The University of Northern Colorado announced last week that it is abandoning its team dedicated to investigating incidents of bias on campus after faculty members raised concerns that the team was compromising their academic freedom. Instead, the university will handle bias incidents through other existing university divisions.
"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," Kay Norton, Northern Colorado's president, said in a state of the university address Thursday. "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."
The decision comes at a time when many such teams, including those at the University of Oregon and Ohio State University, have come under fire over similar worries. Last month, following the controversy at Northern Colorado and elsewhere, the University of Iowa announced that it was no longer launching a previously announced bias response team while it tried to build "a better" version of such teams.
Driven by student demand and wide-scale protests against campus racism, bias response teams are appearing with more frequency at colleges across the country, even as they face greater scrutiny and criticism that such teams police student and faculty speech. Student affairs administrators say the teams remain an important part of their attempts to ensure that students of all backgrounds are able to pursue an education free of harassment and discrimination.
“There has clearly been an increase in campuses creating both bias response teams in addition to a more clearly defined process for how members of the campus community can report an incident of bias,” Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said. “These bias response protocols have been created to give students a clear pathway to report their experience of an incident of bias or hate crime. As campuses work towards creating inclusive communities, it is important for there to be defined ways to report an incident.”
Commonly called bias assessment and response teams, or BARTs, these teams of administrators have been around at some colleges for decades. Ohio State created its BART in 1996, and for many colleges it remains the go-to model.
Ohio State declined to offer detailed information about the incidents its team has investigated, but Christopher Davey, a spokesman for the university, said incidents may “involve bias or hate as a result” of age, ancestry, color, disability, gender identity or expression, genetic information, HIV/AIDS status, military status, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or veteran status
“The Ohio State University is committed to creating a diverse and welcoming community for all students, faculty, staff, alumni and visitors,” Davey said. “Like universities around the country, Ohio State has found that maintaining such an environment requires a transparent effort to learn about and address incidents of bias and discrimination on our campuses. BART generally does not investigate incidents and does not have authority to issue sanctions, but does work to provide help for anyone who needs immediate assistance and support.”
Institutions rarely release detailed reports about the incidents handled by BARTs, but a review of more than a dozen such summaries -- many of which consist of a one-page breakdown of incidents by type, with the rare college providing actual, though brief, descriptions of incidents -- show that much of what the teams investigate are classified as “biased speech” or “verbal bias” and vandalism.
The focus on speech -- and the vagueness of many colleges' reports on the incidents -- is what concerns groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has been a vocal critic of bias response teams for nearly two decades.
"BRTs can chill campus speech with heavy-handed responses to speech protected by the First Amendment," FIRE stated this week. "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?"
Critics, often writing for libertarian blogs and websites, commonly refer to bias response teams as “thought police.” The administrators who lead the teams said they view their role in a different way. “I don’t subscribe to that idea at all,” Bleuzette Marshall, vice president for equity and inclusion at the University of Cincinnati, said. “We’re not approaching this from a censoring standpoint.”
The team’s primary role, Marshall said, is one of education, not punishment. She described an incident from last school year as a typical one: a few international students posted some fliers for an event that included a word “that would be considered derogatory in our community.” The students were seemingly unaware that they had used a slur, and Marshall met with them to explain that “this is not language we use here.” The posters were then removed.
The bias incident review summaries published by universities show similar scenes playing out at other institutions.
Last November, a Cornell University sorority hosted an event in which some participants, dressed in sombreros and fake mustaches, “ran around on stage and distributed coupons for free guacamole.” According to the university’s summary of the incident, the performers and the sorority were not sanctioned. Instead, the BART met with the “involved individuals and offered counsel on the impact of the performance on others in the community.”
The following month at Cornell, a student reported that two other students had “continuously been spreading rumors about the student’s sexual behaviors, and posting comments and other items in various social media groups across multiple platforms.” The team advised the victim of their options if the student wanted to pursue disciplinary action against the harassers but did not push the victim toward any specific option, according to the university, and organized a workshop about bullying and harassment.
At the University of Texas at Austin last year, its Campus Climate Response Team received 21 reports about an event hosted by the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. The event, called a “border patrol party,” featured attendees wearing sombreros, ponchos and construction hats emblazoned with stereotypical Hispanic names. Despite campus protests urging the university to punish the fraternity, UT officials did not sanction anyone over the party, choosing instead to work with the chapter to increase its “cultural sensitivity.”
Last year, at the University of Oregon, several Hispanic students reported that other occupants of their residence hall had shouted “build that wall,” in reference to Donald Trump’s promise to erect a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Again, the university’s bias response team did not recommend punishment. The team met with the building’s residence life coordinator to discuss some “opportunities for bias education” for students who lived there.
“In my experience, bias is often a result of not having the right information or being miseducated about certain topics, certain populations and various cultures,” Quantrell Willis, assistant dean of students at the University of Oregon, said. “We see this as an opportunity to educate our students, faculty and staff. We want to build a community through addressing bias, and our hope is that we can do that through education.”
That goes for faculty members, too, according to BART leaders. “We usually have conversations about why it’s important that students feel comfortable and safe, not issue any sort of mandate or anything like that,” Lynette Merriman, assistant vice provost for student affairs at the University of Southern California, said.
Though incidents resulting in punishments were rare in the reports examined by Inside Higher Ed, that doesn’t mean incidents handled by bias response teams don’t sometimes end in sanctions against a student or faculty member. If an incident rises to the level of discrimination or violence and the action has violated a university’s code of conduct, the team may refer the incident to campus police or to student affairs.
Still, BART leaders say the majority of cases handled by bias response teams result in a conversation, not a punishment.
At Northern Colorado, which eliminated its bias response team following complaints from faculty members who worried the team’s work compromised academic freedom, the faculty members were not threatened with sanctions. They were, however -- including in a case where a professor attempted to convey hypothetical arguments against transgender rights as a part of a classroom discussion -- urged to avoid certain topics once a student had made a complaint.
“Academic freedom chilled politely is still academic freedom chilled,” Adam Steinbaugh, a First Amendment lawyer who works with FIRE, noted.
Kruger, of NASPA, agreed that investigating and punishing incidents of bias on college campuses can sometimes be a difficult and messy process, but he warned against colleges scrapping bias response teams altogether.
“The intent of these bias response teams is not to constrain free speech or infringe upon academic freedom in the classroom,” Kruger said. “The real value of a bias response team, comprised of faculty and staff from around the campus, is that incidents can be investigated and that one person is not making a judgment about possible outcomes. In some cases, the most appropriate action may only be to check in and provide support to the student affected. The worst thing would be to abandon these processes and leave students with no avenue to report their experiences.”