Rapid growth of Bias Response Teams generates backlash
In the past year, American colleges and universities have experienced a proliferation of “bias response teams,” outlets for student complaints about unfair bias on campus.
Student “victims,” who previously have had to draw attention to their predicaments through their Deans or professors, now have the power to report incidents of hate or bias directly to the administration.
As students come forward to voice their outrage over incidents that occur on college campuses, more universities are adding response teams, sometimes called hate or anti-bias units, to help curb this rise of student complaints.
UC Santa Cruz has had a bias reporting system for years, according to The College Fix. Recently, the university announced that it would expand its program to include seven top-level university administrators. This “first responder to bias-related incidents” fields student complaints submitted to the Report Hate website and directs them to one of the seven administrative members for review.
Despite some legitimate complaints made by students, UCSC’s bias response team often has to deal instead with “soothing hurt feelings” and difficult-to-prove accusations, such as one student’s complaint that peers at a student government meeting clapped instead of snapping to indicate approval after a speech, and the report by another student that others were making rude comments and texts behind the student’s back.
February saw Michigan State University’s implementation of their Inclusion and Anti-Bias Unit. Headed up by its campus police department, “the unit has trained more than 230 police officers on bias, as well as dozens of students on what to do if stopped or contacted by police,” said Jason Cody, the university’s spokesman.
Investigating its reports weekly, the Inclusion and Anti-Bias Unit also focuses on training and outreach and has been involved with organizations that deal with “racial healing” and LGBTQ rights.
Some colleges, like Carleton College in Minnesota, are in the process of receiving approval for the creation of a bias response team on their campuses.
At Vassar College, the bias incident reponse team, which operates under the Campus Life and Diversity department, provides support services to “affected student(s)” and offers “informal resolution measures such as meditation, facilitated dialogue between parties, facilitated discussions in residence halls or other campus locations, recommendations for campus notices for fact sharing, and efforts towards wider educational awareness, prevention, and outreach.”
The bias response team at the University of Chicago has a similar structure, but it acknowledges that reports submitted by students will be assessed based on the relevance and legitimacy of the complaints.
“Freedom of expression is vital to our shared goal of the pursuit of knowledge and should not be restricted by a multitude of rules” admits the UC response team’s official website. “Expressions that cause hurt or discomfort can, but do not for that reason alone, constitute a violation of the law or of University policy.”
Even so, colleges are seeing a large amount of misuse of their reporting systems, receiving tips from students about incidents that do not violate college policy.
The bias response team at the University of Oregon, for example, recently released a report detailing its investigations of various “complaints” made by students and staff, many of which were derided as trivial by members of the campus community.
So far, the University of Oregon has received reports from students who claim that signs asking them to clean up after themselves are sexist, staff members who criticize posters for showing “triggering images,” and students who complain that college newspapers fail to offer sufficient coverage about minority and transgender students.
Bias response teams are not escaping without criticism, though. Vocal opponents, such as Reason’s Robby Soave, argue that they are “essentially . . . administrative thoughtpolice that routinely [intervene] in situations where one student’s constitutionally-protected speech has offended another student.”
Critics also worry that bias response teams create the wrong impression about free speech to college students.
“We need to help challenge our students,” John Marshall, Vice President of Student Services at Colorado Mesa University, said regarding the university’s decision not to have a bias response team. “You don’t have a right not to be uncomfortable. We don’t always need to create these ultra-sensitive responses. We want [students] to think critically and deal with each other with respect and civility.”
Some critics argue that bias response teams have unintended consequences, harassing students and staff with investigations rather than looking at real complaints.
In fact, on at least two occasions in the past year, the University of Northern Colorado’s bias response team has investigated professors over complaints about their class discussions, including one case in which students reported their professor to administration for offering a differing opinion about transgenderism during a class discussion about controversial topics.
The university’s response team has also found itself with overwhelming numbers of complaints to sift through. Complaints are “continuing to pile up,” reports The Durango Herald, that “deal with behavior deemed to be offensive” to students on campus.
One such student argued that a cooking competition caused problems for those struggling with eating disorders.
Incidentally, UNC admitted recently that it should “revisit” the implementation of its bias response team after it was revealed that there was censorship of a professor.
Carleton College professors Jeffrey Aaron Snyder and Amna Khalid agree that “the proliferation of [bias response teams] is a grave mistake,” arguing that they “degrade education by encouraging silence instead of dialogue.” Bias response teams, they contend, “are inherently anti-intellectual enterprises, fundamentally at odds with the mission of higher education.”
Opponents of bias response teams point to examples like these as failures. With threats of censorship and investigation looming over students and faculty, critics argue that these teams have a tendency to harm the college education system and suppressing a sharing of ideas.
“What right-thinking student, having been informed that he is a person of interest in a bias incident, would dare rebuff a member of the [bias response team] who wants to have a conversation about his conduct?” asks Soave. “Would a student in such a situation feel like he could invoke his First Amendment rights without facing reprisals?”
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