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Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, has been watching the growing demand for “safe spaces”—places where students won’t be challenged by ideas that aren’t liberal or radical—on college campuses. In 2015 he criticized this phenomenon in an online article (“This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!”) that quickly went viral and drew the attention of mainstream media. His new book on the same issue, Not a Day Care: The Devastating Consequences of Abandoning Truth, came out in August 2017. Here are edited excerpts of our interview in Los Angeles.
What are your concerns about safe spaces? It’s ideological fascism rather than academic freedom. Like fascism, the idea goes: If you don’t think like we think or believe what we believe, you’re unwelcome. Ironically, safe spaces exclude people under a banner of inclusion. The entire call for safe spaces is self-refuting at every turn. C.S. Lewis wrote that the great lion Aslan is not safe, but he is good. The great lion of the liberal arts, the great lion of the academic ivory tower, is not supposed to be safe, but he’s supposed to be good. There’s a difference between safe education and good education. I’d much rather have the second and not the first.
How did your online piece in 2015 originate? One of my students said he felt uncomfortable and victimized during a chapel sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 about love. I was incredulous and told him, “Young man, this feeling of discomfort is called your conscience. You might want to pay attention to it.” So I wrote about that, but I never expected to have 3.5 million people reading it within the first two weeks.
Obviously, that post struck a chord. What were the responses? We analyzed those 3.5 million views and comments. Ninety-seven percent of the comments were positive, 3 percent negative. Now, the poster child of the 97 percent were the atheists and the agnostics. I received a hard copy letter from a university president, whom I cannot name, who said, “I read your piece. I went to your website to see who you are. As an atheist, I can easily dismiss your religion and your politics. And I do. … But, on this issue, thank you. It needed to be said. Please carry on.”
Now, who’s the poster child for the other 3 percent? It was church people who said, “Shame on you,” while the secular world said, “Good for you.”
‘There’s a difference between safe education and good education. I’d much rather have the second and not the first.’
What does this mean? The emergent church is uncomfortable with confrontation. They think Christianity, or the church experience, should be comfortable and safe. The church has so imbibed the postmodern Kool-Aid that we no longer like the message of the gospel, which, frankly, is a message that confronts our sin.
All those positive responses from the secular side show a demand. We’re completely missing what our culture is begging for right now: The culture is begging for a solution, which is to confront everybody with the gospel of truth and grace. It’s a gospel that loves people enough to confront them. We the church have the living water of the gospel, but rather than giving the world what it wants, we are just parroting back the postmodern marsh with the message of tolerance, which people intuitively know is a lie. We have the truth, but because the truth comes with confrontation and conviction and challenge, we’re afraid to offer it.
We’ve been seeing a lot of protests on college campuses lately wanting to shut down conservative speakers like Ben Shapiro. Do they represent the majority? No. But even if they’re a minority, they’re still a very loud voice. It still overwhelms the sense of academic freedom and intellectual liberty to the point where the majority feels silenced.
What’s the real fear? An intellectual fear of not complying to the popular message of tolerance—the fear of being politically incorrect, being countercultural. Those who speak out are labeled as unloving, insensitive, and intolerant, and they don’t want to suffer that label.
You’ve been in the academic field for decades. Is this a relatively new phenomenon? This attitude of political correctness has been around for decades, but 15 years ago ridicule could silence the opposing voice. Today, people use cries for safe spaces, threats of violence, and riots. I’m an optimist because of my faith in Christ, but I believe we will see great challenges to academic liberty and more outcry against the time-tested truths of God.
Does Oklahoma Wesleyan have such issues? Our students come out of that same culture. Kids are coming out of youth groups that teach them more about Rob Bell than the orthodoxy of their faith, so we get some students with bad ideas. We do surveys of incoming freshmen, and we see the scale moving left on views on sexuality, substance use, same-sex marriage. The more important question is: What do I do about it? Do I coddle them or confront them? Unfortunately, I would argue that very few Christian colleges are willing to say, “We will not give you trigger warnings, we will not make you feel comfortable at the expense of building your character.”
Then how do prospective students and parents choose a Christian college? Students and parents have to be very diligent in asking questions. Ask to meet the president of the university, and if he won’t see you, don’t go there—you’re paying too much not to be able to see the president. If he meets you, ask him these two questions: One, what’s your view of Scripture? Second, what’s your view of truth? If he says the Scripture is inerrant, infallible, the authoritative Word of God, that truth is self-evident and objective as endowed to us by our Creator, good. If he doesn’t answer that, it’s not because he’s stupid and didn’t understand your question. He doesn’t want to tell you.
If you were to give a commencement address to students at UC Berkeley, what would you say? I would say: Your motto is, “Let there be light.” From whence does that motto come? It comes from the time-tested truth of Scripture, from the acknowledgment that there is objectivity and permanence and endurance and immutability to the concept of Light with a capital L. Today, when you graduate from Berkeley, you don’t get a diploma that says you majored in opinions. You get a diploma because you learned something. Opinions lead to failure, disaster, and bondage. Truth and Light will set you free. Today we’re celebrating truth, not opinions. Now come and get your diploma.