Michael S. Roth ’78: Envisioning College as a “Safe Enough Space”

Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth is the author of a new book, Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses, published on August 20 by Yale University Press. At a time when passionate and polarized debates rage about affirmative action, privilege, political correctness, and free speech on college campuses, Roth charts a pragmatic path through the thicket of serious issues facing today’s colleges and universities. He envisions college as a space in which all students are empowered to engage deeply with a variety of ideas, including those that are disturbing. In such a space—safe from debilitating harm but not from the discomfort of intense debate and substantial disagreement—students can develop a sense of who they are, what matters to them, and what they hope to make of their lives.

Your new book is entitled Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses. There is a lot in this title to unpack. Let’s begin with the phrase “safe enough spaces.” Where does it come from?

The phrase alludes to the psychoanalytic notion of a “good enough” parent, and it picks up on the controversial notion that campuses should have (or be) safe spaces.  The idea of a “safe space” goes back to social psychologist Kurt Lewin, who after the Second World War was asked to help corporations get honest answers from their employees who might be worried about speaking the truth to someone with control over their careers. Lewin’s idea was to create “safe spaces” in which employees could speak honestly without fear of retribution or retaliation.

How does the idea get from the corporate setting to the college campus?

There are a number of stops along the way.  First, it proved helpful in the therapeutic setting, where patients were invited to speak more freely if they felt safe enough to “unfreeze” their thinking. In the 1970s, feminist groups created their own “safe spaces” where women could come together and share accounts of life in a sexist society without fear of retaliation. In the gay liberation movement, the concept was similarly helpful in building community and a political movement.

So why are safe spaces controversial on college campuses?

Critics worry that educational institutions are carving out areas in which certain people or certain kinds of ideas are deemed “inappropriate” or unsafe; they worry that groups of students are encouraged to isolate themselves from questions that might come from outside their comfort zones; they worry that if classrooms are seen as safe spaces, then intellectual confrontation will be taboo and assumptions will go unchallenged because everyone’s emotional well-being is overprotected.

Given your own emphasis on free inquiry and debate in your previous book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, don’t you share that concern?

Sure, but the problem is that these attacks have become overblown and that those who attack political correctness often have agendas antithetical to liberal learning.  My argument is that students should feel “safe” in the sense that they feel free to participate in argument and inquiry without the threat of violence, harassment, or intimidation. I am NOT saying that students need protection from argument, inquiry, or the discovery that they should change their minds. Hence my phrase “safe enough spaces.”

Would you describe Wesleyan classrooms today as “safe enough”?

Certainly we want our classrooms to have a basic sense of inclusion and respect that enables all students to flourish—to be open to ideas and perspectives so that the differences they encounter are educative and not destructive. At the same time, students flourishing at a place like Wesleyan (rather than, say, a spa) only makes sense in a context of academic freedom; academic freedom makes sense in a context in which people can feel safe enough to challenge one another.

Is that difficult to achieve?

It shouldn’t be. I’ve certainly heard that some teachers and students (less so at Wesleyan) complain about having to walk on eggshells for fear of saying something that might be offensive to someone else, but I don’t see eggshells on the floor of my classroom.

You just related safe enough classrooms to a sense of inclusion and to academic freedom. Is this then what the complete title of your book is getting at? Is this the heart of your argument?

You could say that. But each of these three issues—inclusion, free speech, and political correctness—is controversial in its own right, so I dedicate a chapter to each, while seeing them as linked. 

You are a historian as well as a college president. To what extent is this book a history of these controversies and what sources do you use?

I do trace their development and provide historical context, using a range of sources: from Supreme Court decisions to political rhetoric, from policies of educational institutions to campus protests, from widely read publications by deep thinkers (and some not so deep) to my own personal experiences in the classroom.

Your first chapter is entitled “From Access to Inclusion.” Was there a key historical moment in this process?   

Yes, and Wesleyan played a part. In 1991, the Ford Foundation, reacting to opposition to affirmative action in college admissions, enlisted Wesleyan administrator Edgar Beckham [’58] to lead its Campus Diversity Initiative. Beckham made the case that the conversation about diversity should focus on the educational benefits that all students receive from being in environments comprised of people from different backgrounds. If diversification was about the educational benefits of students in general (rather than redress for groups that had suffered), it should be an important educational goal of colleges and universities.

Is that how Wesleyan sees diversity today?

Pretty much, though the conversation about diversity has changed. At Wesleyan, we do see diversity as a source of lifelong learning, personal fulfillment, and creative possibility. Over the past decade, campus discussions (at Wesleyan and across the country) have shifted from concerns about diversity, admissions policies, and “who deserves to get in” to concerns about how institutions must change to help all students thrive once they are on campus. It’s not enough for a university to have “good diversity numbers”; the school should be working to ensure that the institutional culture is evolving to help students from various backgrounds get the most out of their education.

