diversity

Essay criticizes colleges for expelling students for racist comments

Last week, the University of South Carolina suspended a student for writing the n-word on a whiteboard in a campus study room. The university president explained that the student had violated the Carolinian Creed, which bars “racist and uncivil rhetoric.”

But in the United States, there’s another creed that’s supposed to take precedence over all the others: the Constitution. And the university -- not the offending student -- violated it.

So did the University of Oklahoma, when it expelled two students last month for leading a racist chant on a fraternity bus trip. The chant referred to the lynching of African-Americans, one of the ugliest chapters in our nation's history, and the students deserved all of the condemnation they received.

But our university leaders deserve censure, too, for their craven disregard of the First Amendment. Everyone has the right to speak their mind, no matter how much it offends yours. When Americans work themselves into a fine moral lather, however, freedom of speech is always the first thing to go.

Campus speech codes date to the mid-1980s, in the aftermath of several well-publicized racist episodes. Following the last game of the 1986 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets, drunken brawls erupted at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst between white Red Sox fans and black Mets supporters. At one point, a mob of 3,000 whites chased and beat black students.

After that, media outlets ran a spate of stories about racist incidents on campus, including a mock slave auction at a fraternity. It was never clear whether racial prejudice and harassment had actually increased during these years. But it made for good copy, with headlines like “Bigots in the Ivory Tower” and “Reagan’s Children: Racial Hatred on Campus.”

As the last item suggests, liberals were quick to blame the alleged rise in racism on Ronald Reagan and the so-called New Right. As conservative politicians stoked the fires of prejudice, the argument went, our campuses should remain bastions of racial equality and justice.

Enter speech codes. By 1992, fully one-third of colleges and universities had enacted some kind of speech regulation. The most famous one -- which became a model for many other measures -- was adopted by the University of Michigan, which barred “verbal or physical behavior… that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap or Vietnam-era veteran status.”

But as a U.S. district judge ruled in 1989, when he struck down the Michigan speech code, the words “stigmatizes” and “victimizes” were notoriously slippery. “What one individual might find victimizing or stigmatizing, another individual might not,” the judge wrote.

A few years later, the University of Pennsylvania charged a student with violating its speech code after he pleaded with some partying African-American sorority members to keep down the noise. “Shut up, you water buffalo,” the student shouted. “If you want a party, there’s a zoo a mile from here.” In his native Israel, the student later explained, the term "water buffalo" referred to a rowdy person; but the black students interpreted it -- and his zoo remark -- as racial insults.

Penn eventually dropped the charges against the student and -- two years later -- it eliminated its speech code. But it was one of the exceptions. Most college retained their speech codes or added new ones, even in the face of judicial decisions barring such measures. Between 1989 and 1995, six courts -- including the U.S. Supreme Court -- examined university or municipal speech codes, and in every case the codes were deemed unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court’s 1992 decision struck down a St. Paul ordinance prohibiting hate speech. Inevitably, the court ruled, city officials would be called upon to decide what was truly hateful and what wasn’t. And that’s not a call that any of us should want our government making for us.

But that’s precisely what our campus speech codes require universities to do. In a recent survey of over 1,000 Jewish students on 55 American campuses, more than half reported experiencing or witnessing an anti-Semitic act or comment within the prior six months. Earlier this year, a Jewish student applying for a campus judicial board position at the University of California at Los Angeles was asked how -- as a Jew -- she could maintain an “unbiased view.” And at another U.C. campus, in Davis, Jewish students opposing an anti-Israel boycott measure were heckled with cries of “Allahu Akbar.”

Both episodes made national news, but they didn’t lead to any official punishment for the students who made the offending comments. Why should racist comments elicit penalties while anti-Semitic ones don't? And why should we allow our universities to discriminate between them when the courts have ruled that both types of speech are protected? We need to educate our students against bigotry without turning our backs on the Constitution. But first, we'll need university leaders with the courage to do it.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, which was published last month by Princeton University Press.

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Segregation in Greek Systems

An article in The Orlando Sentinel explores the issue of segregation in Greek systems. At the University of Central Florida, which has a diverse student body, the Greek system is not nearly as diverse. White students make up 55 percent of total enrollment, but 70 percent of fraternity and sorority members. While 11 percent of the student body is black, only 5 percent of Greek members are. The article notes that while this pattern is believed to be true elsewhere, some universities -- such as Florida State University and the University of Florida -- say that they don't track demographics of their Greek systems.

