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Do students at Emory and other colleges need to be safe from Donald Trump?

The media are having some fun at the expense of Emory University students alarmed to wake up this week to a barrage of chalked messages of support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump across the campus. A few apparently felt threatened by the evanescent pledges “Trump 2016 - Accept the Inevitable" and "Build A Wall."

(I agree with some Emory folks that the press has exaggerated the response of students to the chalked slogans. The best source on this incident has been the student newspaper at Emory.)

According to the Emory Wheel:

Students protested yesterday at the Emory Administration Building following a series of overnight, apparent pro-Donald Trump for president chalkings throughout campus.

Roughly 40 students gathered shortly after 4:30 p.m. in the outdoors space between the Administration Building and Goodrich C. White Hall; many students carried signs featuring slogans such as “Stop Trump” or “Stop Hate” and an antiphonal chant addressed to University administration, led by College sophomore Jonathan Peraza, resounded “You are not listening! Come speak to us, we are in pain!” throughout the Quad. Peraza opened the door to the Administration Building and students moved forward towards the door, shouting “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

The waggish Tim Bryant of News Talk 1340 WGAU posted on Facebook, "I'm going to have to be more sensitive to the college crowd that worries about guns on campus. I mean, just look at what one kid armed with nothing more than chalk did at Emory."

The Wheel reported Emory President James Wagner took the fears of students seriously enough to talk with them.

One student asked if Emory would send out a  University-wide email to “decry the support for this fascist, racist candidate” to which Wagner replied, “No, we will not.” One student clarified that “the University doesn’t have to say they don’t support Trump, but just to acknowledge that there are students on this campus who feel this way about what’s happening … to acknowledge all of us here.”

Grievances were not restricted to shortcomings of the administration. “[Faculty] are supporting this rhetoric by not ending it,” said one student, who went on to say that “people of color are struggling academically because they are so focused on trying to have a safe community and focus on these issues [related to having safe spaces on campus].”

The story in the Emory Wheel has been shared by media outlets around the country, which may explain the 2228 comments, most of which echo this sentiment:  Let's not make too much fun of the students. One day when they turn 40 and have to move out of their parents' basements they might really get scared, require therapy and then all our taxes will go up to support their treatments under President Sanders' initiatives. Who cares what a bunch of sniveling and pampered solipsistic whiners have to say. I miss the "good old days" of the 1960s/1970s Viet Nam campus protests.

The Emory chalk controversy has rekindled the issue of "safe places" on college campuses. The term came to the national forefront during the student protests over alleged racism at the University of Missouri, which led to the resignation of  University of Missouri system President Tim Wolfe. During the protest, Missouri students sought to designate a “safe space” on the campus quad.

Black students at Oberlin College --  a famously progressive campus in Ohio that was the first American institution of higher learning to regularly admit female and black students -- gave President Marvin Krislov 14 pages of demands that he recently addressed.

The student list has garnered national attention for its scope. Among the demands: "Exclusive Black safe spaces on campus...the end of Oberlin functioning as a gentrifying institution." Students demanded some professors and staff be fired for "rude behavior," while others be promoted. They also demanded Oberlin pay black student leaders $8.20 an hour for their organizing efforts.

Krislov declined to act on the demands, saying in an online statement: Some of the challenges outlined in the document resonate with me and many members of our community, including our trustees. However, some of the solutions it proposes are deeply troubling. I will not respond directly to any document that explicitly rejects the notion of collaborative engagement. Many of its demands contravene principles of shared governance. And it contains personal attacks on a number of faculty and staff members who are dedicated and valued members of this community.

In a column for the Washington Post, the president of Northwestern University made a case for safe places on campuses.

Northwestern's Morton Schapiro wrote:

We all deserve safe spaces...For more than four decades, we have had a building on campus called the Black House, a space specifically meant to be a center for black student life. This summer some well-intentioned staff members suggested that we place one of our multicultural offices there. The pushback from students, and especially alumni, was immediate and powerful...One black alumna from the 1980s said that she and her peers had fought to keep a house of their own on campus...A recent white graduate agreed. She argued that everyone needed a safe space and that for her, as a Jew, it had been the Hillel house. She knew that when she was there, she could relax and not worry about being interrogated by non-Jews about Israeli politics or other concerns. So why is the Black House an issue in the eyes of some alumni who write saying that we should integrate all of our students into a single community rather than isolate them into groups? I have never gotten a single note questioning the presence of Hillel, of our Catholic Center or any of the other safe spaces on campus.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.