Coddling College Students: Is the Safe Space Movement Working?

Coddling College Students: Is the Safe Space Movement Working?
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

College is meant to be a melting pot of cultures and perspectives. It is meant to be a place where students can harness free speech and broaden their horizons by exposing themselves to unique views, be it liberal or conservative ones. This is what is meant to open their minds and prepare them for the professional world. However, the exact opposite has been happening in the past few years. Students nowadays have developed a need to be protected from words and ideas that they deem hurtful or unacceptable — a trend which is now coming to be known as the coddling of the American mind (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015).

As more and more learners demand safe spaces within their colleges, “language police” and “political correctness” have become the norm and so is vindictive protectiveness. In this article, we will outline how educational institutions are coping with this new culture of building safe spaces to meet new needs. In addition, this will also briefly discuss safetyism and its impact on the dissemination of knowledge in higher education. With this, teachers and learners alike can understand this trend and learn how to keep up.

Table of Contents

  1. What is the Safe Space Movement?
  2. How American Colleges are Creating Safe Spaces
  3. Is Safetyism Necessary?
  4. Potential Disadvantages of Safetyism

What is the Safe Space Movement?

A safe space is a place where students can associate or interact with those who are like them—ideologically, racially, sexually, or by any other measure (Sigal & Ben-Porath, 2017). With the increasing number of hate incidents in schools, many colleges have begun to establish safe places within their campuses. The idea behind it is to protect students who are in immediate emotional danger or those who felt personally harassed.

As Baer opines, the safest college towns in America have existed for as long as modern colleges have offered dormitories segregated by gender or places for students of non-dominant faith (Baer, 2019). The grand motive was, at least until recent years, to provide threatened students with asylum from violence or hatred. But the events of the last few years have toppled the real purposes of original safe spaces.

From a place where targeted students would seek refuge, safe places have morphed into a hiding place for students who do not like listening to diverse ideas. The line between being protected and hiding from ideas or beliefs that go against their own is being blurred.

And something strange is brewing within today’s campuses: the safe space movement is rising so steadily. Academic performance statistics show that proponents of this movement or 36% of students with impressionable minds want campuses free of words, subjects, and ideas that might give offense or cause discomfort (Brown, 2017).

Source: LendEDU

On the other hand, 37% of college students think that safe places are completely out of touch with reality. The movement, they say, is a powerful headwind to every university’s endeavor to maintain intellectual candor and teach vital yet controversial ideas.

How American Colleges are Creating Safe Spaces

Whether you agree with it or not, the idea to create safe spaces on campuses has burst forth so powerfully in recent times. It has grown in popularity and creating them has become one of the most polarized discussions about free speech and social justice in modern universities: the coddling of the American mind.

So, how are American institutions contributing to this dilemma? Are safe spaces boosting the chances of students to have a comfortable time in college or is it ruining it to the point that some students would see it as a reason not to go to college?

Embracing Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is taking feelings as facts. It simply means that because an individual feels a certain way that it is definitely true or going to come true. For example, “I feel like the future is bleak” so it must mean “the future is obviously black and so hopeless”.

Emotions stir up an individual to make decisions and take actions with regard to an imagined or experienced event. As researchers put it, “in the same way that cognitive constraints impact reasoning, so do emotions (Valerie & Benjamin, 2019). But despite the power of emotions, subjective feelings can be flawed guardrails when it comes to understanding the world around us, sorting out the truth from falsehood, and making judgments.

Emotional reasoning is a subject that has become pervasive and entrenched in many college debates and discussions. The cases that portray the entitlement to a right not to be offended have become prevalent in campuses these days. A good example is the circumstances that led to the cancellation of the Hump Day event at the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota in 2019.

Students at the institution created a Facebook Page to vent their displeasure with the event. Part of the claim was that the event promoted animal cruelty, was a total waste of money, and was being insensitive to the people from the Middle East. The organizers gave in to the pressure and decided to void the event claiming it “would make for an uncomfortable, possibly unsafe environment”.


Another thing that is creeping into college campuses is mental filtering—a case where a person picks negativity in a situation and harps on it, thus taking the entire situation as negative. In turn, mental filtering has led to what is rising as disinvitation in campuses.

This cognitive distortion started gathering steam during the 2014’s “disinvitation season.” Cases where students and faculties demand commencement speakers be disinvited based on things they have previously said, are becoming rampant. A recent study by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has revealed that since 2000, more than 200 public figures have been disinvited from appearing at campus events because of their views on gender, immigration, racism, politics, abortion, and more (FIRE, 2020).

