Response to Trigger Warning and Safe Spaces Letter

To the University of Chicago Community:

Two weeks ago, University administration issued a letter to the incoming class of 2020. This letter, written ostensibly in order to reassert the institution’s commitment to the values of academic freedom and diversity, explicitly states that the University does not support the use of “trigger warnings,” nor the creation of “safe spaces” on campus. The administration superficially justifies their opposition to such ideas by claiming they are at odds with free and open academic discourse. The letter, in fact, warns incoming students to prepare to be confronted by sensitive topics without prior warning and not to look for safe spaces. However, what may seem a defense of freedom of expression is, in fact, a deeply disturbing attempt on behalf of the administration to curtail not only the ability of students to speak and behave freely, but the introduction, however incidental, of hate speech, ideological violence, and entrenched power into academic discourse.

Unequivocally, free and open discourse is crucial to the flourishing of a healthy and productive academic community. And it is  precisely on the grounds  of ‘free and open discourse’ that one can reproach the University’s arrogant and intimidating message delivered to the mailboxes of its incoming students, thinly veiled as expressing its commitment to intellectual rigor. In the name of diversity and freedom of thought, the University dissuades students from shying away from debates or engaging in forms of dissent (like asking to “cancel invited visitors because of their topics might prove controversial”), but this is a biased and narrow characterization of the value of free and open discourse; one that overlooks its importance beyond the strictly defined academic space. Free and open discourse is in fact key to ensuring a dialectic exchange between the university and its surrounding community. This is particularly relevant in the context of southside Chicago and the Black Lives Matter movement. It took years of battles, in the form of petitions, sit-ins, and protests, before the University heeded the demands of the Trauma Center Coalition and pledged to open a trauma center at Holy Cross Hospital (here you can read the TCC statement). Before conceding the opening of a trauma center, the University responded to TCC’s actions by banning eight protests from speaking on campus. The “no-trespass warning” is one of the many instances that testify to the administration resistance to freedom of speech and expression.

Academic freedom is a complex issue, one that should be treated with due finesse and specificity. So, let us be clear: supporters of safe spaces and trigger warnings are not against difficult, dangerous, or emotionally troubling ideas being discussed, taught, and written about. This is not an attack on free speech; this is an issue of creating, sometimes quite literally, spaces in which those who have experienced personal or collective trauma may feel that their voices are being treated with the seriousness and sensitivity often perfunctorily granted to (and perfunctorily assumed by) others who have not undergone or been societally boxed into such troubling conditions. These ideas are, contrary to the claims of the letter, absolutely about protecting freedom and equality of expression and identity for everyone on campus, AS OPPOSED TO those whose protection is granted merely by their identity conforming to some imagined sense of what is normal. In short, this is about making sure that those who have not been treated with respect and dignity by virtue of their societal privilege are given equal footing. A university is a collaborative project: everyone has a right to be listened to and taken seriously.

It is also important to note that these ideas are new. Trigger warnings originally emerged as flags for trauma-related content that might “trigger” post-traumatic symptoms in victims of trauma. At the discretion of the lecturer, their use has been extended to other sensitive topics, such as politics, religion, racism, and sexuality. To warn students about potentially sensitive topics, however, does not amount to allowing students to “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” as the letter claims. Trigger warnings are a sign of consideration. They can be used to support more rigorous engagement with challenging material, giving students the ability to prepare to grapple with difficult topics, thus enhancing discussion and learning opportunities. As didactic and pedagogical tools, trigger warnings might contribute to create “enabling classroom environments.” In this respect, the workshop Creating an Enabling Classroom Environment” –  initially set up by Graduate Students United’s Women in Academia group in collaboration with the Organization of Students with Disabilities, and now run as a funded programme by the Center for Teaching – is worthy of note. The event constitutes a unique opportunity to discuss tactics that help create enabling learning spaces. It should therefore be at the discretion of the lecturer and educator to adopt trigger warnings when necessary. To impede the usage of trigger warnings a priori is a manifestation of constraint – an imposition – rather than an expression of freedom.

What, then, are “safe spaces?” We define a safe space as a place where students can go to find a group of supportive allies that will ensure they are able to practice the mental and emotional self-care they need to be able to rigorously engage with the wider university community. Safe spaces do not denote spaces where individuals can retreat to avoid dialogue. They are spaces where certain groups can go to to hang out, temporarily, with their peers and develop strategies to make their voices heard. Within this context, protests should not be condemned as actions that jeopardize academic freedom. To the contrary, they are legitimate tools to express disagreement and, therefore, exercise freedom of speech.

