Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Muzzled Professors: An Inside Look at How One College Lets Students Censor Classroom Debate
For many students and professors, one of the great appeals of college life is being exposed to new and different ways of thinking. But that age-old process is now under threat at schools around the country. Take the University of Northern Colorado.

After two of the school’s professors asked their students to discuss controversial topics and consider opposing viewpoints, they received visits from the school’s Bias Response Team to discuss their teaching style. The professors’ students had reported them, claiming the curriculum constituted bias.

These incidents, both in the 2015-2016 academic year, reflect a growing trend in higher education. College students increasingly demand to be shielded from “offensive,” “triggering” or “harmful” language and topics, relying on Bias Response Teams to intervene on their behalf. Such teams are popping up at a growing number of universities.

Heat Street filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get a look at some of the complaints to UNC’s Bias Response Team, and a sense of how the team is handling those petitions. In one report reviewed by Heat Street, a professor, whose name was redacted, had asked students to read an Atlantic article entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” about college students’ increasing sensitivity and its impact on their mental health.

The professor then asked his students to come up with difficult topics, including transgender issues, gay marriage, abortion and global warming. He outlined competing positions on these topics, though he did not express his personal opinion.

In a report to the Bias Response Team, a student complained that the professor 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 transwomen I was very offended and hurt by this,” the student wrote.

A member of the Bias Response Team met with the professor, the report says, and “advised him not to revisit transgender issues in his classroom if possible to avoid the students expressed concerns.” The Bias Response Team also “told him to avoid stating opinions (his or theirs) on the topic as he had previously when working from the Atlantic article.”

In a separate incident, a professor, whose name was also redacted, asked his students to choose from a list of debate topics, some of them regarding homosexuality and religion.

The Bias Response Team’s notes summarized: “Specifically 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, whose name is redacted and who is referred to as “they” in the report, complained that “other students are required to watch the in-class debate and hear both arguments presented.”

“I do not believe that students should be required to listen to their own rights and personhood debated,” the student wrote. “[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 Bias Response Team wrote that while this incident “did not reach a level of discrimination,” members still contacted the professor to “have a conversation… [and] listen to his perspective, share the impact created for the student and dialogue about options to strengthen his teaching.”

The Bias Response Team wrote that once the conversation was completed, they wanted a full report of “the outcome of your time together. . . so I can document and share with the student that outreach was completed.”

The University of Northern Colorado did not respond to Heat Street’s request for comment about whether the Bias Response Team is a threat to free speech and academic freedom. We also asked to be put in touch with the professors who had received complaints, but we did not hear back before publication.

Ari Cohn, a free-speech lawyer with the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said it was “deeply troubling” that UNC professors had been forced to respond to bias reports and to defend exposing their students to a variety of ideas.

“If even challenging a student’s views with a hypothetical opposing opinion is now off-limits, then truly nothing is sacred,” Cohn wrote in an email. “If professors are forced to modify their teaching styles to avoid such exercises, not only does it infringe on their academic freedom rights, but it does a tremendous disservice to students’ intellectual development.”

As Heat Street recently reported, in addition to these bias reports filed against professors, UNC’s Bias Response Team also received complaints about a campus poster that “contained the word ‘crazy’ used in a mocking and flippant way”; after a professor described valence electrons as “retarded”; after an event during Eating Disorder Awareness Week featured a “triggering” healthy-foods competition; and after a Health Center worker asked whether a student needed birth control.

UNC’s Bias Response Team also hung 680 posters on campus last semester as part of a #languagematters campaign warning students against offensive language. Off-limits words included “crazy,” “poor college student” and “hey, guys.”

To date, more than 100 U.S. public colleges and universities have established Bias Response Teams.


Tufts Student Govt Rejects Free Speech Resolution as ‘Unsafe’
The Tufts University student government has overwhelmingly rejected a resolution to broaden free-speech protections on campus, with some student leaders denouncing the measure as an “unsafe” act that “actually really harms students.”

The resolution from Tufts student Jake Goldberg had called for adding clarifications to the university’s speech guidelines, which have earned Tufts a “red light” rating from the free-speech advocacy group FIRE.

The resolution took aim at the university’s vague administrative prohibitions against “inappropriate language,” “gender bias,” “hurtful words,” and “comments on an individual’s body or appearance,” among other examples cited in the measure.