One of the most eminent disinvitation targets is Condoleezza Rice—former United States Secretary of State. In 2014, students and faculty protested Rice’s invitation as a commencement speaker due to her role in the torture of detainees and the Iraq war. In the face of immense opposition, she withdrew and was never re-invited.

Using Trigger Warnings

A trigger warning, as per the Oxford dictionary, is a phrase or the statement at the start of a video or piece of writing warning the viewer or reader of the fact that it has potentially distressing content. Sending a warning before saying or presenting content that might cause a negative emotional response is not a new ideology.

It has been around since World War I, when psychiatrists treating soldiers for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) realized that words can potentially trigger excruciating memories of past trauma. However, trigger warnings broke into mainstream use in the early days of the internet, reaching an all-time high in 2015.

The use of trigger warnings is the newest wave to hit campuses across the U.S. College students have begun to demand that their professors give trigger warnings before presenting courses or content that could ignite strong emotional responses. This has led to the institutionalization of the use of trigger warnings on campuses, thereby affecting what can be said in the lecture room.

Some institutions are buckling under the new students’ demands. For example, in 2013, Oberlin College in Ohio, through a task force that included students, administrators, a faculty member, and recent alumni, created an online resource that listed topics that warranted trigger warnings. The list included topics such as classism and privilege and also advised faculty members to avoid, in totality, materials that might trigger negative emotional reactions.

Even though Oberlin College later quashed the online resource, it was archetypical of what is brewing under the surface in our campuses. The calls for trigger warnings, however, are permissible because some course reading may reactivate memories of students with PTSD. That said, preventing this reactivation defies the basic tenets of psychology and is not the way to go.

As Keith posits, the tendency of a PTSD patient to avoid potential triggers is taken as a symptom of the disorder (Keith, 2019). The best way to treat the ailment often entails working to overcome the psychological tendency. As such, the patient ought to engage and confront the fear to ultimately surmount the trigger stimuli. But the current use of trigger warnings on campus promotes avoidance of the psychological tendency.

Addressing Microaggressions

Microaggressions, according to the diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism consultant Tayo Rockson, have been used in academic circles since the 1970s. They are small behavioral indignities and casual verbs against people of color, the disabled, women, young or old people, immigrants, and so forth (Rockson, 2019). These regular verbal or nonverbal snubs or slights seen on their faces harbor no malicious intent but are thought of as a form of violence nonetheless.

In recent years, however, microaggression has expanded beyond its usual definition to cover anything that is perceived as discriminatory on just about any basis. In some cases, even joking about the use of microaggression is presumed to be an aggression worth a punishment.

This rang true for Omar Mahmood, a budding author and student at the University of Michigan. When writing for The Michigan Review—a conservative student publication, Mahmood poked fun at a campus’ tendency to find microaggressions in virtually anything. The Michigan Daily—Mahmood’s other employer—did not take his satirical writing well and as a result, terminated his contract. Mahmood would later face a backlash from a group of women who vandalized his doorway with hot dogs, eggs, and notes calling him a “violent prick.”

The thing is, people will make veiled sexist or racist remarks on campuses, and students are rightfully entitled to question such cases. But with emotional reasoning becoming a mainstay, coupled with the increased focus on microaggressions, the stage is set for constant student outrage. The worst thing, all the vices are slamming the door shut for well-meaning speakers whose only aim is to engage in genuine, honest discussions.

Is Safetyism Necessary?

The calls for safety on college campuses are understandable. In fact, keeping students, mostly the vulnerable ones, from harm and danger is virtuous. For example, we know for most of American history, universities were dominated by upper-class white Christian men. When the institutions of higher education began to promote inclusivity, it made sense to take steps to protect the minority and make them feel safe on campus.

The increasing number of hate incidents (SPLC, 2018) signals why it was right to create a climate devoid of threats on campus. But when this virtue is taken to the extremes of the ideological and emotional realms, it can insidiously become a vice. And a culture of “safetyism”—including trigger warnings and safe spaces—treads this detrimental path.

Source: SPLC

Shielding students from ideas or words promotes oversensitivity. It can make students feel uncomfortable and interfere with their emotional, social, and intellectual development. As such, it makes it difficult for young adults to become autonomous individuals who can navigate the bumpy road of life.