It is important to observe that the university already operates safe spaces such as the LGBTQ safe space, making the letter’s dismissive attitude toward them all the more puzzling. The administration’s systematic attempts to curb criticism on campus and adopt punitive measures to suppress those forces that might challenge the status quo testify to its unwillingness to practice what it preaches. Only a few months ago, former president of student government, Tyler Kissinger, was threatened with expulsion by the administration a few days before graduation for having facilitated a sit-in and for having encouraged students to raise questions during a supposed open discussion with the Provost. The administrators’ regular dismissal of the request for more transparency in the way the UCPD operates or more protection for victims of sexual assaults indexes their reluctance to heed the needs of the community and engage in truly open dialogue.

Safe spaces and trigger warnings are new technologies of collective and self, new methodologies of organizing agitations for justice and group identity. To ignore them is tantamount to condoning racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, redpill-thinking, and all the other attendant forms of hatred and bigotry. If the University is truly a collective project, as we firmly believe, we therefore have an obligation to make our community as just, equal, distributive, weird, supportive, and intersectional as possible. Only through solidarity can real intellectual rigor emerge. For this reason, the recent NLRB ruling that recognizes graduate students the right to unionize acquires even a deeper significance. It is a historic moment for graduate employees. The recognition of bargaining rights opens up new possibilities for dialogue between different constituencies on campus. In contrast to the administration’s anti-union rhetoric, we believe that the right to organize will provide the basis for the creation of a truly democratic academic environment.

The shallowness of the language in the University’s welcome letter reflects an institutional history of dismissing the demands of students and community members asking for a higher quality of life coupled with a fierce unwillingness to recognize the nature of inequality and the presence of hate speech on campus. To suggest that students must sit quietly, must behave in only one way, and speak in only one way, goes against the most fundamental ideals of the University of Chicago. The demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings amounts to demanding that power does not curb open discourse and that those that are invited to be part of our community be given the right to actively alter, improve, and develop the community so that everyone, not simply a select few, feel healthy, safe and, possibly, even happy.



Solidarity Statement: We Stand Together With University of Missouri-Columbia Graduate Employees

Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago stands in solidarity with University of Missouri-Columbia graduate employees who have stated their intention to unionize.

The struggle came on the heels of a battle over healthcare access earlier this year. Citing changes in federal law related to the Affordable Care Act, the university abruptly ended its practice of providing graduate students with stipends to buy health insurance. Although the university knew as of July 21 that the system of subsidies for graduate employees who enrolled in the student insurance plan no longer met legal requirements, affected graduate employees were not notified until August 14, just 13 hours before many graduate employees’ coverage expired. The university announced that all graduate employees would receive a one-time stipend that would cover one semester of health insurance at the rate of the current plan offered to University of Missouri students in order to make up for the short notice.

The university claimed to have the best interests of graduate employees at heart, stating that they had “been working very hard to try and create the best possible alternative for those students to whom we have made a commitment.” However, at no point were graduate employees consulted over what they considered to be the best possible alternative. And at no point, it seems, did the university consider enrolling graduate employees in the employer-sponsored plan available to faculty and other staff and allowed under IRS rules, nor did they consider a permanent increase in graduate employee pay to accommodate for the loss of the subsidy. In addition, other universities, such as Washington University, do provide subsidized health care assistance and have not elected to remove those benefits. Therefore, it is hard to see this move by the University of Missouri as anything except an attempt to use federal law to justify a cut to graduate employee benefits.

In response to the university’s attack, more than 1,200 university workers, including teaching and research assistants, faculty and alumni, organized by the Forum on Graduate Rights, walked out on August 26 with the following demands:

  • the restoration of health insurance subsidies by the spring semester, when the currently allotted funding runs out,
  • the provision of more affordable housing and childcare facilities, and
  • a guarantee that no graduate student will earn below the federal poverty line.

They declined to call off the walkout following a call for dialogue from the university administration, and in the process galvanized graduate workers and spurred a union drive. This is the kind of action that will be necessary if we are to defend our desperately needed benefits that allow us to carry out our day-to-day work that makes our universities run, and if we are to make full use of the professional development which graduate school programs are supposed to provide.

Beyond our general mutual interest as workers in higher education, our struggles are linked together. Earlier this year, we too were informed of changes to our health insurance plan that would increase out-of-pocket costs by 150 percent, at the same time that student fees used to pay health insurance premiums increased as well. With no inclusion of graduate employees in the process, the administration has both increased cost and decreased coverage, and has put the burden to cover the difference onto us. While insurance is still available to us, deductibles of $500 to $1,500 will put needed health care out of reach for many graduate employees, and will especially burden graduate parents. Your struggle inspires us to make similar demands and to organize to improve our standard of living.

Self-organization and collective action remain the best, indeed only, way to defend our basic standard of living, which is already precarious. Therefore, we, the members of Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago (AFT-AAUP) stand in solidarity with graduate workers at the University of Missouri as they form their union.

