Bias Response Team investigated prof's for discussing conflicting opinions

The University of Northern Colorado’s Bias Response Team allowed students to censor free speech during a debate that “triggered them” as an “attack on their identity.”

Documents pertaining to UNC’s Bias Response Team (BRT), which were provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Heat Street, reveal that two different professors each received a visit from the BRT during the past school year concerning class discussions about controversial topics.

[RELATED: Jokes now considered 'bias-related incidents' at Northern Colorado]

In one of the reports reviewed by Heat Street, a professor asked students to read an Atlantic article entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind” that articulates the concern that college students are becoming exceedingly sensitive to perceived offenses, even to the point of detrimentally affecting their mental health.

The professor also asked his students to come up with a range of difficult topics—such as transgender issues, gay marriage, abortion, and global warming—for a class discussion exploring the competing perspectives on those issues. The professor outlined opposing positions on these topics, but refrained from expressing his personal point of view.

Nonetheless, a student filed a complaint with the BRT, saying they were offended that the professor merely referenced the opinion that “transgender is not a real thing, and no one can truly feel like they are born in the wrong body.”

“I would just like the professor to be educated about what trans is and how what he said is not okay because as someone who truly identifies as a transwoman I was very offended and hurt by this,” the student reported.

After the incident, a member of the BRT spoke with the professor and “advised him not to revisit transgender issues in his classroom if possible to avoid the student’s expressed concerns.” The BRT also instructed the professor to avoid stating his own opinions or those of his students.

The FOIA documents also included another, similar example, in which a different professor asked his students to select from a list of debate topics that included homosexuality and religion.

According to the BRT report, “there were two topics of debate that triggered them and personally felt like an attack on their identity ( is this harmful? Is this acceptable? Is this Christianity? And Gay Marriage: should it be legal? Is homosexuality immoral as Christians suggest?).”

The student (plural pronouns were used to conceal their gender) complained that “other students are required to watch the in-class debate and hear both arguments presented,” contending that nobody should be forced to deal with opinions that conflict with their own on any issue that is personal to them.

“I do not believe that students should be required to listen to their own rights and personhood debated,” the student told the BRT. “[This professor] should remove these topics from the list of debate topics. Debating the personhood of an entire minority demographic should not be a classroom exercise, as the classroom should not be an actively hostile space for people with underprivileged identities.”

The BRT reported that this particular incident was not characterized as discrimination; however, the team did have a conversation with the professor and provided an opinion on how they could help him strengthen his teaching.

[Related: Oregon releases list of bias incidents]

Nate Haas, Director of University News & Public Relations at UNC, explained that the intent of the BRT is to promote discussions on campus when non-legal concerns of offensive conduct arise, pointing out that promoting dialogue concerning language usage aligns with UNC’s principles.

[Related: Carleton College profs call bias incident reporting a ‘grave mistake’]

“UNC supports free speech and academic freedom,” Haas told Campus Reform. “The intent is to start a dialogue to build understanding of perspectives, but not force agreement.”

Haas did concede, though, that the university is reviewing its procedures for handling BRT reports in response to concerns expressed about the incidents documented in the FOIA release, though specific details have yet to be determined.

“The university understands and shares concerns about the way some of the reports have been handled,” he said. “The university is reviewing the process and will implement improvements as they’re identified.”

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