Why Aren’t Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces Working in Academia?

University campuses are seething. But telling people to get along with each other is not the answer.

Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education
John Palfrey
MIT Press
Oct 2017

“We will remember the academic years between 2014 and 2017 as times of turmoil on our campuses,” writes John Palfrey, an American college administrator. His book tackles the debate between free expression on the one hand and efforts to promote diversity and equity on the other. His basic argument is that the notion that one must support one or the other principle is a false choice; diversity and free expression can co-exist on college campuses.

Palfrey wades into an enormous debate, and one that crosses borders. In Canada, like the US, university campuses have witnessed confrontations between diversity and free expression on issues such as reproductive rights, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, colonialism, and trans rights. On the one hand are advocates who encourage greater sensitivity and respect for others — using peoples’ preferred pronouns or gender identities; establishing identity-based ‘safe spaces’; acknowledging one’s own privilege when it comes to race and other identity vectors; removing statues of slave-owners from public spaces. On the other hand are those who resist such initiatives, often claiming the right to freedom of speech or freedom of expression. Palfrey’s over-arching argument — that we can all get along — is a laudable one. But his book provides very little practical advice on how to make that happen.

The liberal perspective is well represented by Palfrey’s book: a sort of dazed confusion at all the fuss, followed by a ‘why can’t we all get along?’ admonishment. Palfrey’s argument consists primarily of the sound-bite contained in the title: he argues that society (or at least universities) need both ‘safe spaces’ and ‘brave spaces’. That is to say, they need places where respect for diversity and identity comes first, and then other spaces where respect for free expression comes first. It’s an infrastructure manager’s solution to the ‘why can’t we all get along?’ question.

If it also sounds astonishingly and unworkably naïve and simplistic, you’re probably right. It’s hard to fault Palfrey for trying. He sounds like a kind-hearted fellow and is surely the sort to go to for a pep talk if you’re having a bad day. But that doesn’t mean there are any profound answers to be found here. Palfrey tries to make both sides see each other’s point, explaining on the one hand why diversity is important and on the other why free expression is important. The book offers an excessively basic recap of a few of the basic positions in the ongoing free speech versus diversity and inclusion debates.

I hesitate to criticize Palfrey, because he’s surely one of the good guys. He wants everyone to get along. He wants everyone to respect each other. He believes in a nice big diverse world. But all the good intentions in the world don’t detract from the fact that if we’re going to move this dialogue around respect, diversity and free expression forward, we need more substantive and complex ideas than simply ‘let’s all get along’. It’s just not that easy.

Critics of the bloating of university administrations argue that universities have become disproportionately bureaucratic, with middle-level intellectuals being promoted far above their stature into prestigious and highly paid positions largely because they’re middling good bureaucrats and avoid drawing the sort of controversy that comes from taking firm and principled positions. One can’t help but wonder whether a book that is essentially constructed around a sound-bite is not a reflection of that phenomenon. What the issue needs is serious, complex, substantive, and even provocative ideas, not ‘everyone please get along’ platitudes. If there is indeed a problem at our universities, it’s not the thunderous contestation of ideas — what else are universities for? — but rather the faltering efforts of over-privileged, under-intellectualized administrators to maintain a happy liberal sheen over a project (the academe) which is predicated on the clash of ideas.

But again, Palfrey is one of the good guys, so kudos to him for trying.

The book’s vague treatment of the issues, however, offers an occasion to consider some of the points that it does not adequately explore.

The Problem Is Not with Our Universities

There’s a fundamental mistake that almost all commentators make on the issue of ‘what’s happening at our universities?’ They fail to show that the ‘problem’ with which they’re dealing — this clash of ideas — is in any way exclusive or even central to our universities. Let’s consider, for instance, that the ‘problem’ — clashing ideologies that do not get along — does not even lie with our universities. It lies with our broader society. As some of the most public spaces in our society, social strife on university campuses is simply more visible and has more opportunity to manifest. Trying to hive off universities as a space of exceptional strife over things like racism, identity, inclusion, etc., misses the point that this strife is everywhere, and is simply better hidden (and suppressed) in the private sector, the retail world, the workplace, the family home.

For a variety of reasons, these societal debates or struggles may often crystallize and take coherent form on campuses before they emerge in broader society (witness the struggle against sexual harassment, for example), but it’s a mistake to think they are problems exclusive to our universities. They’re warning signs of problems rooted in our broader society. To think they are the product of immature attitudes or of undisciplined youth is to misunderstand these struggles entirely, at society’s peril.