The Institution is the Problem: Graduate Students Respond to Racism on Campus

The recent post on a student’s Facebook page the week of November 17 frightened and disgusted graduate students across campus. We were horrified by the acts of overt racism and worried about the risk that such threats posed to students. But we want to clarify to the administration that the problem of racism on campus is institutional, not incidental. This event reminded us of the many other acts of discrimination and intolerance that have taken place on campus and in the South Side again and again:

As graduate students who study and work at this university, we stand in solidarity with the students and faculty who have publicly demanded that the university work to change the climate of hostility created as a result of acts of violence, intolerance and exclusion. Administrative equivocation and delay are inexcusable. This is not an isolated act, and it should not be treated as such.

Continue reading “The Institution is the Problem: Graduate Students Respond to Racism on Campus”

Trauma Care Statement

On Monday 19th May, a group of protestors associated with the Trauma Care Coalition [1], including two members of Graduate Students United, chained themselves to the construction site of the new University of Chicago Medical Center Emergency Room. The action was meant to highlight that all was not business as usual. Seven protesters were forcefully dragged off the site, though no arrests were made. One was taken to the ER for injuries sustained during removal by police [2]. The police aggression they faced [3] only made dramatically explicit, once again [4], the administration’s lack of willingness to engage the views of community groups and student organizations in deciding its priorities.

As Graduate Students United itself attempts to organize for a process of collective bargaining – demanding that university administration recognize the union and negotiate over wages, benefits and working conditions – we call upon administration to participate in meaningful conversations with students and community members associated with the Trauma Care Coalition. They have been highlighting a matter of serious concern. We firmly oppose this practice of sending the police to do the talking. We are also aware that some of those involved in the protests have received emails from administration, and we call on them to refrain from taking any “disciplinary measures.”

Continue reading “Trauma Care Statement”

Solidarity with United Faculty

United Faculty, the labor union for faculty at University of Illinois – Chicago (UIC), won recognition in 2012 and has been negotiating their first contract for the past eighteen months.  Now, on February 18 and 19, they will be going on strike.  Union members took a strike vote in December; almost 80% of members voted, and 95% of them voted to authorize the strike.  Graduate Students United, the non-recognized graduate employee union at the University of Chicago, stands in solidarity with these workers.  United Faculty and administration (including, ultimately, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees) have come to agreement on some things, but key issues remain unresolved, including:  fair and equitable compensation that takes into account furloughs and salary freezes in recent years; increased participation by the faculty senate in governing the curriculum and budget; and a living wage, multi-year contracts, and promotion system for non-tenure track faculty.  The strike will also serve as a protest in support of an Unfair Labor Practice suit charging administration with unilaterally increasing health care premiums in the summer of 2013, effectively cutting faculty pay by 1%.  Administration has increased tuition by 25% since 2007 (thus also increasing students’ debt burden) and currently maintains an unrestricted fund of more than one billion dollars.  Yet, according to a union analysis, it has prioritized administrative bureaucracy over the school’s teaching and research mission:  from 2008-13, administrative positions at UIC have increased by 10%, while tenured faculty positions have decreased by 1%.  United Faculty is fighting to uphold the teaching and research mission of the university, affirming that faculty working conditions are students’ learning conditions.

Continue reading “Solidarity with United Faculty”

Hold the university responsible

Hold the University of Chicago and Phi Delta Theta Fraternity Responsible for Racist, Homophobic “Prank”
Graduate Students United (GSU)

On May 31st 2013, U.S. Postal carrier Iran Becton delivered the last of 79 packages to the University of Chicago’s Phi Delta Theta fraternity. After he had hauled the final boxes to the house, a fraternity member informed him that the packages were a practical joke: the name on the order, read backward, was a racist and homophobic slur.

The response of the University of Chicago administration to this incident has been dangerously irresponsible. Although the university’s official response places great emphasis on campus dialogue in lieu of disciplinary action, students and employees at this university were not even made aware of the incident, much less engaged in a dialogue about it, until the story was reported a full two weeks later by the Chicago Sun-Times. We are deeply concerned both by the university administration’s attempt to conceal the incident, and by their explicit stated refusal to hold either the institution or the fraternity in question responsible.

The undersigned members and allies of Graduate Students United, in the hopes of making the University of Chicago a safer and more humane institution, are asking the university administration to take the following concrete actions in the wake of this horrifying incident:

1) Hold the Phi Delta Theta fraternity accountable for their actions: apologize to Mr. Becton

Continue reading “Hold the university responsible”

Comment on Student Health Plans

GSU has sent an official comment to the Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services regarding student health care plans. If you’d like, you can download it as a PDF or read it below.

Dear Secretary Sebelius,

As campus groups advocating for improvements in labor and research conditions for graduate students, we welcome the opportunity to comment on the Proposed Rule indicating that self-funded student health plans (SHPs) will meet the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) minimum essential coverage requirement. Access to high-quality, affordable medical care is central to the health and financial wellbeing of all students. We are grateful for the attention paid to student issues in this and other ACA regulations.

