In the past few months, protests have roiled college campuses as many students have become fed up with a system that fails to address racism and cultural insensitivity on the part of both students and staff. From Yale to Missouri to the Claremont Colleges in California, these students have assembled to demand change and, in some cases, to force college administrators to resign.
Many in the media have decried what they see as political correctness run amok, particularly in the demand for “safe spaces” on campus for students of color and other minority groups, such as gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals. While I agree that creating these permanent safe spaces for minorities is a bad idea, I disagree on the reasons put forward by these pundits.
Critics of the safe space movement argue that students these days are too sensitive and should not be coddled. I disagree. When students are subjected to racial epithets, culturally denigrating costumes, and exclusionary attitudes, they are not being babies. College administrators need to be firm about disciplining acts of bullying, whether they be physical or verbal. A young woman subjected to leers and catcalls, a Hispanic or Asian student told to go back to where they came from, or a student mocked for his or her sexual orientation all deserve to be protected from such bullying.
Critics will argue that these prejudices exist in the real world, so students may as well get used to dealing with them. I have news for these critics. Minority members are all too familiar with discrimination in their so-called real lives by the time they get to college. There is nothing wrong with a college fostering some sensitivity towards people’s differences.
Another argument is that minority students’ demands have shut down debate and true academic inquiry on college campuses. While there may be cases where students have gone to extremes in their definitions of hate speech, for the most part, students just want to be respected. There is a big difference between an argument in a college course over a racially sensitive issue, for example, and hurling racial slurs at each other.
Whites need to concede that most colleges intrinsically cater to their culture. Because whites are in the majority on most college campuses, white culture is seen to be the norm while other cultures are looked upon as different or even alien. A case in point is the protest that erupted over Claremont McKenna College’s dean of students referring to “the CMC mold” in an email to a Latina student. (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 17, 2016) The dean meant well. She was trying to explain her determination to assist minority students, but her language betrayed the reality of many college situations. There is a “mold” that non-white and non-heterosexual students do not fit.
All those things being said, I think designating permanent safe spaces on campus for individual groups is a mistake. For one thing, all students should have access to all campus facilities. It’s not right to say that a certain space is only for, say, Asian students to congregate in. I also think providing so-called safe spaces puts the administration in the business of promoting segregation. While I firmly believe individuals have the right to associate with whomever they want, I don’t think such segregation should be encouraged by the college administration.
All colleges should be safe spaces in which students of varying races, religions, cultures, and sexual orientations should be able to explore, learn, meet, argue, and grow as individuals. College administrators should absolutely address students’ grievances, and I applaud these young people for standing up for what they believe in.
Our society seems to be at a crossroads. On the one hand, we have our first black president, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of gay marriage. On the other hand, we have frustration and underemployment for many middle class Americans. It’s not hard to see how such uncertainties can create a backlash as we look for a scapegoat. But our colleges are a key part of our future, and we need to pay attention to the needs of all students, regardless of background, if we are to continue our tradition of excellence in America.