More than a year since its debut, a safe space at the Sanford School of Public Policy is providing students, staff and faculty an area to openly pray, breast-feed or go to when they feel overwhelmed or threatened. 

Sanford's Committee on Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) opened the Sanford Safe Space—a physical safe space located in Rubenstein Hall 120—in Fall 2016. Although the University of Chicago letter to incoming freshmen condemning safe spaces seemed to precipitate Sanford’s initiative, the blueprint for the space was already under way.

Deondra Rose, assistant professor at Sanford, played an integral role in bringing CDI’s safe space plans into fruition amidst the controversy. 

“We had already begun making moves to creating a safe space just as that dialogue between the University of Chicago and their incoming students emerged,” Rose said. “It was interesting because we got caught up in that discussion in a way that was a challenge because people were presuming that what we were attempting to do with our safe space was cutting off dialogue and censoring. That was something that was generated by that other discussion, and that is not at all what we imagined.”

She noted that, in the month leading up to the Fall 2016 semester, CDI was deliberating about ways that all members of the Duke community could “feel safe” in this “political and historical context.” To Rose, free speech should not be infringed upon, but everyone involved should leave the conversation feeling as though they were “respected” and treated as “free and equal citizens.” 

“I think the big lesson for me was that any time you are starting a new initiative, especially when it is institutional, it is important to make it very clear what you are doing. Because if you don’t, other people may attach pre-existing notions,” Rose said. “It is very important for us to emphasize that we see free speech and safe spaces as working in tandem with each other.” 

The use of the space 

Rose said CDI envisioned the space having two functions.

“In one way, we were looking to create an intellectual safe space through a series of programs and also a way to create a physical safe space—a place someone might go if a person feels overwhelmed, threatened or one of the many other ways that someone might seek out a physical safe space,” Rose said.

The physical safe space has since evolved and has numerous purposes for students, staff and faculty, ranging from breast-feeding in private, praying or just to find others with whom to talk freely and openly. Anyone is free to stop by the space or schedule an appointment to meet with CDI Fellow Quinton Smith or either of the CDI co-chairs.

Smith is in charge of the “day-to-day” operation of the space and wrote in an email that the space has "seen regular and ongoing use" with 45 to 50 visitors since inception. He has also had approximately ten scheduled appointments.

Because the space is most frequently used for religious purposes, Smith wrote it has prayer rugs and a small notation indicating Qibla, the direction that a Muslim should face during salah prayers. He also mentioned that students, faculty and staff have “many meetings and discussions” at “varying times for various topics” throughout the year. 

Other events have also prompted a “brief uptick” in the space’s use, such as “troubling” news stories or events at Duke that discuss aspects of diversity or identity. Smith added that both the Charlottesville, Va. white nationalist rally last year and the CDI’s consequent discussion and documentary viewing about those events “certainly caused a bump in traffic.” Other instances of more frequent use have included the threat of a white supremacist march in downtown Durham or an event discussing the dangers of stalking.

'Ongoing challenges' of accessibility

Rubenstein Hall 120 is a former faculty office. Although there are no maintenance costs, the doors to faculty offices in Rubenstein lock at certain times in the day.

“I've only had one issue recently where a student was asking about after-hours access, as they have a late class and desired a place to pray afterward," Smith wrote. "I'm still trying to coordinate a conversation with facilities here to see if there's anything we can do to improve access for them, since the building and hallways both lock automatically at a certain time, and require an approved Duke ID to enter."

Rose explained that “one of the ongoing challenges” has been finding a way to “extend the safe space’s accessibility beyond the normal business hours,” but other places on campus that are not explicitly labeled as safe spaces functionally act like them, like Counseling and Psychological Services and the Women’s Center.

“One additional hope and something that we work very carefully to do is to provide students with other resources and other safe spaces on campus,” Rose said.

Safe spaces and academic freedom

Michael Munger, professor and director of undergraduate studies of political science, wrote a guest column last March entitled “Safe spaces and controversial speakers.”

“A ‘safe space’ is a choice, implied by academic freedom, to nurture association and learning. The same ‘right’ of students to have ideologically segregated safe spaces in the Sanford Institute is the right to choose your own group, to invite speakers and to choose an audience focused on a narrow research or policy question,” Munger wrote in the column.

Now, Munger said he still believes the Sanford Safe Space promotes “academic freedom” and is “exactly what a safe space should be.” He noted that because Duke’s campus is private property, it does not have the same free speech rights as an individual would politically.

“There is absolutely no problem having a content-based restriction for a small space—provided that other people get to create their own content-based restriction,” Munger said. “The same thing that allows there to be fraternities—which get to determine their membership, and they do it in ways that are discriminatory. That is what being a private organization and a safe space means, so Sanford can do that, too. It’s the same freedom that protects fraternities, sororities and other exclusive organizations.”