at a gathering of Academy members and guests about the intersection between a growing commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion and the tradition of free expression on school campuses. The program, which served as the 2081st Stated Meeting of the Academy, included a welcome from David W. Oxtoby (President of the American Academy). Martha Minow (the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University) participated in a conversation with John Palfrey following his opening remarks. An edited version of his remarks and of his conversation with Martha Minow appears below.

John Palfrey
John Palfrey
John Palfrey is the Head of School at Phillips Academy Andover and Incoming President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Thank you for the invitation to be here and to all of you for gathering in person to have this conversation. I am thrilled to be at the House of the Academy, in part because of the founding values of this institution and how directly they tie to our topic this evening. From the Academy’s founding in 1780, the purpose of this institution has been to foster debate. In many ways, our topic this evening hearkens back to the founding values of this country: of liberty, on the one hand, which traces to our current debate about free expression; and of equality, on the other, which connects with our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. These values have always been in tension, and they are very much so today. I believe we can resolve that tension in positive ways and, in fact, great institutions and great democracies do just that. But when and where we fail to do so, we come out in a much less good place. This institution, through events like this but also through publications such as Dædalus, has taken up this issue many times. The Academy has published issues of Dædalus since the 1960s on student protests, campus activism, and the role of diversity in university education. I thought of you, Dean Minow, when I looked at the Dædalus issue “American Education: Still Separate, Still Unequal.” How we imagine a world in which we have both liberty and equality in not just equal measure but together in the context of both education and in our civic sphere strikes me as one of the hardest problems for our country to face and yet one of the most impor­tant that we resolve.

As the backdrop to our discussion, let me highlight some large-scale demographic trends. Depending on who you ask, the United States, most likely by 2055, will be a majority-minority country. There are many ways to describe this, but the point is we are becoming a more diverse nation. I take that to be a wonderful thing and it really does change, in many respects, the way in which young people who are coming into our universities are thinking about their community. And college campuses themselves, much as a school like Andover, are becoming increasingly diverse. Andover was founded around the same time as the Academy, in 1778. It started with thirteen white boys, one of whom turns out to have come from outside the country. Today, Andover is 1,100 students, about half of whom are white and half of whom are students of color – and many of those students are mixed race, which is a growing trend at our school.

Similar things are happening on our university campuses. Between 1971 and 2015, there has been a 10 percent increase in the number of Asian American students enrolled in our schools, and the number of students who self-identify as mixed race has grown too – up to 12 percent in 2015. The Latino/Latinx population has experienced similar growth. Over time, it has become clear that our campuses have become increasingly diverse, and that is a wonderful and important thing.

These debates obviously play out in the headlines. We can consider the lawsuit by Asian students at Harvard that brought attention to private or elite colleges’ admission policies as one example, but I think it is a sign of some of the challenges we face as we think of our universities as sites of political action. There are many ways to describe this Harvard lawsuit: on one level, it is an assault on affirmative action. And, at the same time, there are many complicated cross currents. Some people think the university has not been getting it quite right; others call for a change in policy or direction to ensure that students have the ability to come together in single sex clubs.

Let me begin with the idea of safe spaces. This may be the one that is most familiar to you because it has been most in the press. One of the best case studies that we have is from the University of Chicago, the dean’s letter from August 2016. You may have had this experience of either being a parent or a student and getting a letter from the dean welcoming you to the school year. Having been somebody who writes these letters, they are very boring to write, and they are even worse to read. But the dean’s letter from the University of Chicago grabbed a lot of attention and it made these letters much more interesting, at least for a while.

The third paragraph of that letter reads, “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings” – we will discuss what those warnings are in a minute – “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.” This language created a debate among those of us who run schools about whether this is the right message to send to an increasingly diverse group of students who are arriving on campus. You can imagine the debate that ensued: some said this is precisely what we need; this is exactly the pushback against a series of overreaches by the left seeking to force a version of diversity, equity, and inclusion on these communities; and, in fact, it is an opportunity to stand up for robust debate. Others said this is the most unwelcoming thing you could have sent, particularly if the student and parent come from an underrepresented minority group or is a marginalized member of a community. Saying that there should not be these types of safe spaces was exactly what you don’t want to hear as you walk onto a campus.

