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University of Northern Colorado to End ‘Bias Response Team,’ But What Next?

Over the summer, the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) came under fire after public records requests revealed that its “Bias Response Team” (BRT) had repeatedly intervened to direct faculty members to cease discussing controversial topics in order to avoid offending students. Now, as the Greeley Tribune reports, UNC President Kay Norton is pledging to shutter the BRT in a speech invoking the need to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression, joining a chorus of other institutions recently committing to protecting freedom of speech on campus.  

In her annual “State of the University” address Wednesday, Norton laid out a limited defense of the BRT’s purpose and declared that UNC would take a “new approach” to solicit reports from students who encounter offensive speech or ideas on campus. Placing BRTs in a broader context, Norton identified how BRTs can chill campus speech with heavy-handed responses to speech protected by the First Amendment.  Encountering different ideas is an important aspect of education. So how should administrators respond to offensive speech, when faculty members or students may be using such speech to spread or challenge each other’s ideas?

Norton correctly identifies the problem with this equation. It’s not always the role of administrators to confront offensive or controversial speech on behalf of students.

Norton’s address is worth quoting at length, with emphasis added:

You may recall, a couple of years ago, we spent considerable effort updating our Discrimination Complaint Procedures, which address discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation. These procedures lay out our formal process for law-based complaints. However, students sometimes have concerns that don’t rise to the level of law-based complaints, and if we truly want to be a welcoming and inclusive campus, we need to listen to these concerns as well. This is why the Bias Response Team emerged. We were trying to address a very real issue by facilitating important conversations. But the way we went about those conversations sometimes made people feel that we were telling them what they should and shouldn’t say.

[...] Our new approach will uphold the principles of free speech and academic freedom as well as our commitment to create a safe and supportive environment for students. It will address all student concerns not covered by the Discrimination Complaint Procedures, and we will no longer have a separate process for bias-related concerns.

UNC is not alone. Questions about how to navigate the intersection of academic freedom, free speech and community are at the fore across the nation as universities welcome a generation of students who are more diverse than ever, connect to the world through social media as never before, get inundated with increasingly polarized messages, and, sometimes, question the value of the rights and responsibilities that have long been considered essential to the nature of universities. Our promise to students is the opportunity for transformative education—but we cannot fulfill this promise without the benefit of free speech and academic freedom, so it remains our obligation to uphold these fundamental concepts.

We must ensure that UNC is a place where it is safe to question and argue, safe to talk about things that divide us and make us uncomfortable—and we must ensure that students are active participants in this exchange. I believe one of the basic roles of higher education is not merely, as has been stated, to teach students how to think, but to open them up to thinking about many different and conflicting ideas at once. We are preparing students for an extraordinarily uncertain world, a world where differences between right and wrong are sometimes unclear, where there is no definitive them and us, where important matters cannot be reduced to binary choices. If students leave UNC believing they know all the answers, we have failed them.

Our primary role with students is to educate, and at times this process is necessarily uncomfortable—for everyone. Our promise for transformative education requires us both to challenge and to support students. We are not a service provider and students are not customers; our relationship goes much deeper. We have a duty to create a welcoming and inclusive environment, to encourage students, to guide them—but we must not artificially smooth the path ahead for them. It is our duty to help students learn to navigate difficult situations, but we can’t achieve that if we constantly intervene on their behalf. Because we want students to think about things they otherwise would not, we introduce them to ideas they may disagree with—ideas that sometimes appall, offend or frighten. We do this to challenge their assumptions, to show them the difference between evidence and opinion, to help them learn to make solid arguments. This is how the learning process works.

Academic freedom is a necessary but not sufficient precondition for this learning process—for being a university. Our success as a university depends in equal measure on creating a healthy community. Protecting free speech and academic freedom is not antithetical to creating a healthy university community. We can and must do both. Being a healthy community is about welcoming and respecting the differences among us, being civil, continuing to talk to each other when we disagree. But being a healthy community is not about protecting ourselves from disturbing or offensive speech, nor is it about shielding ourselves from every potentially unpleasant or hurtful interaction. When we see someone treated disrespectfully or unkindly, it ignites our impulse to regulate, but rules don’t build community. Many of these concerns, in fact, involve a matter of degree that simply can’t be parsed out in rules. Is that to say we should do nothing? Certainly not. Should we as a university community encourage civility? Absolutely. Should we as individuals speak up when we believe someone has crossed a line? Absolutely. But we cannot enforce this at the expense of free speech and academic freedom.

Free speech and academic freedom fuel the ferment of ideas, insights and discoveries that emerge from university communities, and we must do all we can to encourage this ferment. We have an ongoing obligation to talk openly about the inherent tension between upholding academic freedom and building community. These are hard conversations, but this tension is what allows us to be a university community.  

As two Carleton College professors argued earlier this year in the New Republic, bias response teams can have the unintended consequence of substituting students’ speech for administrators’ speech, turning the “transformative educational power of diverse voices” responding to offensive speech “into a farce.” Administrators’ tools—to investigate, to summon for meetings or hearings, to sanction, or to deploy conflict-resolution techniques that might bury disagreement instead of encouraging discussion—are ill-suited for addressing speech that offends but doesn’t rise to the level of sanctionable conduct.

The question, with administrators’ roles diminished, becomes: What can a university do in response to offensive speech?

As Norton points out, the answer is not that administrators can or should simply wash their hands and walk away. Nor is the answer that every university should end its Bias Response Team and altogether abandon efforts to hear students’ unique, and often justified, complaints about the speech they encounter. Universities can direct students to resources they might not otherwise know about, or help them find their own voice to respond or organize—by, for example, directing them to counseling, faculty members, or student organizations. (UNC, for its part, appears to grasp this, having previously updated its BRT website to suggest that it would provide “conflict coaching” in lieu of intervening on students’ behalf.) Nor should administrators sit idly by when students encounter true threats, direct harassment, or other offensive conduct falling outside the realms of academic freedom or freedom of expression.

This is not to say that UNC’s most recent efforts, while welcome, do not risk creating new problems or hiding old ones. As Bill Harbaugh, a professor at the University of Oregon—which is facing criticism over its own Bias Response Team—points out, folding the UNC Bias Response Team into another organization creates the risk that there will now be less transparency, with the new system simply repeating the mistakes of the last.

Whatever the BRT’s excesses, Norton’s recognition of the importance of freedom of expression on campus is refreshing, and FIRE hopes that her clear commitment to these principles will be reflected in the policies and training of whatever new form the BRT takes.

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