 

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Harvard U. Achieves Gender Parity in Junior Faculty Hires

For the first time in its history, Harvard University hired an equal number of women and men as junior faculty members in 2014-15, according to a new report from its Office of Faculty Development and Diversity. Harvard took on 62 new tenure-track faculty members this year, exactly half of whom were women; 24 percent were minority. Some 28 percent of the Harvard ladder faculty over all are women -- at 438 faculty members, that's about 90 more than even 10 years ago. Harvard says it’s cautiously optimistic that the gender parity can be maintained over time; while many factors play into such an outcome, the university's made a significant effort to welcome more women onto the faculty in recent years by conducting broader, more inclusive faculty searches and through various pipeline efforts aimed at increasing the number of female faculty members. Harvard’s diversity tactics are somewhat similar to those recently announced by Brown University, which pledged to double its proportion of underrepresented minority faculty in 10 years. 

“Over the past several years, Harvard, like many institutions, has worked diligently to diversify its faculty at all levels,” Judith D. Singer, Harvard’s senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity and James Bryant Conant Professor of Education, said via email. “While we cannot guarantee that the same will happen next year, this year’s success is a remarkable fact that was entirely unimaginable when I joined the faculty 30 years ago.”

Man Quits as Women's Officer at U. of Tasmania

James Ritchie, a male student, has resigned as women's officer of the student union at the University of Tasmania. Ritchie's recent election to that post set off a furor. He has said repeatedly that he is committed to fighting discrimination against women.

A petition calling for his removal states that support for women's equality isn't the only qualification for the position. "The role of women’s officer is more than just about ‘doing things’ for women students, it is also about representation. In what have historically been male-dominated institutions, with a persistently patriarchal culture, it is important that women’s rights, needs, interests and concerns in the university context are voiced through someone elected to directly represent them. In light of persisting social issues of gender inequality, discrimination and under-representation of women in positions of influence and power at university and beyond, we believe it is not much to ask that women students are ensured a dedicated student representative to not only represent their specific concerns as a student body, but also to simply carve out and ensure space for women in the Tasmanian University Union Student Representative Council," the petition says.

In his resignation statement, Ritchie criticized those who called for his ouster. "How can we as a society expect our men to stand up for women if they are mocked and insulted for trying to help the cause?" he wrote. "I challenge all those that have ridiculed me and asked me to resign, what are you going to do now? How are you going to ensure as a community we work to eradicate discrimination and injustice for women? This still takes place daily around the world. Surely a starting point cannot be hating those who are wanting to do good."

Female Students and Critical Mass in Group Learning

Female students -- especially in their first year -- are more likely to actively participate and less likely to feel anxious if they have the chance to work in small groups that are majority female, according to a new study that will appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study was led by Nilanjana Dasgupta at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and its emphasis was on women in male-dominated fields such as engineering. Tracking 120 undergraduates, the researchers found an impact on whether the women were in female-majority small groups, and that this had a positive impact, even if the class was mostly male. The researchers suggest more attention be paid to the composition of small groups that are common for team projects and group learning in engineering and other science and technology fields.

 

U. of South Carolina Suspends Student for Racist Word

The University of South Carolina has suspended a student who is depicted in a photo circulating on social media showing her using a racist term for black people. The image circulating (at right) has the word obscured. It is the first word on a list of reasons "why USC Wi-Fi blows."

Harris Pastides, president of the university, issued this statement: "Today, the unfortunate and disappointing act of a student in a study room has challenged the Carolina community to reflect on our values and tell the world what we believe. Respect for all is at the heart of the Carolinian Creed, the code by which we agree to abide. Racist and uncivil rhetoric has no place at the University of South Carolina. We have taken appropriate actions to suspend a student and begin code of conduct investigations."

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New book highlights need to expand LGBTQ studies

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New book explores strategies and obstacles for gay, lesbian and transgender students and those who conduct research on L.G.B.T.Q. topics.

Brown U. declares it will double faculty diversity by 2025

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Brown U. says it will double underrepresented minority faculty ranks in 10 years. What's its strategy? Why do some institutions favor -- and some avoid -- specific goals?

Duke Student Admits to Placing Noose on Tree

A Duke University student has admitted to placing a noose on a tree on campus -- an incident that alarmed many on the campus. The university, citing privacy laws, did not release much detail about the student or the motivations for the noose placement. But the university statement on the matter said that "the student is no longer on campus."

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Federal judge denies claim of transgender man expelled from U. of Pittsburgh over restroom access issues

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Federal judge rejects suit over U. of Pittsburgh expulsion related to use of men's restrooms by student who identified as male but lacked the legal status to be a man.

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