Potential Disadvantages of Safetyism

Besides negating the advantage of studying abroad and the benefits of a multicultural campus environment, the continued coddling of the American mind can:

Sets Up Students for Failure

Barack Obama—44th president of the United States—in a speech delivered to high school graduates in Des Moines, Lowa, said:

“The purpose of college is not just to impart skills. It is also to broaden a student’s horizons, to enable them to evaluate information and be more creative to make their own way through the world.” To achieve this goal, he said, we must create a free space where ideas are shared and collide, people have arguments and get out of their own narrow view, and test each other’s theories with a broader point of view (Rose, 2017).

Safetyism advocates the contrary. It encourages students to openly and vigorously repel ideas and words that they find unsuitable. It suppresses speech and does not teach students how to toughen up and take the bull by its horns. As a result, safetyism may inevitably set up these students for failure in life.

Promotes Intolerance for Opposing Viewpoints

College should value civility and all members of the institution, both students and faculty members, should strive to maintain an environment of mutual respect. However, the tenets of mutual respect and civility cannot be used in any way to justify the shunning of the discussion of ideas, however disagreeable or offensive those ideas may be.

Safetyism has led to the increasing intolerance of opposing viewpoints. As Michael Bloomberg—founder of Bloomberg LP —posits, the rising intolerance is growing into an insurmountable challenge on college campuses and in the national political discourse (Davis, 2018). It jeopardizes democracy as students are not taught to understand what is happening and why—so that they can take action in a word short of neat solutions.

It Stifles Dialogue on Important Topics

The increasing demand for trigger warnings in schools has the potential to impact how professors deliver lectures, particularly on difficult and controversial topics. In fact, a majority of educators find that it may have a negative impact on academic freedom (62%) and classroom dynamics (45%) (NCAC, 2019).

According to Inside Higher Ed, among the many concerns of lecturers is that they are unable to anticipate what triggers students. As such, professors, particularly those who are untenured, often hesitate to discuss complex and disturbing materials that could be pertinent to the topic at hand. This, in turn, stifles dialogues on important issues and prevents students from fully understanding certain concepts. What is more, restricting certain discussions may also keep the students from expressing themselves freely for fear of offending a fellow learner.

Perceived Effects of Trigger Warnings in Campuses

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Source: NCAC

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Balancing Safetyism and Academic Freedom

There is no doubt that building safe spaces for students and reducing college stress is essential. After all, expanding one’s knowledge and earning a diploma should not come at the cost of being exposed to any form of discrimination, microaggression, or harassment. However, with the examples outlined in this article, educators and students alike should start determining where to draw the line.

The world is full of ideas and words we cannot control. That said, shielding students from certain words and ideas or people with whom they disagree may end up hurting their mental health in the long run. This is because, whether they like it or not, they will inevitably encounter these ideas and words later in life.

Educational institutions should jump forth and strive to balance freedom of speech with the need for protection on campus. Keeping in mind the acts of mutual respect, compromise, and negotiation are critical life skills that cannot be taught within the secluded “safe spaces.”

Parents also have a role to play. They should understand that undergraduate students are young adults and what they acquire on campus will shape not only their career but life. For this reason, they should be calm about student fragility and encourage their sons and daughters to face problems courageously.



  1. Baer, U. (2019). What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech and Truth on Campus. London, UK: Oxford University Press. Google Books
  2. Ben-Porath, S.R. (2017). Free Speech on Campus. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. Google Books
  3. Brown, M. (May 17, 2017). What Do College Students Think About Safe Spaces? Hoboken, NJ: LendEDU.
  4. Costello, M., & Dillard, C. (SPLC) (2018). Hate at School ReportTeaching Tolerance.
  5. Davis M. (September 05, 2018). Learning Isn’t Supposed to Be Safe. Champaign, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
  6. FIRE. (2020). Disinvitation Attempts. Philadelphia, PA: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
  7. FIRE. (May 5, 2014). ‘Disinvitation Season’ Rolls On: Condoleezza Rice Cancels. Philadelphia, PA: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
  8. Keith E. W. (2019). Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Google Books
  9. Lukianoff. G & Haidt, J. (2015, September). The coddling of the American mind. The Atlantic.
  10. NCAC (2019). Trigger Warnings: A National College Educator Survey. New York, NY: National Coalition Against Censorship.
  11. Rockson, T. (2019). Use Your Difference to Make a Difference: How to Connect and Communicate in a Cross-Cultural World. New York, NY: Wiley & Sons. Google Books
  12. Rose F. (May 30, 2017). Safe spaces on college campuses are creating intolerant students. HuffPost.
  13. Valerie M. H., & Benjamin S. D. (2019). Foreign Policy Analysis: Classic and Contemporary Theory. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. Google Books

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