Safe spaces for women must be preserved on campus

Kathryne LeBell, Views Editor

The following is an opinion article and opinion articles do not reflect the views of The Tulane Hullabaloo.

Since the integration of H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College into Tulane University in 2006, the male and female populations within the student body have blended seamlessly enough that now, almost 10 years later, there is little sign that the schools were ever separate. Outside of the Newcomb College Institute and related student organizations, though, little remains to gender spaces on campus. With this movement toward total integration, however, the value of spaces intentionally for women cannot be dismissed.

Women still face considerable discrimination in higher education environments and the post-graduate labor market. Female students continue to be at higher risk for sexual assault (91 percent of victims are female) and eating disorders (85 percent). It has also been shown that the women hold fewer leadership positions than their male counterparts and that this number has actually declined since the earlier years of co-education.

Organizations like the NCI provide a safe space without risk of derogatory action or words, where women can develop the confidence and skills required for such positions. This is a valuable asset, especially to college students.

The concept of a ‘safe space’ is a very controversial one. It’s associated with all the negative ideas surrounding political correctness — censoring, infantilism and the end of uninhibited academic discourse. Famous comedians have spoken out against it. New York Times columnist Judith Shulevitz called it “hiding from scary ideas.” There is a distinct idea that the variably defined safe space is not only unnecessary but harmful to the intellectual development of university students.

Perhaps in the extreme this could be true. The ‘safe space’ was initially introduced as a way for military veterans to avoid topics and events that might trigger post-traumatic stress disorder relapse. This was later extended and adapted to victims of sexual assault. In these cases, it is more than valid — it could be essential to recovery.

This is not true for every situation. When stretched into a larger concept and applied to issues of mental health, specifically self-harm and suicide associated with depression, it can be detrimental to recovery. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, the most widely accepted non-drug treatment for depression and related disorders confronts causes and contributing factors, working towards changing existing patterns. Safe spaces do not allow for this approach.

Newcomb College Institute is not associated with mental health and is not a place intended to treat these disorders. In that way, it serves as a different resource, much less extreme than the cocooning den of political correctness that some fear.

There have been initiatives across college campuses to make classrooms safe spaces by removing triggers and allowing any student to learn in a risk-free environment. This is not the approach that should be taken on a university campus.

Instead, women-positive spaces might play their intended role. The classroom is a place of unbiased learning where students from any background are supposed to go to receive knowledge. Placing restrictions on the classroom, the cornerstone of higher education, could be a dangerous thing to do. Preserving institutions like the NCI is the way to redirect this need for a safe space.

Newcomb College Institute provides several services to female students including professional clubs, career advice and mentoring, and an inviting place for meeting and studying. It’s restriction to serving the female student body ensures that there is space and energy to be devoted to this particular population, on a campus where the majority of that attention might be paid to the male student body.

While this does not protect students from triggers — class discussions about rape, comedy acts that use racial stereotypes as a joke, etc. — it does provide a supportive space for people who are affected by these triggers and tools to deal with them in an effective manner. It provides resources to help circumvent quantitative disadvantages that female students face in a way that student-led organizations cannot.

The tentative status of NCI’s location and the potential relocation of the Newcomb archives has not prevented students from seeking out these resources. They are still valuable, but might reach less of the student body and provide fewer services. The current temporary location at 7025 Freret Street is out of the way and the new building, which will be under construction this year and open in fall 2016, will primarily be the home of the new dining hall.

This shuffling to the side is an issue of funding and outreach, not a critical concern. Newcomb is such a fixture of Tulane that it is incredibly unlikely that it will disappear from campus in the near future.

But even the risk of losing such an essential space is something that should be avoided. To this aim, the NCI should be further fortified as a safe space for marginalized populations. This includes being more inclusive on the institute’s part (namely towards transgender women) and listening to students’ needs. In this way, administrators can ensure this essential resource is available for many years to come.

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