One of the reasons this caused a particular kerfuffle is that the dean who wrote the letter, Jay Ellison, was in fact an advisor to a safe space on the Chicago campus: the LGBTQ space that called itself the Safe Space for that group of students. In my book, I make an argument that, in fact, we need to have some safe spaces on our campuses just as we need to have brave spaces. And I think the LGBTQ community that is created on many of our campuses is precisely the type of safe space that we should have. I think, likewise, we might say that speech rules apply in certain places, like a Hillel on a campus, where you do not allow hate speech. You would not have a member of the KKK walk into a space like a Hillel and say certain things in that environment. It strikes me that those are reasonable rules that you might set up for a safe space. Likewise, you might have a different set of rules in other places within a university. Those might be determined to be brave spaces: environments in which students would be expected to be exposed to things that would make them uncomfortable. Again, we can come back to that tradeoff. But I would make the case that we need safe spaces for our communities, just as we need brave spaces.

My second example is trigger warnings. The idea here is that before walking into a class or a lecture, the expectation would be that somebody would give you a warning that you might be triggered in a certain way. A classic example would be in an English class and you are told before you opened a book that there might be some violent rape scenes, for example, in the book. If you, as a teacher, knew that one of the members of the class had experienced sexual assault at some point in their life, you might say that it is reasonable to warn somebody that they may be triggered by something they were about to read. Likewise, before you were to show a particularly graphic movie, you might offer a warning to a student before that happened. Of course, the reaction to trigger warnings has not been universally positive. There have been a number of articles and, in fact, a book on this topic called The Coddling of the American Mind that makes the case that this is precisely what we should not do; that, in fact, the idea that there should be somebody standing up and warning you about what you are going to experience rather than having people experience it and then debate it afterwards is the downfall of our civilization or, in a slightly simpler form, it is undercutting the academic integrity of our institutions.

I think trigger warnings have been a topic of debate because they suggest some infringement on intellectual freedom. Let’s think about these trigger warnings: if you are requiring somebody to say something are you, in fact, undercutting the academic freedoms that a teacher has in their classroom? The way that I have treated this at Andover is I believe that trigger warnings are simply good manners if they are used in an appropriate way. For instance, I, as a teacher, might use them in a certain setting if I am worried about a particular student or a group of students and the experience they are about to have. At the same time, I don’t think it is a good idea to mandate them. I cannot imagine telling a teacher you must use trigger warnings in a particular way or to require that they be used across an institution. And institutions have done all of the above. There have been requirements around trigger warnings, there has been a middle ground like the one I am suggesting, and there have been statements, such as the University of Chicago’s, that suggest you should not have trigger warnings and students should not expect trigger warnings.

My third example: microaggressions. This one may require a little more explanation. On our campuses, particularly as they have become more diverse, I hear both from students and faculty that at different times, there are slights that are expressed toward them in ways that are difficult to handle within the context of an academic community. A microaggression might be something that is said and experienced by some people in one way and by others in another way. An example that is often used is of President Obama being described as an articulate person. This statement may be experienced differently by an African American than by a white person. Why? Because there is a presumption that black people are not as articulate as white people. While that might have been a perfectly well-meaning statement and the intent was simply to say that the president is well-spoken, how it is received and the impact of that statement may be quite different. That is an example of a microaggression.

Now, this may not be the best example because the president of the United States has a great deal of power. You could imagine somebody walking into a university setting or a school, where in that place that person has much less power. Importantly, what students will tell you is that this is also wrapped up in the concept of intersectionality: the notion that when somebody walks into an environment like a historically white male institution, that student feels or experiences the environment as being a marginalizing space. It may be that they experience these microaggressions along multiple dimensions. When you think about the way in which we lead our institutions and how we care about students, as we have more diverse sets of students, they experience their education in very different ways. This becomes complicated from a policy perspective. Do you ban microaggressions as you work toward a more inclusive and more equitable environment? There are many examples that I have experienced as an administrator in which you have to pull people in who have been part of one of these conversations and explain the extent to which these words that you might not have intended as being aggressive have had an impact on somebody that is very different than they might have had some time ago. For people who may have been involved in an example like this, I think it makes them feel like they are racist because they are being told that they have harmed somebody based on their race or they may feel that they are being told they are misogynist because they said something based on gender that they did not intend. At the same time, the impact is very real and for some people, the exhaustion and the way in which it affects their education is very different than it might have been decades ago. In some ways, I think we are pitting some of these values against one another.

