Thrive on Campus//

Don’t Dismiss “Safe Spaces”

Yes, the concept can be taken too far, but it still underlies the university’s primary obligations.

Jannis Tobias Werner/ Shutterstock
Jannis Tobias Werner/ Shutterstock

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

As a new school year begins and students prepare to head off to college, there will be the usual excitement among family and friends as well as anxiety about the unknowns. Will these young people, especially those first-year students who are essentially entering into a new society, forge friendships? Will they be inspired and supported by their teachers? What will they learn and how will they establish good habits for study and physical and mental health? Will they be happy? Will they be safe?

To those familiar with campus politics, that last question may seem like a loaded one. The idea of a “safe space” — in the broadest terms, the attempt to make sure all students are made to feel welcome in or outside the classroom — has become a favorite target of critics who claim to worry about the preservation of free speech on campus. Easily caricatured or ridiculed, safe spaces can seem like an extreme form of what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff call “vindictive protectionism,” with social justice border agents policing conversations for possible microaggressions that might inadvertently wound someone.

Is this fair? That depends.

To be sure, there are plenty of examples of sanctimonious “safetyism” — counterproductive coddling of students who feel fragile. Instead of teaching young people to find resources in themselves to deal with chagrin and anxiety, some school officials offer hand-holding, beanbags and puppies. Infantilizing students by overprotecting them, or just treating them as consumers who have to be kept happy at all costs, can be easier and more profitable for institutions than allowing students to learn the hard way that the world is a challenging place and that they have to figure out ways of dealing with it.

On the other hand, the outright dismissal of safe spaces can amount to a harmful disregard for the well-being of students; it can perpetuate environments where the entitled continue to dominate those around them and students never learn how to build a more equitable, inclusive community. With mental health and suicide crises emerging on some campuses, the idea of universities taking conscious steps to protect and nurture students emotionally as well as physically should be welcome.

So what’s a university to do?

The first answer is obvious: We should begin by destigmatizing the notion of safe spaces and stop talking about them as if they were part of a zero-sum ideological war.

As a college president for almost 20 years, I am a strong proponent of creating spaces that are “safe enough” on college campuses. (Here, I draw from the psychologist D.W. Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough” parent, who enables a child to flourish by letting them experience frustration and failure within the safety of the family, not by coddling or overprotecting.) Like families, campus cultures are different, but each should promote a basic sense of inclusion and respect that enables students to learn and grow — to be open to ideas and perspectives so that the differences they encounter are educative. That basic sense is feeling “safe enough.”

Despite the feverish urgency of contemporary debates, the idea of a safe space isn’t at all new. The concept can be traced back to Kurt Lewin, a founder of social psychology and of management theory. A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Lewin was asked to work with supervisors and psychologists at the Harwood Manufacturing Company, a family-owned textile company that, having relocated a factory, found itself with a less experienced and more female work force. Lewin wanted to test the impact of participatory decision-making on productivity and absenteeism with small groups of employees, but he had to get honest (and hence useful) answers from workers who might be worried about speaking out in earshot of the boss.

Lewin and his colleagues created “safe spaces” in which groups of employees and managers could speak honestly about working conditions and productivity goals without fear of retaliation or retribution. When members of the group felt they could freely participate in setting factory goals, productivity increased. No puppies there, not even immunity from criticism — only the feeling that one could speak one’s mind without being attacked or losing one’s job.

As the idea of safe spaces moved from industrial psychology on the manufacturing floor to the private, therapeutic setting, clinicians saw a key benefit in their patients’ being able to more easily change their minds, to “unfreeze,” if they felt safe enough to entertain criticism and alternative ideas. In group therapy, the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom wrote, one “must experience the group as a safe refuge within which it is possible to entertain new beliefs and experiment with new behavior without fear of reprisal.” This wasn’t overprotective safetyism — just an environment in which one could speak more freely and encounter different ideas.

In the 1970s, feminist groups created their own “safe spaces” where women could come together and share accounts of life in a sexist society without fear of retaliation. In the gay liberation movement, the concept was equally important. In the face of discrimination, safe spaces allowed for community building. These arenas were not devoid of disagreement, but they were safe enough for the development of a political movement without interference by dominant and hostile groups. Moira Kenney has charted the importance of these spaces for lesbian and feminist groups in Los Angeles 50 years ago, and today the radical feminist bookstore Bluestockings refers to its safer spaces for resistance and critical thinking.

For different people at different times, safety can mean different things, but the baseline is certainly physical security. For most of the past 100 years, students of color were at risk in many campus spaces, as they were in most cities in America. When I was a college student in the 1970s, female students were routinely targeted by male professors who found it easier to get sexual partners among 19-year-olds than among women their own age. Back then, gay students knew that walking near a fraternity house during pledge week might result in getting beaten up as part of a pledging ritual. There were plenty of campus spaces that weren’t safe for different segments of the student body. Today, campuses are safer, and it would be hard to find anyone arguing that this isn’t a good thing.

Still, college women must continue to take special precautions to ensure their well-being; they pass on the knowledge that at certain parties it’s just not safe to drink from a punch bowl because some guys might spike it with knockout pills, or that it is best to stay away from certain professors who have a history of coming on to their students. Students point out that some among them are more vulnerable than others, and they warn that some spaces (and the people who administer them) are more dangerous than others. Does all this mean students are more fragile? Hardly. It means students are protecting themselves.

Critics of “safe spaces” don’t, of course, want to return to the days when students from certain demographic groups were at greater risk on some parts of a campus. What they worry about is that the idea of such places encourages the isolation of groups of students from questions that might take them outside their comfort zones. Throughout American culture, groups are enclosing themselves in bubbles that protect them from competing points of view, even from disturbing information; this siloing of perspectives is being exacerbated by social media and economic and cultural segregation.

Universities must push back against this tide; our classrooms should never be so comfortable that intellectual confrontation becomes taboo or assumptions go unchallenged because everyone’s emotional well-being is overprotected. Instead, we must promote intellectual diversity in a context in which people can feel safe enough to challenge one another. Vigorous scholarly exchange and academic freedom depend on it.

Acknowledging that campuses need “safe enough” spaces is not saying that students need protection from argument or the discovery that they should change their minds. It is saying that students should be able to participate in argument and inquiry without the threat of harassment or intimidation. Calling for such spaces is to call for schools to promote a basic sense of inclusion and respect that enables all students to thrive — to be open to ideas and perspectives so that the differences they encounter are educative and not destructive. That basic sense is feeling “safe enough” to explore differences without fear and work toward positive outcomes with courage.

Students and their families make great efforts and sacrifices to put themselves on our campuses. Ensuring they have “safe enough spaces” when they get there is our basic obligation. It’s the least we can do.

Michael S. Roth (@mroth78) is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses.”

This op-ed originally appeared on nytimes.com

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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