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Free Association, Not Safe Spaces, on Campus

Many universities are now in the business of creating “safe spaces.” The concept is not well defined but includes establishing actual physical spaces that will be reserved for some group, generally a group that a university defines as a minority. But some of these same universities also impose so-called “all comers policies,” in which no group is permitted to exclude anyone even from its elected offices on the basis of their beliefs. Thus, for instance, Christian groups would have to admit atheists even as potential leaders.

But policies that create safe spaces are in substantial tension with those that require clubs to accept all comers. A group of Christian evangelicals might well believe that it may be more effective in its mission if its members shared its basic beliefs. It might also make its members feel more comfortable discussing them, if  the organization did not have opponents in its midst.  That is not to say that a restrictive charter creates the ideal form of such an organization: some groups of evangelicals might well welcome embrace debate at every turn and benefit from the intense scrutiny of every argument.

One of the virtues of allowing groups to make such decisions is that a community would no doubt get a range of distinctive spaces for speech generated by different trade-offs between mission and openness. Another is that the university would respect many different forms of diversity that bubble up from below rather than just those that conform to its official line on what kind of diversity matters.  Most importantly, a university that is dedicated to creating places where people can feel comfortable, but does not want to be in the business of creating official restrictions on speech in student life should also be pleased with the self-organization of overlapping spheres of debate.

In reality, however, some university administrators  will not be so delighted,  because respect for free association deprives them of power to pursue their own ideological mission of deciding which minorities need most protection and which kind of diversity is worthy. It is not surprising that for left-liberal administrators evangelical Christians are not their preferred minority, although their numbers may be smaller than some of the more preferred kinds.

But universities can best permit the creation of distinctive spaces, which may include “safe ones,” if they leave such decisions to the self-organization of students and faculty, including, of course, student and faculty criticism of particularly restrictive charters.  To promote free association universities should simply adopt neutral policies to facilitate the use of its physical spaces by any student association. The virtues of spontaneous order would then replace university inspired and enforced political correctness.

Reader Discussion

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on November 14, 2016 at 17:54:55 pm

Ahh!!!! In the immortal words of Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi":

No Safe Spaces for you my christian / right wing friends!!!

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gabe
on November 15, 2016 at 17:32:03 pm

Not to worry: Universities still provide lots of opportunity for free association—it’s part of most psych experiments.

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nobody.really
on November 17, 2016 at 14:27:11 pm

McGinnis alleges a tension between “safe spaces” and “all comers” policies—in theory. McGinnis cites no actual instances of where such tensions have arisen in practice.

1. First to the issue of “all comers” policies:

[U]niversities can best permit the creation of distinctive spaces, which may include “safe ones,” if they leave such decisions to the self-organization of students and faculty, including, of course, student and faculty criticism of particularly restrictive charters. To promote free association universities should simply adopt neutral policies to facilitate the use of its physical spaces by any student association. The virtues of spontaneous order would then replace university inspired and enforced political correctness.

Pretty facile, right?

A private university (such as Northwestern) has broad discretion of discriminate as it will. McGinnis is entitled to complain about how private parties make their decisions, but his ultimate remedy is to leave and join or create a university more to his liking. That’s the joy of the private sector.

In contrast, a public university faces constraints under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, among other things. These include the duty to refrain from establishing a religion or discriminating on the basis of various suspect categories. And public universities need to avoid becoming agents for private discrimination. Where student organizations are involved, this becomes especially tricky.

One strategy is to supervise the activities of these organizations strictly to avoid discrimination on the basis of the suspect categories. This results in the “all comers” policies which have become more prevalent on campuses.

A second strategy is to insulate the university from student actions by, in effect, not having student organizations: That is, let students engage in free association using their own resources. (This is the net result when a student organization refuses to comply with policies that require avoiding discrimination on the basis of suspect criteria.)

A third, intermediate, strategy is to insulate the university from student actions via vouchers: Tax students (via student fees) to create a pot of resources, and create a neutral mechanism for allocating those resources. Maybe every student gets a fixed sum to give to any organization he or she designates (e.g., Joe designates the “Joe’s Friday Night Pizza Fund.”) Or maybe let students elect a body with the authority to allocate the resources (including resources such as access to school facilities).

In short, the practice of adopting “neutral policies” is far from simple.

(An aside: While McGinnis and others decry that “all comers” policies mean that “Christian groups would have to admit atheists even as potential leaders,” I have yet to hear of any actual example of this occurring. It’s almost as if atheists have better things to do than amass hordes of their atheist friends to overwhelm the vote of campus Christian groups. But to acknowledge that fact would require treating atheist students as human beings, rather than props in the fevered imaginations of Christians with persecution complexes.

That said, my bother actually sought to engage in such a practice: In his senior year, he gathered a group of friends to all pledge to a given fraternity that was about to go extinct for lack of members. It was, basically, a hostile take-over. Alas, other groups had the same idea. So at the pledging meeting, the building was packed, and my brother’s faction withdrew when he realized he lacked the numbers to carry out his plan.

In another case, two factions on the Macalester College paper split their vote for who should become the next Editor in Chief, leaving a faction of lay-out artists to win the plurality. They proceeded to turn the paper into an extended art project, containing terrific graphics, whiny letters to the editor about how the paper no longer had news content, and little else. The following year, the paper returned to its normal format.

In short: yes, when you leave matters up to students, thing may sometimes go in unanticipated directions. But that’s part of education, too, right?)

2. Second, to “safe spaces”:

Much hangs on the precise meaning of, and mechanism for maintaining, “safe spaces.” My school had African-American Studies classes, a Kosher dining co-op, etc. They sure looked like “safe spaces” to me. But there was no mechanism for excluding anyone. Occasionally a white kid would sign up for a class, and class dynamics would change for a semester. And I expect that some non-Kosher kids joined the co-op because the bread smelled really good. But mostly people self-segregated—not based on political correctness, but based on interest. And it seemed to work; we muddled through.

But here’s where the rubber meets the road: One example of a traditional “safe space” is a gender-segregated bathroom. I don’t recall my school taking any special measures to police who did or did not enter the bathrooms; it just didn’t seem to be an issue. But clearly that’s changing. I expect that many schools will be rather passive on this matter: not policing who uses which bathroom, but prohibiting anyone else from policing the matter.

The Supreme Court has agreed to take up the issue of gender-segregated bathrooms, and I cringe. As a good lefty, I’ve generally favored Affirmative Action for members of traditionally subordinated groups. But this policy has always relied on people self-identifying as members of these groups, or not. The bathroom issue is going to put to the test the idea that government can discriminate in the provision of facilities provided to people who demonstrate no qualifications other than claiming membership in a protected class. Maybe it’s a sustainable system when there is widespread agreement about the boundaries of the protected class. But what about when there isn’t?

And once we break down the taboo against claiming membership in a protected class that might conflict with most people’s perceptions, what will become of Affirmative Action?

Maybe it’s time we shift to verifiable class-based criteria for Affirmative Action....

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nobody.really

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