When safe isn't simple

January 22, 2016

A look at what it means to feel safe on campus


You feel safe here. The hallways are bright. People smile at you. When nature calls, you go to the washroom—without fear of judgment or danger greeting you on the other side of the door. You don’t hear racist, sexist or other negative remarks as you walk down the hallway. You go to class feeling like your questions and opinions are welcome. Discussions are open. The debate isn’t always easy, but that’s okay. You listen to what other people have to say, and they listen to you. After all, this is university and a post-secondary education is about learning, growing, asking difficult questions and seeking new knowledge.

Sounds great, right? That doesn’t mean it’s simple.

Universities across the continent continue to wrestle with issues surrounding safety of all sorts: physical, emotional and intellectual. Safe spaces are continually being created—and questioned.

Can a space truly be 100 per cent safe? Should we be aiming for “safer spaces” instead? Or is there a risk that safe spaces actually prevent open discussion by misinterpreting safety in ways that shut down unpopular ideas and views? And could these places inadvertently become hideaways for a variety of ugly “-isms”?

These big questions are being asked at campuses everywhere, including MacEwan University.

Safety in its most straightforward sense seems like a good place to begin. So, how does the university fare when it comes to physical safety?

For the answer, Ray Boudreau, director of Security Services, looks, in part, to the Edmonton Police Service’s neighbourhood crime map. Select Oliver or Downtown and a rainbow of colourful dots indicating criminal activity pop onto the screen. Zoom in a bit closer and you’ll notice far fewer dots in the five city blocks that make up MacEwan’s City Centre Campus.

“ ...safety isn’t a guarantee and safe doesn’t necessarily mean free of risk.” Ray Boudreau

Ray says that is no accident. “There are many things the university does by design to protect the safety of students, faculty and staff—prevention techniques, patrols by trained security personnel and communication strategies, but safety isn’t a guarantee and safe doesn’t necessarily mean free of risk.”

Today, Security Services receives about 1,200 reports annually, up from fewer than 100 only six years ago. While on the surface a twelvefold increase in reported incidences may seem like cause for concern, Ray says the jump in numbers is a sign of improvement.

“It shows that our efforts are working, and that students, faculty and staff are increasingly engaging with security.”

That’s important, Ray explains, because knowing about the safety and security issues that exist on campus is the first step in dealing with them—whether that means introducing a new security protocol or drafting a new policy.

“There are many physical things that we can do as a university that affect the safety and security on campus, and those are relatively easy to accomplish,” adds John Corlett, provost and vice-president academic. “Creating security protocols, implementing policies, introducing all-gender washrooms, and giving students the option to use a preferred name and gender in our student information system are all relatively simple things to do—they require planning, time and funding, but they’re achievable. What’s more difficult is establishing safe spaces in the minds of the people who come here every day.” 

So how do you go about changing attitudes and culture on campus when it comes to safety? The university’s campaign against sexual violence that began last fall is one example.

“If you look at that campaign and things like introducing all-gender washrooms, I think it says to students that we’re paying attention, that we’re proactive, that we’re concerned about the issues and the safety of our students,” says Aimee Skye, assistant professor, psychology, and president of the MacEwan University Faculty Association. “Beyond setting up systems and resources to make sure that when things do happen they’re handled well, preventing sexual violence is about changing the culture so that this issue is out and on the table regularly and frequently. We have to learn how to talk about sexual violence—and other issues—in a way that is constructive, useful and respectful.”

She believes those conversations should be making their way into the university’s classrooms.

“Faculty members can be role models in all kinds of ways. If we handle an issue or a discussion in a manner that says ‘I expect openness, dialogue, tolerance and collegiality,’ then we are creating class environments that live those principles. There are also examples and links that faculty members can bring in their classrooms and draw from that encourage discussions about safe campuses, sexual violence and other big issues.”