We have two concerns about the designation of self-funded SHPs as minimum essential coverage:

  1. The unregulated status of these plans may leave students unable to benefit from ACA patient protection provisions.
  2. Students who are offered a self-funded plan through their college or university may find it difficult or impossible to obtain coverage through the Exchanges and to access the ACA premium and cost-sharing tax subsidies.

We worry that if self-funded SHPs are considered minimum essential coverage, many students will effectively be excluded from receiving any benefits under the ACA. This concern applies not only to those students presently enrolled in self-funded SHPs, but also to those enrolled in fully-insured SHPs. We believe the exemption from ACA regulation for self-funded SHPs creates a strong incentive for colleges and universities with fully-insured plans to self-fund in order to reduce the costs of providing a SHP that is still considered minimum essential coverage. In order to assure access to ACA protections for all students, we recommend that the final regulations permit students at any college or university—including those with self-funded coverage—to purchase insurance through the Exchanges with the aid of ACA tax credits. We also respectfully request that you share our comments on this issue with appropriate colleagues at the Department of Treasury as they review their own regulations about the ACA Exchanges and tax subsidies.

Continue reading “Comment on Student Health Plans”

Statement on Sunday’s Events at Trauma Center Protest

Credit: Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune / January 27, 2013
Credit: Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune / January 27, 2013

On Sunday January 27th, four protesters were harassed, assaulted, and arrested by the University of Chicago Police Department. Among these four was Toussaint Losier, a Ph.D. student in History at the University and a member of Graduate Students United. Toussaint was one of a number of concerned community members peacefully protesting the administration’s decision to construct a $700 million medical center on campus without an adult trauma center to serve Chicago’s South Side residents.

The University of Chicago serves as our dwelling, our social center, and also our workplace. We are horrified and appalled by how our university’s private police force responded to and treated our fellow students and friends. We are equally dismayed by the university administration’s continued failure to respond to the call to better serve its community by reinstating a trauma care center. Continue reading “Statement on Sunday’s Events at Trauma Center Protest”

Resolution in support of Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

While we just heard the good news that our friends at the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) reached a tentative contract agreement with the administration of UI Urbana-Champaign, we at GSU wanted to voice our support. Here is a link to a petition of support for GEO and below is the text of a resolution of solidarity drafted and approved at last night’s GSU organizing committee (OC) meeting:


Graduate Students United (GSU), University of Chicago
Resolution in Support of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Whereas graduate student instructors’ and teaching assistants’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions, and

Whereas access, fairness and workplace democracy are essential to the health and educational mission of the university, and

Whereas members of Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, continue to work under an expired contract while striving for a fair resolution on tuition waivers, and

Whereas GEO took a strike authorization vote that passed with nearly 87% approval while continuing to explore all available options to settle the contract with an administration which has been ordered by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board to “cease and desist” from its violations of its contract and to bargain “in good faith concerning reductions in the tuition waivers of bargaining unit employees,”

Be it resolved that Graduate Students United (GSU) of the University of Chicago supports GEO in its struggle to negotiate a contract that addresses all of these issues with the administration at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Be it further resolved that GSU communicate such support to its members, including asking them to sign petitions and communicate their support for GEO and its demands to the University of Illinois President and Board of Trustees.

Open Letter to the Faculty

Dear Faculty of the University of Chicago,

We, the undersigned students and members of Graduate Students United (GSU), are writing to explain why we believe graduate student employee unionization would be a positive development for the university as a whole — graduate students, undergraduates, faculty, and staff alike.

A letter sent by the Provost’s Office on October 15th occasioned some concern and confusion about what a graduate student union on this campus would look like.  At Graduate Students United, our aims are quite simple.  While we are not yet recognized as a union, we believe that graduate students are workers as well as students. We are dedicated to seeing both these roles recognized. We believe that graduate students should have a voice in the decisions that affect our livelihood.  We are committed teachers and researchers and want to see this institution fulfill its educational mission both for ourselves and for those we teach.  Finally, we believe that all members of this university should have a say in determining the future direction of this institution.

The Provost’s letter may be read to imply that faculty are the targets of GSU’s campaign to unionize.  This is not true.  Our goal is simply to gain a voice in the decisions that affect our working conditions.  Productive relationships with faculty are crucial, both to that end, and to our success as graduate students.  However, we are concerned that the Provost’s letter, in conjunction with meetings that top administrators have held or may hold with faculty and deans resemble union avoidance strategies that administrators – including President Zimmer – employed at the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, and Brown Universities when graduate students at those institutions attempted to form unions in the 2000s.  If anything, we are concerned that it is these strategies, not unionization, that may impact faculty-student relationships.

Continue reading “Open Letter to the Faculty”