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Cal State Monterey Bay: Students should ‘think broadly’ about ways to report professors for ‘subtle’ racism

Close-up view of the California State flag waving in the wind

California State University, Monterey Bay wants to help students of color understand and cope with race-related stress on campus. But the university’s advice that students should “think broadly” about what could constitute racism and liberally report professors for any potential slight, as failing to do so could harm their academic performance, raises serious concerns about faculty speech and academic freedom. 

CSUMB’s Coping with Racism & Discrimination guide, maintained by the university’s Personal Growth and Counseling Center, outlines the consequences of and suggested coping mechanisms for racism and race-related stress. It details the negative impacts on students’ “academic and social success” of racism and race-related stress, defined as “the psychological distress associated with experiences of racism.”

The guide says one can experience this phenomenon even if they are mistaken that a racist act occurred. It provides recommendations on combating the negative impacts of race-related stress, including building a support network, practicing self-care, and developing a strong and positive sense of self. But one recommendation — on how to “Become Involved in Social Action” — contains language that might make professors fearful of how they conduct classroom discussions. It tells students to “think broadly about what could be an act of racism,” that racism “doesn’t have to be an overt act (e.g., professors consistently not calling on you or minimizing your contributions, curriculum racially biased, etc),” and to “report” their experiences. 

While learning about topics like racism can be extremely difficult, colleges can empower students to consider and confront these ideas without calling for censorship. 

Presumably this reporting would be to CSUMB’s Behavioral Intervention Team, which “serves as the centralized campus team for discussion and coordinated action regarding reports of disruptive, problematic or concerning behavior or misconduct.” After reviewing reports, the team says it determines “the best referrals for support, intervention, warning/notification and response.” 

This suggests professors could face punishment for a wide variety of expressive conduct, including choosing who to call on, responding to student discussions, and choosing course material — all of which are, alone, fully protected by basic tenets of academic freedom, a corollary of free expression that the First Amendment binds CSUMB to honor. Such academic freedom protects professors’ pedagogical autonomy to determine how to approach classroom material and discussions, providing substantial breathing room to discuss relevant material, even if it may be offensive or upsetting to some people.

Even if CSUMB doesn’t directly punish a professor, a notification that they’re being investigated or warned is punishment enough. When administrators warn faculty about the content of their teaching or views expressed in class, it suggests that teaching controversial material could result in disciplinary action. 

The guide’s language will chill faculty speech, as faculty might rationally conclude they should self-censor to avoid any possibility of being reported for perceived racial slights. 

Of course, colleges have a duty to investigate and take action against discrimination and harassment on campus, but teaching works from predominantly white authors, or correcting a student of color in class is not going to meet these stringent standards. Faculty expression would constitute discriminatory harassment only if it were unwelcome, severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive discriminatory treatment on the basis of a protected class, like a student’s race or gender. This typically includes repetitive conduct severe enough to prevent the student getting their education. However, the guide provides no standard at all, and the broad language contained in its recommendations seems to suggest students should liberally report professors for any potentially racially motivated slights.

CSUMB can certainly elect to provide guidance to students of color. But it must not do so at the expense of academic freedom or other First Amendment-protected rights for students or faculty. CSUMB can accomplish this by eliminating the guide’s suggestion that students report any speech or teaching they think may be racism. 

Instead, the university can educate students on the proper standard for discriminatory harassment and encourage reporting conduct that qualifies. They can also ensure students know that many college classes employ a wide variety of materials or approaches to treat complicated, difficult topics, and that some of those discussions might be upsetting. While learning about topics like racism can be extremely difficult, colleges can empower students to consider and confront these ideas without calling for censorship. 

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