My fourth example has to do with speakers who are not allowed on our campuses. One of the most challenging topics over the last several years has been whether institutions should provide a platform for all speakers. We have several recent examples: Charles Murray was invited by a conservative student group to give a talk at Middlebury College. His appearance led to a physical altercation on the campus. Milo Yiannopoulos is a provocateur. He has a lot of topics on which he is controversial if not outright obnoxious. The challenge for university administrators who have had him visit their campuses, particularly if it is a state campus, is that you are bound by the First Amendment. At the same time, it ends up costing between half a million and a million dollars to pay for the necessary security to allow the speech to happen. An interesting question to consider is whether there is a requirement for a university to allocate half a million dollars or even a million dollars for security, whether that comes from state money, tuition dollars, or the endowment, to have a speaker come to campus, who many of the members of the community do not wish to hear. That is a tricky question, even though I have a very strong impulse to support the First Amendment rights of those both to hear and to speak on university campuses.

Chelsea Manning was offered a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School and then the fellowship was rescinded after some pressure, potentially from government sources. Christine Lagarde was invited to Smith College and then uninvited on the grounds that she represented capitalism or something of that sort. And these are just a few examples. Is it important that speakers who have controversial views be able to provide the provocation that they seek on a university campus? In general, the answer, of course, is yes. We certainly support this on state university campuses, in part because the First Amendment requires it. It is a little trickier for those of us who lead private institutions.

There is an assumption that students are not supportive of having provocative speakers on their campuses. We have data from an organization called FIRE that found that 93 percent of students agree that schools should have a variety of guest speakers on campus. I have found in my own environment at Andover that many of our faculty are less eager to have a wide range of perspectives represented among speakers, but students actually want a wider range. FIRE data also found that more than half of students (56 percent) agree that there are times when a college or university should withdraw a guest speaker’s invitation after the event has been announced. And relatively few students feel that it is appropriate to disrupt a speaker when they come, although certainly when they do, it makes headlines.

My final example is the renaming of spaces and symbols on our campuses. I think one of the ways in which this topic plays out most visibly is the fact that we certainly have, on a campus like Harvard’s or Andover’s, virtually all our campus symbols representing white men. This is so for a variety of reasons: because of the leadership on these campuses, because of who the donors are, because of those we have honored. We have a local example: the debate over Harvard Law School’s shield. As you may know, Harvard Law School was founded as part of the university. Thanks in part to a gift from the family of Isaac Royall to establish either a chair in medicine or law, the university chose law. That chair grew into the law school. The chair still exists and is, in fact, used by a member of the faculty. A little more than a hundred years later, the law school adopted the Royall family crest as its shield. It turns out, however, that the Royall family generated the funds through slavery that ended up founding this chair and the law school. They were a plantation owning family. They were British by birth, but they created the funds on the backs of slaves, and it was those funds that then founded the law school and it is this family crest that the law school has been using. The holder of this chair for many years has given a really wonderful lecture about the Royall chair, talking about the family and its background. But this prompted a conversation about whether the law school should be using this shield. Martha Minow, dean of the law school at the time, did what I think any administrator should have done; she used it as an educational experience and as an opportunity to bring the community together around whether or not that shield should continue to be used.

The committee ended up with a split decision. Some of the faculty and students on the committee decided that the school should come up with a new shield and there were reasons why that was a good idea. Two members of the committee dissented: Annette Gordon-Reed, a faculty member and historian, and a student. They wrote a wonderful dissent that basically said you should not whitewash this particular piece of history. They recommended keeping the shield and using it as a teaching tool. I believe that the decision is now in the hands of the Corporation of Harvard. By the way, there is a beautiful monument at Harvard that looks at some of this history and this is a great example of how to handle this kind of a dispute.

I would like to share a few other facts. One of the unfortunate aspects of this topic is the way in which the press has been describing this as a generation that hates free speech. Nothing could be further from the truth. I live with 1,100 students on a high school campus. I can assure you that the data that I am going to share with you are true. According to data from the Knight Foundation, high school support for the First Amendment is the highest in the last ten years, and it has been increasing, which I think is quite important to note. Students worry about what is happening in our country and in ways that I think are pretty savvy. They worry about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom for people to assemble peacefully, and freedom for people to petition the government. In each of these areas, they perceive that these rights are less secure.

