What are Safe Spaces & How are Campuses Using Them?

Posted by Alec Jandorek on 6 December 2016 |

campus safe spaces definitionIn 2016, the word “safe space” has become a buzz word across college campuses nationwide. Many students have asked their colleges to implement safe spaces, in addition to allowing students to be excused from controversial topics that may be covered in their courses.

While many students claim these are beneficial, this topic isn’t free from criticism and has recently been targeted by many administrative figures and other campus leaders. So let’s dive in and find out what safe spaces are and why they are so controversial.

So what exactly are safe spaces?

Before we can start talking about why students want safe spaces, we must first define what they are. According to the oxford dictionary a safe space is “A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.” While these spaces are nothing new, their presence has become more common across the USA--primarily on college campuses.

With safe spaces, also comes the emergence of trigger warnings. A trigger warning is akin to “content warnings” often seen on various types of media that alert the user about potentially explicit content. However, students are requesting these to warn about content that could potentially controversial or upsetting. These would allow students to bypass or not take part in activities or lectures surrounding the topic at hand.

How are campuses using them and why do students want them?

Safe spaces on college campuses generally tend to emerge during controversial topics or events. They can be planned by individual students, faculty, or different organizations present on campus. These spaces typically come in the form of alternative activities or a room in which a calming environment is created.

In a recent article posted by master studies they state that failure to offer these accomodations can “further victimize and marginalize people and lead to more significant mental health issues”. They also go on to state that just as colleges are required to educate they are also obligated to ensure the health and wellbeing of their students.

To further reinforce the need for these spaces, a recent study conducted by Yale University regarding trigger warnings found that “63 percent favored requiring professors to use ‘trigger warnings’ to alert students.” While this study is far from conclusive it does go to show that a majority of students are in favor of these warnings in an academic setting.

Why is this topic so controversial?

While safe spaces have become more popular, the topic has not been free from criticism. Many students and faculty have come out in opposition to safe spaces.

Recently, John Ellison, Dean of Students at the University of Chicago, wrote a letter to incoming students. In this letter he states, “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.”

Ellison’s words echo what a majority of safe space detractors believe. One of the biggest arguments against them is that they erode free speech. Faculty and students are requested to avoid words or topics some may deem offensive which is viewed as a form of censorship. Many critics also argue that these “safe spaces” are counterintuitive to the typical view of universities. A view that is made up of free thought and exchange of information. But with students being able to opt-out from discussing these topics openly this view is becoming a thing of the past.

Conclusion

As you can see, the topic of safe spaces is quite a complex. Many students believe that it is within their rights to avoid these controversial topics and that it is the duty of their institution to look out for their mental health.

On the other hand, there are many people who are critical of this view. And some places of higher education are going as far as to publicly condemn them.

While it may seem like there is no middle ground on this topic, both viewpoints can actually coexist. Training students on the benefits of diversity can open students up to viewing topics from a different perspective. Also, having resources available for groups that feel marginalized is a great way to ensure everyone’s voice is being heard.

Be sure to let us know how you feel about this topic in the comments below!

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