“We have work to do.”
In light of the renewed attention to questions of “safe spaces” and academic freedom, I’ll repost the link to my long post on the topic from last spring.
The university is an association for the discovery, transmission, and preservation of knowledge… originally defined in part by the literal walls and gates that surrounded it. Academic freedom itself is a safe space: here you are free to inquire, debate, teach, and learn, without fear of being shouted down, drummed out, expelled, or fired for political or religious heterodoxy, being judged according to academic standards of inquiry, evidence, and argument. Protecting that community of inquiry means keeping any number of intrusions at bay. And the university is constituted as a system of safe spaces: around here we discuss as economists in order to make progress on our research agenda without constantly having to re-argue our premisses against philosophers pointing out how inadequate they are. In that classroom professors teach and students learn biology, in a discussion that is insulated from anti-scientific anti-vaccine ranting and creationist ranting alike. The students in the Black Students’ Association get together to explore questions of culture and identity, discuss shared experiences of life in a majority-white society or university, or just relax, insulated from the “but affirmative action should be abolished and people should be judged on their merits!” hectoring from each conservative white student who thinks they’re the first to communicate this radical idea. Each of those insulated environments is a part of the larger university whole; each of those debates can happen in other university settings. But in order to make intellectual progress, we create a system of nested and overlapping safe spaces within which we can say to the boring and disruptive critic endlessly repeating first-order objections: “Go away. Hush up. We have work to do.”
See also Henry Farrell at CT and Mark Tushnet at Balkinization. My own arguments about this grow out of ideas developed n Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, chapter 11. And see the University of Chicago statement on freedom of expression and the Kalven Report, which are much better statements of governing academic principle than is last week’s letter from Chicago, more concerned with the university itself and less concerned with extramural culture war signalling.