Chalk, Safe Spaces, and the Failure of Higher Education

A couple weeks ago, students at Emory University were traumatized to wake up and find their pristine sidewalks chalked with messages of support for Donald Trump—apologies for not prefacing that name with a trigger warning. Rather than wait for rain to wash away the endorsements, student activists took it upon themselves to cleanse the school of the chalk on the grounds that it resembled “hate speech.”

The fact that a presidential frontrunner can so easily be identified with racism, sexism, and bigotry is, of course, a problem. A greater problem facing these students, however, is that they need to grow up. Across the country, our brightest young minds—aspiring doctors, lawyers, politicians, and business executives—are so fragile that they cannot bear exposure to expressions of support for a major presidential candidate without feeling personally attacked.

Protesters, triggered by the chalk, gathered at an administration building carrying signs with slogans such as “stop hate” and “stop Trump” written on them. As if the university, by not erasing and condemning the pro-Trump chalking, was actively endorsing Trump, the protesters began antiphonally chanting “You are not listening! Come speak to us, we are in pain!”

Needless to say, nobody was in any real pain, but some feelings were apparently hurt, and these students held the university accountable for letting it happen.

The claim that seeing “Trump 2016” written all over campus made students feel “afraid” and unsafe is cause for concern, not for any minor emotional distress they have perceived, but because of the inability of many college students to cope with reality. Whether somebody supports him or not, Donald Trump is a reality of our current political landscape and his supporters maintain a large percentage of the American electorate. If university students cannot come to terms with the fact that some of their fellow students count themselves among Trump’s supporters, then they are in for a rude awakening when they enter the real world and can no longer cling to the college safety blanket. 

One can only imagine the horror soon-to-be grads will feel when their bosses ignore their demand for leave due to the emotional distress felt when seeing a political poster on the way to work. Of course, most students don’t act this way, and won’t have a problem adapting to an office environment after graduation. Other students, such as those at the University of Michigan who called the police because Trump’s name had been written in chalk, will have a hard time coping when they learn that the purpose of government is not to protect the feelings of its citizens.

While in college, however, these fragile students receive validation from college administrators who want to create “safe spaces” for their students where they can be protected from uncomfortable ideas, and apparently names.

Although Emory’s President, James Wagner, chalked “Emory stands for free expression” after the incident, his promise to review security footage to try to identify the perpetrators of “free expression” and make “immediate refinements to certain policy and procedural deficiencies” leaves some concern that his “stand” may only last until the next rainfall washes the colored dust away.

Wagner’s wink-and-nod response towards free speech, while indulging the grief claimed by protesters, is all that proponents of free expression could have hoped to receive from a university president, particularly during the 2015-16 academic year, which has been a supreme embarrassment for many of the country’s top colleges and universities, including Hamilton. 

The dismissal of free speech values in protests and in the cut-and-pasted demands that made the rounds of dozens of colleges this year highlights how higher education is failing its students. The impulse of Emory protesters to punish the anonymous chalker for rattling their fragile psyches is creating a dangerous collegiate culture, in which individuals with minority opinions are vindictively compelled to silence for fear that they will be charged with being insensitive, oppressive, or aggressive in contradiction to the intellectual orthodoxy.

In October, the students of Wesleyan University felt their safe space had been violated when the school newspaper, the Argus, published a column mildly critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, because the article questioned the methods of protest employed by some of the activists. Although the writer presented a thoughtful and nuanced opinion, the article and the Argus as a whole were swiftly condemned. Shortly following the op-ed’s publication, 172 students, staff, and alumni signed a petition “boycotting [the paper] for supporting institutional racism.”

Instead of using the publication as a platform to espouse their beliefs, the social justice warriors demanded that the student government defund the Argus until the paper issued an apology and all staff members underwent “social justice/diversity training.” In a mighty blow to intellectual diversity and the liberal arts tradition of free expression, Wesleyan’s student government unanimously voted to cut $17,000 from the Argus’s funding and the paper is now struggling to remain in print.

The shallow safe spaces receiving endorsements from college professors and administrators have reduced the intellectual discourse on college campuses to a one-sided argument. University administrators have nurtured this environment by indulging their students’ pleas for emotional and intellectual safety. When college officials arrive at work one morning to find a sit-in taking place to protest the latest fashionable grievance, they hastily, and understandably, try to resolve the potentially brand-damaging event before it appears in the New York Times.

Regardless of what the protests advocate, the school praises its students for causing an incident and makes whatever capitulations necessary to avoid creating further controversy. Unfortunately, by applauding activism for the sake of activism and leaving the ideas implicit in the protests unaddressed, college administrators have spurred the stifling of the intellectual diversity that was once a hallmark of America’s higher education.

This has already been a banner year for student protests across the country, but it is not over yet. Who knows what spring has in store for us as student activists, whose vision of higher education has still gone unrealized, prepare for graduation.