The Concept of Universities Developing Safe Space for Students

The Concept of Universities Developing Safe Space for Students

I recently had a discussion with one of my student where the concept of Universities developing “safe space” for students was introduced. Indeed, I had not heard about this approach in the university educational world. When I moved to the University of Toronto in 1980 to complete my Cardiothoracic and Vascular Training, I first had to learn the English language as many of my foreigner student friends. We were a diverse multi-ethnic worldly group and I included myself into the group as I was coming from French Quebec. We all learned a new language, as well as adapted to a different life in a big city and pursuing our educational task, somewhat challenging at time. We were helping each other, respectful of our background. We had the same goal: succeed in furthering our education and training. I do not believe discrimination was part of our vocabulary. What a surprise to hear that Universities are implementing a student “safe space” program to avoid ethnic, gender, political and emotional discrimination! Where is the world going?

What is “safe space”? We have witnessed over the last few years a social and political movement in our North American society to avoid the use of some words. It has gone as far as twisting the meaning and the importance of some words with many people taking it very personally and getting angry, unable to see both sides of the equation, asking for an apology, for removal of people and so on. The movement has also translated into discrimination about ethnicity, race and gender. This movement appears to have reached our University education system.

According to the Harvard, the Chicago Universities, and the literature, there are two definitions of safe space: an emotional safe space and an academic safe space. They are different from each other and with different objectives. First, let consider the definition of “safe”: it means a place of protection, of security, of comfort, and of community. Obviously, the space can be designed to be comfortable, but most importantly, “safe space” is about an environment where people can feel free to be with like-minded people, decreasing the stress level of discrimination and confrontation.

The other definition of safe space is an “academic safe space”. This environment encourages people/students to speak, to be uncomfortable, to take intellectual risks and explore innovative thoughts. It is an educational classroom environment where open dialogue is valued and encouraged and free speech is the end goal. It is accepted in these classrooms to be mentally challenged, to be uncomfortable yet respectful, and ultimately communication skill is beneficial for students.

However, academic safe space may be challenging the very First Amendment of free speech in USA and free speech protected in our Canadian Constitution (Section 2(b), Charter of Rights). A potential arising problem exists between emotional safety and academic safety. The goal of academic settings is to favor arguments, knowledge, communication, constructive dialogue, opinions, through free speech as long as there is an implicit polite tone, even if difficult opinions on touchy subjects are debated. If provocative speech and interactions are censored, does it mean the right to free speech is infringed, and therefore academic safe space does not fulfill its full intended meaning? I would believe that most people, certainly my students and my nieces and nephews, value protecting the sharing of ideas, knowledge, as difficult these conversations may be. They do understand that growth comes from the constant re-evaluation of ideas and life. Furthermore, it is our duty to combat this notion by engaging in free speech in a way that can be positive for any side of an argument so that all may learn from open discussion. Unfortunately, our society appears to be moving in the wrong direction.

Although distinctly different, emotional safe spaces offer comfort and respectfulness; academic safety refers to the freedom to make others uncomfortable through intellectual debate. When used correctly, emotional and academic safe spaces are both beneficial for students, our society and a most valuable asset in our education system.