In terms of protecting citizens’ free speech rights and promoting an inclusive society that is welcoming to diverse groups, there is some good news here. What is interesting to me is the idea that free speech or free expression has changed from being the zone of the left to one that is absolutely the purview of the right. When I think about the most important speech in the nineteenth century about free expression, Frederick Douglass’s speech, “A Plea for Free Speech in Boston,” comes to mind: “We need to have the right to free speech so we can make the case for an end to slavery.” If we think back to the 1960s, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley was a group of radical lefties. Well, not exactly. One of the reasons why this is so complicated today is that for many of the administrators on campuses who are being pushed hard by their students, they are the same lefty radical students from the 1960s who are saying, “I’m the good guy! I believe in these things. This is really important.” And yet, they are being perceived by students as being out of step with the moment that we are in.

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Martha Minow
Martha Minow
Martha Minow is the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University, where she has taught since 1981; she served as Dean of Harvard Law School for eight years. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 1992.

Living with 1,100 high school students and serving as the chair of the board of the Knight Foundation, you live these issues in deep ways. Can you help us understand why it has become such a debate? You point out the disparity between the media’s coverage and the high schoolers’ perception. Why has it become this kind of lightning rod? Is it related to the polarization regarding diversity and inclusion versus free speech? Or is it because there is a generational divide between the administrators and the students? Why has it become such a big issue?

John Palfrey

I would say yes to all, and I would throw social media and technology into that mix. There is no doubt that since the election in 2016, administrators have found it harder to navigate these spaces. There are so many more difficulties. People are on high alert in a variety of ways that have been polarizing. I think clearly the political moment is part of that, but I don’t want to blame it exclusively on President Trump though his presidency has not made this easier. That is the elephant in the room. I do believe there is a generational divide. I think that students see older people as being out of step. Let me share an example, which really surprised me. As Head of School at Andover, when our students started talking about safety, I didn’t really know what they were talking about. I thought they were saying we need more vans or shuttle buses in the evening to get them from place A to place B so that they would not be subject to physical harm of some sort, an important thing in and of itself. But in fact, they were talking about psychological safety. What they mean by unsafe is that they may be harmed psychologically.

I will add social media as the last example because some of these debates play out in an environment that is not very good. As enthusiastic as I am about social media and technology, it is not good for this kind of debate. And, in fact, it becomes much more disruptive and negative when it is in that environment. I have experienced a few times when I have said that we need to stop the online debate and bring it into a room and discuss the issue face to face.

Martha Minow

I am glad that you brought up social media. You are an expert in this field; you have studied how cyber-bullying and other issues have changed the experience of being a young person in the world. In your book, you use the word disinhibition. Would you explain that term?

John Palfrey

One of the things that I have learned about students and technology is this idea of the disinhibition effect, which I describe like this: imagine if there is a screen that is separating me from another person. I am much more likely to say something nasty and to be less inhibited if I am typing it into a screen than if I am seeing the person face to face. This may seem straightforward, but if you have ever sent an email and wished you could get it back quickly, that is an example of this disinhibition effect. It seems like old school stuff but it plays out very acutely, particularly in environments such as Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook where students get into a debate and they say things that they simply would not say to their friend across the way. They are very quick to say these things in the context of an online debate.

Martha Minow

Could we develop a delay like “Are you sure you want to send that?”

John Palfrey

Gmail has such a delay. And I think other technologies are developing and putting these delays in place. That may be too subtle for some students, but in any event, I think it is a good idea.

Martha Minow

You helped to elaborate what the word safety means, but do you think that there is a conception here about safety that goes to mental health issues? Or is it really about microaggressions?

John Palfrey

I think both are true. I had a chance to spend some time with Howard Gardner, an Academy member, who has been studying higher education for a number of years. He said mental health is the number one thing that he is hearing now that is different for our students, and I completely agree with that in terms of the experience that students are having on our campuses and the way in which the requirement to support them is different. There is no doubt that anxiety, stress, toxic stress, depression, and suicide are up among American adolescents. And adolescence now extends well into the twenties by the findings of most psychologists and doctors. There is no question that this is a very important topic. It is also the case, based on the data I have seen, that students of color who are coming on our campuses have more acute cases of mental health challenges. So, these things are wrapped up together. I believe that the sense of what safety requires is part and parcel of a different experience that students are having. And I think that is partly the challenge that we face. How do we ensure that we have just as rigorous an intellectual debate and just as serious a commitment to excellence while also ensuring that we are looking after the well-being of our students? I believe it is possible and, in fact, important to do. But it is a sincere challenge.