University is just one of the key sites of a much broader struggle for equity and enfranchisement by the many who remain (or have become) excluded or marginalized in America’s increasingly disenfranchised, racist and sexist oligopoly. It’s not universities that have changed. It’s the world in which they exist that is changing.

So why all the recent furor in the media over ‘what’s happening at our universities’? To be frank, universities have always grappled with contesting ideas, especially tumultuous debates around issues like accessibility, free speech, inclusion, etc. Universities are in fact very capable of engaging with these complex debates. The problem isn’t universities: the problem is the public outside of universities getting riled up about what happens inside of universities. The problem arises when the broader community is dragged into university-centered debates (without recognizing them for the broader societal debates which they actually are). When racism is challenged on a college campus, it’s easier for a disgruntled white man to light a torch and march around denouncing college intellectuals in the name of ‘free speech’, than to recognize his own complicity in a system of oppression that exists just as much in his own workplace and on his own street.

This has occurred more frequently in recent months and years for a few reasons. Modern technology and social media have collapsed the barriers which traditionally distanced what went on inside a university from the broader society. Even if you’re not enrolled in a university, you see what goes on there — on social media feeds, media coverage, and more. The sort of turmoil and confrontation that everyone’s talking about these days has always happened in universities – there’s a well-documented heritage of vibrant, even violent, campus debates going back centuries. It’s just that the public has never had such a front-row seat. While universities have always managed to cope with these challenges in one way or another (not always wisely or successfully, mind you), now suddenly the broad public feels that it’s entitled to have a say in what used to be a relatively closed community. It’s that public that has a much harder time dealing with what its seeing in our universities, which in itself reflects elements of our society much of the public would rather ignore.

Mind you it’s not just the public that’s to blame for this. Members of the university community are complicit too, insofar as they have sought to use the public in what used to be internal community disputes. Protagonists on both the left and the right have reached out to mobilize the broader public, essentially amassing armies and then using them to storm what used to be university-focused debates.

Technology plays a key role here: the ability of small, easily accessed devices like cell phones to record and broadcast audio and video has essentially opened up the classrooms and halls of the university — and even formerly private meetings — to the world to watch. Nothing is private any more. This has intensified existing debates, which suddenly have so many more participants than before.

University Administrators Are Part of the Problem

There’s a problem when university administrators seek to position themselves as wise, objective voices of ‘reason’ in these debates, and it is this: university administrators are part of the problem. They’re overpaid, their composition reflects the racist and sexist demographics of our campuses, and they are responsible for the very policies that exacerbate the problems causing the turmoil they seek to politely repress. It’s the university administrators earning sunshine-list salaries who continue raising tuition rates and imposing new service fees, along with other neoliberal policies (emphasizing measurable metrics and outcomes over intellectual freedom; pursuing profitable research contracts rather than encouraging basic research, etc.), all of which are the driving forces behind the true crises on our campuses: shrinking accessibility, rising economic injustice, and faltering academic freedoms.

As such, Palfrey’s book falls short by directing itself toward an audience which is ultimately inconsequential and also has vested interests in maintaining the status quo: university administrators. Beyond the fact that administrators are disingenuous by pretending the status quo is worth maintaining because it’s somehow intrinsically worthwhile (while ignoring the fact it benefits their wallets and professional prestige), there’s another level of deception involved in framing this as a university-level problem. Scaling the problem down and presenting it as a ‘problem with our universities’ makes it seem like something that university administrators can actually do something about. Recognizing that it’s a deeper problem (grounded in racism, inequality, etc.) with the very fabric of American society, however, would recast university administrators more as privileged participants, and less as wise elders, in the ongoing struggles. University administrators want to feel empowered to do something, especially since they benefit from the privileges of an essentially unequal and unjust structure. The notion of listening to their students (and precariously employed colleagues) and restructuring society so as to give up their privileges as wealthy white administrators is perhaps less palatable an option for them to consider.

Moreover, it’s important to consider whether liberals like Palfrey proceed from an incorrect assumption: that everyone wants to get along. Whether this comes from wishful thinking, or naïvety, is hard to say. His book offers an incomplete analysis by failing to consider that what is happening on our campuses may not just be about two equal yet conflicting values. There’s a sort of false equivalency that this interpretation brings to the issue. Free speech and respect for diversity sound, as abstract concepts, equally valid. But on a real-life, material level, is that statue of a slave-owner sitting in the courtyard really an equivalent value to the intimidation and anger it arouses in African-American students?