Junaid Jahangir agrees that having those discussions, and modelling tolerance while they are happening, is critical. So the economics assistant professor and regular blogger for the Huffington Post begins cultivating an environment where that can happen by talking about diversity on the first day of class, and making a point of including it in his course outline.

“My classrooms are safe spaces irrespective of your religious beliefs, your sexual orientation and the way you make your living—whatever background you come from in life, you have the right to be here in my classroom and will be given equal respect,” he says. “The colour of your skin, the thickness of your accent or the piece of garb on your head or not on your head, or gay or straight or trans, whether your mannerisms are more masculine or feminine—none of that matters. All that matters is that you are in my class and whether I can excite you in economics or not.”

For Junaid, this message of tolerance goes far beyond words on a page. For more than a decade, his life outside the classroom has been spent researching, writing and advocating for positive change when it comes to LGBTQ issues within the Muslim community.  

In the first episode of Clock Radio, Junaid Jahangir speaks about his role as a researcher and advocate—and what he thinks it will take to change a community's perspective on LGBTQ issues 

As a faculty member who uses his free time to study an issue that couldn’t be further from what he teaches, Junaid has personal experience in the value of academic freedom and intellectual safety.

“I can’t fit myself into one box because my life revolves around many things. I teach my students about diminishing returns, but I also know that there is much more to life than just economics—or physics, or LGBTQ issues. Universities should be a place where people ask difficult questions, but also where they look out for one another. I’m proud to say that in my classroom students generally are a tightly knit group. They stand up and watch out for each other . I think that’s what needs to happen on a day-to-day basis. You just have to treat other people as human beings.”

Kindness, understanding, respect, tolerance. They all seem like integral pieces to psychological and intellectual safety. But is there also a dangerous side to creating safe spaces? Is there such a thing as too safe? Could these spaces inadvertently become fortresses where people hide from ideas and views they find unfamiliar, unpopular or unpalatable in the name of safety? Or could safe spaces be twisted into places that house hate speech, intentionally or otherwise?

“When it comes to intellectual safety, I see zero conflict between creating safe spaces and academic freedom,” says John Corlett. “I think you can run into uncomfortable situations where people misinterpret what their safety limits should be and what intellectual safety is. Avoiding that means having discussions, and creating the right definitions and understanding of what we’re all talking about. People should feel that they are in a place where physically they are protected from harm, and where psychologically they are in a comfort zone of a particular kind—but one which ought not be too small.” 

“ Here, a safe space is not a place to hide—it is a place to grow, to be seen, to thrive. ” John Corlett 

Academic freedom, John explains, was never intended to afford academics—or anyone else—the right to say whatever they wanted at any time. Instead, the purpose is to ensure that society has all of the ideas available and decide which best represents its ideals.

“Safe intellectual spaces in a university are not about every idea being equal in value,” he says. “It’s about feeling safe to express an idea in a collegial, civil, respectful way in accordance with the laws of the city, the province and the country. Having your idea rejected is not necessarily an argument that you didn’t exist in a safe space. The safety was to allow you the intellectual freedom to think how you wish to think, to express those ideas in a way that is consistent with the civil values of society and to understand that if your idea doesn’t carry the day that you’re still safe from the repercussions of having held a differing idea than the majority. Holding different views, expressing them, receiving criticism of them and being disagreed with—that is the essence of what a university is about. We need to welcome a diversity of views because diversity is a strength, not a weakness or problem.”

Embracing diversity, however, isn’t a license to say anything. There are limits to academic freedom, just as there are limits to free speech.

“The law is clear,” says John. “You cannot come to university and hide hate speech under the guise of academic freedom or freedom of speech. Here, a safe space is not a place to hide—it is a place to grow, to be seen, to thrive.”

And creating that kind of safe space is an ongoing process.

“There is no utopian endpoint in which we settle and then say, ‘Wow, we finally got it completely right.’ Circumstances change all the time, so there’s never going to be a time when we say we’re done. Working toward safety on campus in all its interpretations is really a journey—one that should never end.”

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