Guidance for administrators thinking about safe spaces
Universities have an obligation to foster an environment of respect in which violent, harassing, and reckless conduct does not occur. However, it is neither possible nor desirable for campuses to offer protection from all ideas and speech that may cause a measure of damage. Designating certain spaces as “safe” for particular groups on campus can ensure that all students have a place where they can feel free to share ideas and air grievances that they may otherwise feel uncomfortable expressing.
PROVIDE REAL RESOURCES
Short-term safe spaces with resources for stress reduction and trauma response can have their place; but these cannot replace robust options for mental health treatment and accessible counseling.
Dismissing safe spaces as coddling or infantilizing fails to recognize the very real toll that harmful language, microaggressions, and systemic inequalities can take on students. In order for campuses to remain committed to both free speech and inclusion, they must find ways to help address harmful speech that do not involve sanctions or punitive measures. Providing resources for students who experience the effects of harmful speech is necessary for maintaining that balance.
Providing some safe spaces where students can feel safe to ask questions, express their ideas, and be with their communities can better equip them to engage with more challenging ideas within the campus at large.
MAKE THEM VOLUNTARY
Any space designated as “safe” on campus should be one that is entered voluntarily. The campus as a whole, and segments thereof that are intended for all–such as classrooms, quads, and cafeterias–must be kept physically safe but intellectually and ideologically open.
ADOPT A NUANCED APPROACH
Allowing certain spaces to be designated as safe does not require surrendering the ideals of free speech on campus, nor does keeping public spaces ideologically open mean abandoning all sensitivity to diversity and inclusion. As Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth has said, “Stop talking about [safe spaces] as if they were part of a zero-sum ideological war.”
If students feel that safe spaces on campus are necessary, it may be worth considering if there are any systemic issues or problems in the campus climate that contribute to students feeling unsafe or unwelcome. Think about other steps you can take to address those issues.