Such guidelines were far too broad, and threatened free speech rights on campus, Goldberg argued. Clarifying language was needed “so that we the students are fully aware of exactly what conduct violates Tufts’ policies and simultaneously receive the full protection of the First Amendment in regards to speech.”

Tufts student leaders did not agree. The student senate recently voted down the measure 26 to zero, with two abstentions, the College Fix reports. A number of student senators argued that the proposal “actually really harms students” because “clarity in itself is subjective.”

One student senator argued in a Facebook post, which she later deleted, that a holistic process is needed to balance our right to free speech and everyone’s right to access their education free from discrimination.”

Student senator Nesi Altaras pushed pack on the suggestion that free-speech rights are the “best kind of rights,” because “there are other countries with free speech issues, and some countries handle them better than America.”

Another student senator, Ben Kesslen, suggested that Tufts students “instantly” began feeling “unsafe” upon learning of the resolution’s existence. “By passing this resolution, we [would be] making more students feel unsafe on a campus they already might not feel safe,” he said.


Professor Pushes Back Against Bias Response Team at the University of Vermont

A University of Vermont professor has published an open letter claiming the college’s broad definition of bias has a chilling effect on classroom discussion, calling for new measures to protect free speech and academic freedom.

Dr. Aaron Kindsvatter, a psychotherapy professor, has asked the faculty union at the University of Vermont to vote on Sept. 30 to adopt the so-called “Chicago principles,” which support unbridled free speech on campus. He’s also pushing for the faculty senate to approve such a free-speech resolution and urging the university’s Bias Response Team to explicitly promise that it won’t interfere in classroom discussions.

Kindsvatter says his efforts this semester are directly prompted by Heat Street’s investigation into bias response teams’ infringements on free speech, mentioning the story about how the University of Northern Colorado’s Bias Response Team told a professor to avoid potentially sensitive topics, including transgender issues.

“I looked at what the bias response language at the University of Vermont was, and in the vague language, I really saw another University of Northern Colorado,” Kindsvatter says.

Right now, the University of Vermont defines bias as “a personal inclination or temperament based on unreasoned judgment or belief,” adding that its definition of a bias incident “is intentionally broad.”

In his open letter to the campus, Kindsvatter wrote, “Given the breadth of the Bias Response Team definition of what constitutes a bias incident, any expressed thought from any place on any ideological spectrum pertaining to a sensitive social issue that is not expurgated to the point that it is leeched of meaning could be considered biased, and potentially appropriate for reporting.”

The open letter notes that the university’s Bias Response Team also keeps complainants’ identities confidential — meaning that “if you participate fully in the interrogation of thorny ideas, a professor or student may secretly report on you.”

A University of Vermont spokesman said the college “vigorously supports freedom of inquiry and expression within the academic community,” adding that the Bias Response Team was created in January 2015 to promote dialogue and education, especially about difficult issues.

“The intent is not to suppress speech,” says Enrique Corredera, the university’s executive director of news and public affairs. “In fact, the team has not been involved in, and the Office of Affirmative Action & Equal Opportunity has not conducted, any investigations, involving professors and speech issues. Ultimately, we are seeking to establish and maintain a healthy balance between free speech/academic freedom on one hand, and our responsibility to promote a welcoming, safe and inclusive environment for all member of our community on the other.”

But Kindsvatter says that in recent years he’s seen a troublesome tendency among some of his students.

“There is a very, very strong belief, even among graduate students, that there should be a third party or person who comes in and kind of saves people from situations in which they don’t have power,” Kindsvatter says. “I’ve seen that, and I’ve also seen really extreme ideas about what constitutes safety and the lack of safety. It’s almost like the concept of a lack of safety has crept out and out and out, to the point where words and ideas are almost considered to be expressions of violence that can really, literally hurt somebody.”

But Kindsvatter says frank classroom discussion is especially important in an era of growing violence, radicalism, and racism. That conversation helps people weigh bad or destructive ideas against better ones, he says. In contrast, suppression of free speech, including in the classroom, drives harmful philosophies underground, where they can flourish into something truly dangerous.

“I’m not looking to irritate anyone here,” Kindsvatter says, “but I really do think in a post-Orlando world, we’ve really got to be crystal clear that the Bias Response Teams don’t interfere with conversations.”


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