Money Talks

The University of Chicago's opposition to safe spaces isn't about free speech. It's about fundraising.

University of Chicago. Justin Kern

The new academic year has just begun, and with it, a great uproar about trigger warnings and safe spaces. The University of Chicago, self-proclaimed bastion of “free and open inquiry,” has put its foot down against these bogeymen of today’s higher education in a widely publicized letter to incoming freshmen.

The letter has aroused a predictably wide range of responses, from paeans to the university’s righteousness to outraged condemnations of its insensitivity. Yet these reactions to the August 24 letter fail to assess what the letter is actually about.

College dean Jay Ellison’s note is neither an admonishment nor a political statement. Above all, it is a marketing document that targets not its actual addressees, rising first-years, but the two groups whose cash infusions make the university run: alumni donors and prospective students.

It’s not hard to see why Chicago would want to ingratiate itself to the former group. Recently, negative alumni opinions of student activism have translated into serious damage to universities’ bottom lines. Appalled at last year’s cascade of student protests, alumni at colleges around the country have begun expressing their displeasure through America’s most honored form of speech: money. Some have cut their alma mater out of their wills; others have reduced normally generous donations to a trickle.

Chicago, too, has experienced disruptive campus activism. Near the end of the 2015 school year, protests broke out over major budget cuts and layoffs. This past May, protestors occupied the university president’s office, entering through doors opened by student body president Tyler Kissinger. Citing his “premeditated and dishonest behavior,” university officials initially threatened Kissinger with expulsion but eventually allowed the college senior to graduate.

So much for Academic Year 2015. But Fiscal Year 2015 continues until September 30, 2016, meaning there is still time to smooth any ruffled feathers before a new round of fundraising drives begins. 2014 was a banner year for alumni donations to Chicago, with pledges and gifts totaling $511 million — all the more reason for the university to avoid the fate of a Princeton (donations down by 6.6 percent since last year) or an Amherst (down by 6.5 percent).

A splashy PR move — say, a letter exploiting popular anti-PC, pro-free-speech sentiment — might just help Chicago cash in on donor and parent disgust with the strong leftist bias purportedly afflicting US higher education.

Whether this maneuver will actually net donations remains to be seen. Some alumni have declared themselves unmoved by the letter’s grandstanding, parsing it as a transparent publicity stunt. Yet as a leader in the ongoing corporatization of US higher education, the University of Chicago must follow the money, and the money’s message is clear. Allowing aggrieved liberals and leftists to dictate building names or hiring and firing decisions simply does not pay. Financially speaking, it is better to side with those who believe that over-sensitive millennial activists are flirting with fascism and must be stopped.

Even as it targets past tuition payers, Chicago’s letter reaches out to prospective ones. Traditionally, the university has attracted students who care less about the social experience of college and more about taking perverse pleasure in academic standards so formidable they allegedly cause the death of fun. But in 2006, Chicago overhauled its undergraduate admissions practices, ditching the aggressively quirky Uncommon Application in a bid for the vast applicant pools associated with the nation’s most elite schools.

What shift in corporate ideology could help reel in the tens of thousands required to attain a Harvard-like ratio of applicants to admits? Part of the answer lies in rebranding Chicago’s trademark concept of academic rigor itself, which is where the letter to the class of 2020 comes in.

Piggybacking on the hot-button issue of trigger warnings, the document rescues rigor from its reputation as a niche pursuit of nerds, casting it instead as part of an all-American commitment to free speech. To those who still subscribe to Chicago’s old brand image, the letter says: here you will be free to nerd out as you please. To the high schoolers it wishes to entice into applying, the letter says: come to Chicago, where you can pursue your expensive education away from the intellectual cowards populating certain other Midwestern colleges.

By privileging finger-pointing polemic over fair-minded evaluation in the name of fundraising, the University of Chicago’s letter is of a piece with its transition to a fully corporate model.

Tellingly, the letter never explains what trigger warnings or safe spaces are, instead telegraphing its position with scare quotes and the epithet “so-called,” as in, “so-called ‘trigger warnings.’”  Failing to define key terms in a debate might not be in the spirit of free inquiry, but neither was Chicago’s decision to persecute speech critical of its budget priorities in the Kissinger case.

Luckily, unlike college, advertising doesn’t need to be intellectually rigorous. It just has to successfully sell a product, whether pants or Kardashian apps or college educations costing almost $70,000 per year.