This letter to incoming students from the University of Chicago’s dean of students is getting a lot of discussion (e.g.).

Our commitment to academic freedom means that 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.

There’s something basically right with the idea that universities (in the social sciences and humanities) should be in the business of making their students uncomfortable with their preconceptions, obliging them to examine their own and others’ ideas forcefully, and getting them to acknowledge a la Max Weber that there are awkward facts for every political position. But there’s also something fundamentally wrong with the claim that the ideal of academic freedom and the idea of the safe space are opposed to each other.

One of these days, we may see Susanne Lohmann’s book on how universities think. But in the meantime, there are some helpful insights in the essays that are supposed to provide one bit or another of her argument. In particular, this piece, which argued, a decade ago, that the university was nothing more and nothing less than a congeries of safe spaces for faculty, who otherwise would be at each others’ throats.

As the university became increasingly differentiated into schools and departments, and factions within schools and departments, and factions within factions, it became internally conflicted. The members of a faction tend to reserve the most intense feelings of hatred for their intellectual neighbors rather than for the inhabitants of far-away worlds. This makes it very hard for faculty in the same, or closely related, fields to agree on appointments and curriculum design.

Protective structures followed faculty infighting: strong walls sprang up to separate the departments and schools, and federalist structures emerged. The voting procedures that aggregated the preferences within and across departments and schools became ever more complex. The university thus developed an intricate internal organization to protect the faculty from each other.

As Lohmann notes, this explains both the frequent intellectual rigidity and occasional dynamism of the university:

There is a dark side to the history of the university. It is largely a history of ossification punctuated by bursts of intellectual vibrancy and structural innovation. In the large sweep of history, change occurs not because existing scholars, departments, and institutions move with the times, but through replacement. New ideas and methods are developed by new generations of scholars working in newly founded disciplines. New structures that support new forms of inquiry and learning emerge in newly founded universities.

Existing institutions do change—some of them, some of the time. When institutional change occurs, it is typically in response to the political or economic threat posed by entrants. Departments have a harder time reinventing themselves, and when they do, it is because of generational turnover, for individual scholars tend not to change at all.

Also this – which isn’t really related to the point at hand – but which is too good not to quote (the point is accentuated if one includes contingent as well as tenure-line faculty):

The university is a cruel institution. It takes the best and the brightest, promises them the world, and then it throws most of them to the dogs. The vast majority of scholars start out as fresh-eyed and bushy-tailed newly minted assistant professors; their career peaks as they become tenured associate professors; and from then on their human capital declines steadily for reasons that are mostly not under their control. As a result, there is a lot of bitterness and resentment floating around in the heads of the tenured faculty.

And this, which is related:

Disciplines are controlled by journal editors and leading scholars who collectively decide what gets published in the top journals, who is awarded tenure, and which activities are to be supported by grants and showered with honors. There are selection biases in place that create a tendency for self-perpetuation. Perhaps most importantly, there is a natural bias toward gerontocracy that benefits scholars who are in mid-career or even over the hill. This is the group from which journal editors and leading scholars are drawn from, and they will tend to favor traditional work and support clones of themselves.

What this all suggests is that questions of preserving academic freedom and academic diversity are more complicated than the University of Chicago’s rather self-congratulatory letter to incoming students would suggest. Lohmann’s fundamental point (and I really hope the book emerges, so that these ideas get the airing they deserve) is that successful universities – surely including the University of Chicago – are congeries of safe spaces that factions of scholars have carved out to protect themselves from their intellectual enemies. More concretely – the University of Chicago has both a very well recognized economics department and a very well recognized sociology department. There is furthermore some overlap in the topics that they study. Yet the professors in these two departments protect themselves from each other – they do not, for example, vote on each other’s tenure decisions. They furthermore have quite different notions (though again, perhaps with some overlap) of what constitutes legitimate and appropriate research. In real life, academics only are able to exercise academic freedom because they have safe spaces that they can be free in.

Thinking about universities in this way doesn’t provide obvious answers to student demands for safe spaces, some of which seem to me to be legitimate, some not (I also suspect that the media has an interest in hyping up the most ridiculous seeming claims because the weird social connections between the American elite and a very small number of colleges mean that this stuff gets an audience – but that’s another matter for a different post). What it does though, is to make clear that universities’ and professors’ own notions (myself included) of what makes for legitimate inquiry, academic freedom etc, and what doesn’t are themselves contested, and the products of social processes that don’t always look particularly good when they’re subjected to sustained inquiry.

If the university is made up of safe spaces (we call them departments, schools, research programs and academic disciplines), then demands for safe spaces are nothing particularly new (except that they come from students), and should be examined in just the same kinds of ways as the safe spaces that academics have created for themselves, and don’t think about, because they seem part of the natural order of the universe. Sometimes, there will be some broader justifications for them (in terms of diversity or other desiderata), sometimes not, and the justifications will themselves always be arguable.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

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Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.