Are you saying that the problem of diversity numbers has been solved?

Not at all. Although many schools have made progress in diversifying their student bodies, it is still the case that in many of the most selective institutions more undergraduates come from the top 1 percent of the income bracket than from the bottom 60 percent. How American universities can provide more opportunity for deep learning among the most disadvantaged populations remains an essential question.

You’ve just said that your three chapters are linked. How is your second chapter“The Use and Abuse of Political Correctness”linked to the issues of inclusion and free speech you also take up?

When students (and sometimes faculty and staff) claim that they don’t feel included in an institution (or a community) because of things that are said, those blamed for saying those things may feel they are being silenced. Those who claimed not to be included (or to be marginalized) often will say they, too, are being silenced by the actions and words legitimated by the institution. Some critics have wondered to what extent demands by students for full inclusion are really demands to stay in their comfort zones, to not be challenged by others. So in my second chapter I look at how the desire for inclusion and flourishing has been reframed (rather cynically) as a demand for political correctness.

Do you take a historical approach to political correctness as well?

I look at how the idea of political correctness develops from the days of Stalin and Mao to those of the feminists and campus radicals of the late 20th century. For some time, the words were used ironically, but at other moments they become weapons for attacking one’s opponents. I discuss these issues—including the uproar here at Wesleyan over an op-ed in the Argus critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

What strikes you most about the charges of political correctness?

Mostly, how they have served as vehicles for political posturing—including by American presidents—and for being cantankerous about student culture generally.

Your third and final chapter is entitled “Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity.” Does anyone actually argue against free speech on college campuses?

It’s clear to just about everybody that freedom of expression is essential for education and for democracy. At the same time, students are well aware of how the concept of free speech is being used to advance a libertarian or market-based approach to a variety of political issues on the national level. Student support for freedom of expression is strong, but they are suspicious of any acontextual appeal to pure principle; they want to know more about the agenda of those making such appeals. In any case, there are always limitations on speech, and there are some things, after all, that a university typically refuses to legitimate or dignify by treating them as fit subjects for academic discussion. I argue that we must defend freedom of expression, but we must beware of how the defense of speech is used as a fig leaf for intimidating those with less power.

Is it fair to say that those calling for free speech on campus tend to be conservative?

Yes, but there is an irony here. Conservatives tend to argue for a free market approach to speech on college campuses, not taking into account the difficulties that underrepresented conservative ideas face in getting a fair hearing there. It’s  not enough to set procedures that claim to allow anybody to come to a campus to say anything at all. Given the prejudicial filters for access to campus platforms, thoughtful conservative and religious scholars are not routinely invited to many predominantly secular institutions.

What’s the solution?

I argue that we need to go beyond the “marketplace of ideas” paradigm and acknowledge and discuss the underrepresentation of particular points of view, especially in the humanities and social sciences. We must do more than appeal to some version of free speech doctrine; we must proactively encourage heterodoxy. In order to create sustainable intellectual and political diversity, we need an affirmative action program for ideas emerging from conservative and religious traditions.

An affirmative action program for conservative ideas? Your three chapters seem here to have come full circle.

I suppose they have, in the sense that I call for university leaders to be proactive in creating richer intellectual diversity, just as they have been proactive in creating ethnic and racial diversity.

You say you take a pragmatist’s view of these controversies. What do you mean by that?

Each of these controversies is characterized by warring factions of cynics (mostly conservatives) and cheerleaders (mostly liberals). And being at war, they tend to take exaggerated positions; I try to stake out a path between them, so my approach is pragmatic in that sense. But to draw on the philosopher Richard Rorty, the American pragmatists taught that the mission of philosophy was to help people construct a sense of who they are, what matters to them, and what they hope to make of their lives, and clearly that mission is also central to liberal education. As I say at the end of the book, the cynical dismissal of that mission—be it from liberals or conservatives—is especially dangerous these days when adventurous, rigorous inquiry is needed more than ever.

Are you saying that it is the current state of affairs in the country that motivated you to write this book?

I do find the Trump administration anti-educational. I’ve been concerned by how it has been weighing in against schools using race in admissions decisions and by calls for schools to teach in a certain way or modify their procedures for inviting lecturers to campus. I’ve been concerned by the accusations that campuses have replaced teaching and learning with indoctrination and political posturing. They haven’t, but the perception that they have should trouble us all.

You don’t seem very hopeful.

I’m concerned but always hopeful. Education, like democracy, depends on hope—on a belief that we can find ways to improve our lives in common as well as our individual lives. Education at a university like ours should inspire civic participation in ways that allow students to connect with people who share their views and to engage with those who don’t. It is not about constructing partisan positions; it’s about developing self-awareness, subtlety of thought, and openness to the possibility of learning from others; and seeing that happen at Wesleyan every day is what makes me hopeful. 

Director of Media & Public Relations at Wesleyan University