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‘Safe space’ doesn’t exist, but student protesters can declare victory anyway

Yale students and their supporters marched across campus Monday to demonstrate against what they see as racial insensitivity at the Ivy League school.Ryan Flynn/New Haven Register via AP

When the biggest complaint that student protesters at Yale can muster is that the university brass has failed to create "safe space" — something that doesn't exist on this planet — they're backhandedly showing how much else administrators have done to promote the cause of diversity.

Far more than their counterparts in, say, workplaces or state houses, officials at Yale and lots of other campuses proclaim the need to welcome people of all races, ethnicities, gender identities, and sexual orientations. So, having already achieved a reasonable goal — of enlisting administrators who believe enthusiastically in letting students be themselves — protesters at Yale have moved on to an unrealistic one: They want schools to prohibit offensive things from happening.


Last week, students angrily confronted Nicholas Christakis, a professor who also oversees one of its residence halls, about an e-mail that his wife had sent. Before Halloween, the school's Intercultural Affairs Committee had sent out a message discouraging costumes that might alienate racial or ethnic groups. Erika Christakis had dared to suggest that, rather than expect Yale to ban such attire, students should make their objections known to the wearer.

College students are adults, and universities shouldn't have to micromanage Halloween. But student activists accused the Christakises of undermining students of color, claimed to be losing sleep and suffering mental breakdowns over the subject, and bristled at the couple's unwillingness to simply give in and apologize. In the outcry, administrators seemed to accept the idea that students were experiencing, as one dean put it, "profound pain." Over Halloween costumes?

Around the country, many other campuses are struggling with such issues. At the University of Missouri, the sources of continuing racial tensions appear far more concrete than at Yale. Yet student protesters are winning. After the football team threatened not to play its next game, the president of the university system and the chancellor of its main campus resigned Monday.


Unfortunately, student activists there are in danger of letting specific, addressable grievances, such as lingering segregation in the university's fraternity and sorority scene, get lost in a gauzy, unsatisfiable push for safe spaces. With the help of at least one professor, protesters tried to keep student journalists from documenting a rally in a public area and accused a photographer — inevitably — of violating their space.

For political movements at many points on the spectrum, it's hard to take yes for an answer. In the off-campus world, tax-cut crusaders keep making arguments that carried more force when the top rate on income was 91 percent instead of 39.6; public employee unions that long ago won excellent salaries and benefits for their members keep pushing for more; interest groups keep lobbying long after their original issues are settled. Similarly, pro-diversity protesters and their faculty allies are digging in, even as universities take substantive steps to address their concerns.

Outside of intellectual circles, "uncompromising" isn't always a compliment. In face-to-face discussion with irate students, Yale's Nicholas Christakis kept his composure and politely insisted on the value of reasoned disagreement. A student yelled at him to be quiet and demanded, "Who the [expletive] hired you?" If "safe space" is where well-meaning university officials get bullied into apologizing for imagined slights, campus activists should just declare victory instead.


Dante Ramos can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.