The president of Wesleyan University stakes out a pragmatist path through the thicket of issues facing colleges today— debates surrounding affirmative action, political correctness, and free speech— and urges readers to envision college as a space in which students are empowered to engage with criticism and with a variety of ideas.
Institutions generally 'have hard choices,' [Roth] writes, 'Devote more resources to bring in more low-income students? Or devote them to helping a smaller number of students truly flourish?' ... Yet this seems like a false choice for the elite private institutions that Roth focuses on in the book ... He does not delve into the reasons institutions like Wesleyan can’t afford to do both ... The tradeoff described in the second and third parts of the book is more clear: how to stretch students’ comfort zones and understanding without shattering their sense of safety ... Roth’s historical approach is useful and instructive ... Roth is at his best at his most declarative ... I found other parts of this slim book, totaling 124 pages of text, sometimes ponderous, packed with rhetorical questions that at times felt meandering ... I craved additional examples. Taking readers inside more of these classrooms would not only make for interesting, illuminating reading but would help give us a road map for how colleges can work to protect the two core values—inclusion and provocation—that these days seem not only at odds but perilously at risk.
Safe Enough Spaces is written in president-ese; Roth is drawn to the formulation that the left believes X, the right believes Y, but that actually 'it is unnecessary to make a fundamental choice between these approaches' ... [Roth's] primary passion...isn’t in searching for the elusive compromise in campus controversies, but in defending universities from outside critics. His critiques of writers like Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have a crispness and clarity that, because of the position he holds, whatever he says about Wesleyan can’t.
Mr. Roth’s book nicely captures the dilemma that university administrators find themselves in: hemmed in by campus radicals on one side and a bemused public on the other. On the question of affirmative action...[his comments strike me as a] well-intentioned but after-the-fact justification for a corrosive policy. A naturally curious person will encounter many people from backgrounds and circumstances different from his own in the ordinary course of life; he doesn’t need to haul off to Wesleyan to hear about some kid’s 'moral hero' ... Our most ostentatiously forward-looking institutions have somehow moved backwards.