Martha Minow

The issue of mental health among young people may, in part, reflect people’s greater comfort in saying that they are experiencing stress, that they are having anxiety. In some sense, it is a win in terms of reducing the stigma. But it may also reflect a degree of medicalization of some political issues. I wonder whether the language of safety is really a version of saying, “You can’t tell me I’m wrong because it is my own experience.” And isn’t that really, underneath the safe spaces argument, one of the deepest issues of people wanting, understandably, to have a place that they do not have to be constantly defending themselves but also having a sense that one of the ways to defend yourself is to retreat or to assert some subjectivity: this is my experience, you cannot criticize me.

John Palfrey

Yes, absolutely. In terms of safe spaces, one of the reasons I defend them so vigorously is I think everybody needs the equivalent of a kitchen or a hearth. At home, you have a space where people know who you are: you can be stupid, you can be right, you can be wrong, but you know that the people around you are going to treat you in a particular way, with a set of norms. Whether it is a boarding school like Andover or a college, students still need hearths and kitchens. They need places where they can retreat and recover. It is important to note that for some people, everything in these environments feels like a relatively safe space. That is certainly true for me; having a family that has gone to these schools for a long time, most of it feels pretty safe to me. I am well treated wherever I go. For other people, I think some environments feel very hard. And, in fact, it may feel like a brave space all the time. It is important, therefore, to provide the forms of support that we just haven’t provided as institutions in the past. When you are with students or faculty who say, “You can’t understand my experience,” the truth is I cannot. But that is not to say that I don’t care.

Martha Minow

Would you comment on what the brave space is and what it takes to be brave? Do we need to teach people explicitly to be brave? Does that involve emotion management? Does it involve strategies about forms of speech and address? Does it involve taking care of the person who may be engaging in microaggressions?

John Palfrey

I think all of that is involved, and we need to be thoughtful about the deliberative spaces that we create in our educational institutions, and to do that with real care. Charlie Nesson spends a lot of time thinking about those kinds of spaces that we create for kids and adults that allow us to have genuine deliberation. This is where there is a tie between what we do in the educational setting and the academy and the polity. One of the reasons I am passionate about this is if we can’t get it right for students in the context of an intentionally diverse environment that we create, where we can set some rules, then we are not going to succeed at the level of a democracy. It is crucial that we figure out how to do that. When we send people out as citizens, they need the skills to do this, both coping skills but also deliberative skills. They need to know how to work across difference. By the way, that is one of the reasons why we want to have a diverse set of people on campus because you can get smarter. The conversation can be better. But too often, we pit diversity against free speech.

Martha Minow

But we also need to distinguish this kind of bravery from disinhibition. We really need to get smarter about that, too, because provocateurs like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos are trying to upset people. They want the attention. It is a kind of disinhibition, but it doesn’t advance the discussion. My sense is that both of them have created problems for state institutions because they have rented space. Do you think institutions of higher learning should not rent space? Or is that retreating too far?

John Palfrey

It would seem to me that you could have a rule that said, “We won’t rent the space if it requires a million dollars in security.” One of the places in my book where I retreat from the traditional First Amendment line is that I look at the educational experience that students are having and I think there might be times when a private institution like Andover can make this decision but a public institution might be able to say this is so disruptive to the educational experience of students here that that might trump the free speech right that someone might assert to be able to speak there. That is the one place where I certainly could be critiqued from the kind of traditional First Amendment perspective.

Martha Minow

I want to highlight two things you say in the book that I think should be on billboards, if there are billboards anymore, across the country. You quote Stanley Fish as saying, “There is no such thing as free speech and it’s a good thing, too.” Perhaps people don’t understand this. We have always had time, place, manner, and other kinds of restrictions. The idea that free speech means no restrictions ever is ridiculous, certainly in educational institutions. You also say, “Just as I argue that obnoxious political speech must be tolerated to a degree, I argue that there should be a limit to the types and ways in which hateful speech may be uttered.” There is no real justification for hate and for expressions of hate.

John Palfrey

I think that it is consistent with the values of our institutions about openness and tolerance, about diversity, equity, and inclusion and we need to find ways that that is not the experience that some of our students have on our campuses.

© 2019 by John Palfrey and Martha Minow, respectively