RA claims UM made her pressure students to sign 'civility pledge'

Students and Resident Advisors (RAs) at the University of Michigan are allegedly being coerced into relinquishing their free speech for the sake of “civility” and “inclusivity.”

An intern at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote a post Monday on FIRE’s website claiming that the university forced residence hall staff in South Quad, one of the largest residence halls on campus, to pressure students to sign a pledge promising not only to endorse, but to actually promote, certain values.

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The “civility pledge," which was introduced to students at mandatory hall meetings last spring, binds students to building an “inclusive and safe community” where they are expected to “promote equality, civility, caring, responsibility, accountability, and respect.”

Students who sign the pledge are also expected to “celebrate” diversity and not stand for intolerance against any members of the community based on race, religion, sexuality, gender, ability, socioeconomic status, nationality, or any other “social identity," though the school does not impose penalties on those who fail to live up to those commitments.

RAs were ordered to publicly post the signed pledges in common areas, an action with the potential to generate social pressure to single out and subsequently shame students who declined to sign the agreement.

“As an RA working and living in South Quad, I was required to promote and encourage others to sign this statement as part of my work,” asserts Erin Dunne, the author of the FIRE report and one of the RAs who was subjected to the requirement. “I was told it would be inappropriate to question the pledge or to raise concerns about its overbreadth with my residents or other students.”

According to Dunne, the university is experienced at chilling expression and has enacted campaigns to curb any type of critical or potentially offensive speech.

The “Expect Respect” campaign and the “Inclusive Language Campaign” together earned the University of Michigan a “red light” speech code rating from FIRE because of their promotion of self-censorship and arbitrary speech guidelines that lend themselves to administrative abuse and disciplinary action.

The Inclusive Language Campaign’s goal is described on the university website as aiming to “encourage the campus community to consider the impact of their word choices on others,” and to reconsider word choices that could potentially “be hurtful to others” while trying to be more inclusive.

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“Expect Respect” is a similar initiative, although it is not as clearly defined on the university’s website, which instead features pictures of students holding signs with their “social identities” and what they define as respect.

One student’s sign reads “Being biracial is challenging but most of all, rewarding!” while another student’s reads “respect is open mindedness.”

Not only are students and RAs expected to obey the pledge, Dunne claims, but RAs are also required to report alleged bias incidents, leading to investigations that often have long-lasting consequences, including the possibility of the incident becoming part of the student’s record with the Housing Department, which in turn could potentially be shared with other schools or programs such as study abroad.

The university, however, defends the pledge, pointing out that no students were required to sign or display it.

“The University of Michigan is committed to creating a welcoming, inclusive environment for all students,” Lead Public Affairs Specialist at the University of Michigan Kim Broekhuizen told Campus Reform.

According to the university, the pledge is voluntary and was offered by resident hall staff to residents as part of a larger conversation about creating “inclusive communities." Broekhuizen also told Campus Reform students were given the option to place a pledge on their door.

“While not mandatory, the pledge encourages affected communities to take responsibility to make sure that all individuals feel included and welcome in the community,” she said in an email. “Students and staff work together to communicate the message that everyone should feel welcome in a residential space.”

According to Dunne, though, the university's strategy of promoting a welcoming, inclusive campus shouldn’t be pursued through overly-broad pledges and reporting systems, but rather through narrowly written policies that address unprotected speech and “ensure that colleges remain a marketplace of ideas.”

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