When abstract concepts are translated into real-life scenarios, what this translation often obscures is the presence of more insidious agendas at play — white students wanting to preserve the privilege of education for themselves (supported by white workers, or the white unemployed, wanting to preserve the privilege of jobs for themselves), or men seeking to preserve their privileges over women. Liberal administrators like Palfrey don’t consider that people might be using the values they organize behind as a shield disguising less palatable motivations (either consciously or unconsciously), and that’s a dangerous degree of naïvety for someone in a senior administrative position at a university.

When straight or cis students storm a trans/queer resource centre on campus; when Christian students attack Muslims on campus and forcibly remove their hijabs; when mobs surround abortion clinics; they’re not asserting free speech. Such people are not going to be satisfied with a détente that permits safe spaces and brave spaces. For them, it’s about controlling campus space – and ultimately social space in its entirety — and asserting their values within that space. After all, segregation in southern US schools was not overcome by tolerant attitudes and wise administrators encouraging everyone to get along. It was overcome by laws and their enforcement, following tremendous violence and bloodshed.

It’s Not About Children Versus Adults

Palfrey’s work illustrates some other common misperceptions that characterize the thinking of senior university administrators on these issues. First, it adopts a paternalizing tone which implies throughout that students are somehow immature; that they are learners whose youthful exuberance (for the right or the left) must be guided by wiser, senior voices.

This misses entirely the context in which these debates are playing out across Canada, the US, and elsewhere. It’s not a matter of overzealous youthful enthusiasm but a matter of new ideas and modes of enacting them that are being wrestled over. Senior administrators assume that the values they are familiar with will — or should — somehow prevail. This is a dangerous assumption to make, and is why they are so consistently failing in their efforts to maintain peace on university campuses. The peace they struggle unsuccessfully to preserve is rooted in social mores that are flying out the window at an increasing pace. The question is not how to lock these mores and practices into place for eternity, but what mores and practices will we allow to rise in their wake?

Young students are more familiar with new ideas and are more capable of engaging with the complex instantiation of those ideas into practice. In this sense they have an innate advantage over senior administrators. Many senior university administrators are simply lost when it comes to understanding issues of gender identity, pronouns, sexual harassment, reparations, police violence, contemporary racism.

The disingenuousness of blaming campus strife on youthful immaturity is also revealed by the fact that it is, increasingly, no longer just young undergraduate students at the core of these struggles, but also graduate students, contract instructors, exploited non-academic workers, and a broader range of campus players. These are people who did not shed their ideas of emancipation as they grew older; if anything many of them have become more forceful as they enter the academic precariat. There, they’ve found themselves excluded from decent jobs and dignity as a result of the austerity policies which both reify existing social privilege in a broad sense, and are causing our institutions to literally crumble in a more immediate sense. To attribute strife on our college campuses to the immaturity of youth is far too easy, far too naïve, and far too dangerous.

Moreover, the ideas and values which are being fought over on campuses — inclusion, dignity, diversity, access — are also rapidly entering the broader communities outside of academia, and being seized upon by popular culture, by business, by the broader society. Liberal administrators are trying to restrain with policies and codes of conduct ideas and ways of acting in the world which have now taken root outside of academia as much as within. Palfrey’s implication that educators need to learn how to cope with exuberant activism among students misses entirely the point that what educators must learn to deal with is a world that has changed in profound ways. Student activism is a symptom or manifestation of this changed behaviour, not the cause.

While I feel such things need to be said, if only because too few people are calling out senior university bureaucrats for the poor quality of their contributions to important public discussions, I do feel bad criticizing Palfrey since he sounds like a really nice guy, and surely provides excellent service at his university. But from a purely intellectual perspective one has to wonder how and why a book like this gets published.

Despite its lack of substance, new ideas, or meaningful suggestions, I would hazard a prediction the book will be quite successful among university administrators and student affairs officers. They’ll gather (with each other) at conventions and talk about it, and because it’s such a good sound bite I wager we’ll hear calls for “safe spaces and brave spaces” parroted by administrators throughout the country for the next couple of years.

Of course, it won’t change anything. The public will still seethe at what goes on in universities. Students will still mob other students. Queer resource centres will be targeted by bigots; Muslim students by non-Muslims. Progressive students will organize rallies to shut down the mobilizing of hate-mongers. Campuses will continue to be roiled. And white university administrators who commute from mansions in the tree-lined suburbs will sit in their wood-paneled offices, shaking their heads, wondering what all the fuss is about and why everyone can’t just get along.

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