As the digital age presses on, colleges increasingly must decide whether -- and how much -- their students’ online presence is relevant to their status as students. In June, Harvard University revoked the admission of some incoming students over their participation in a private Facebook group in which the students shared offensive jokes and memes, as first reported by The Harvard Crimson.
Now it appears that Pomona College, part of the Claremont Colleges consortium, has found itself in a similar situation, this time with enrolled students.
A private Facebook group used by Pomona students, known as “U PC BREAUX” -- pronounced like “[Are] you PC, bro?” with “PC” standing in for “politically correct” -- was filled with “images and comments so vile that they would be right at home in the comments section of The Daily Stormer,” a neo-Nazi website. That was how the page was described by Ross Steinberg, the student journalist who broke the story in an opinion piece titled “The Dark Underbelly of Claremont’s Meme Culture.” Examples of the memes are available here, on another student news outlet's website.
The college has launched an investigation into the matter, and officials said the posts fit under the college's guidelines for a “bias-related incident.”
Memes were posted about rape, genocide and, in one example, calling Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport undocumented immigrants because they were being too loud, Steinberg told Inside Higher Ed. He said he had been randomly invited to the group, which contained about 300 members. Pomona enrolls about 1,650 students.
“Personally, I felt this is a big group on campus,” Steinberg said. “This was a group in which people post hateful things … it really kind of normalizes that kind of thought.”
While the Harvard story was a cautionary tale for students in the application process, the case developing at Pomona shows that problems and questions related to unregulated spaces on the internet don’t go away after students enroll, said Eric Stoller, a higher education writer and consultant. Indeed, Pomona has since launched an investigation into the Facebook group.
“People have been posting things that violate community standards and codes of conduct on the internet for a very long time, on forums, on web chats. Social media is the next extension of that. The challenge is that universities [as a whole] are very risk averse, so a lot of times they’ve said, ‘We’re not going to pay attention to this stuff,’” said Stoller (who also blogs for Inside Higher Ed). “But the digital web and social media challenges universities to take a stance and to take a position that unfortunately there’s not a lot of case law on.”
Unlike students waiting to enroll at Harvard, the students at Pomona have “essentially a collective terms of service” with their university via the student code of conduct, Stoller said.
“If those codes -- and I’m sure they would be -- are found to have [been] violated … then an institution has a means of adjudicating that situation,” he said.
Pomona’s disciplinary policy defines a “bias-related incident” as follows:
Expressions of hostility against another individual (or group) because of the other person's (or group's) race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender identity or expression and sexual orientation, or because the perpetrator perceives that the other person (or group) has one or more of these characteristics. Depending on the circumstances, a bias-related incident may not be a crime, and may be protected speech. The conduct underlying some bias-related incidents may violate the college's policies, including provisions of the Student Code and the Harassment and Discrimination Policy.
Pomona’s handbook has a section promising to uphold free speech, although it also warns against speech or conduct that is “inconsistent with the college's community values.” Many passages related to hateful speech also talk about using those instances as learning opportunities, however, rather than as occasions for discipline.
“We strongly condemn the reported memes for expressions of bias that are antithetical to Pomona’s community values and to our commitment to an educational environment free from discrimination. As a college community, we expect respectful conduct from each other and from ourselves,” Ric Townes, associate dean of student mentoring and leadership, wrote to students in a campuswide email.
The official who ordered the investigation, Miriam Feldblum, vice president and dean of students, said in an email that even though the posts have been determined to be bias related, the investigation is still in the process of figuring out whether a student code or other policy violation occurred.
"The Bias Incident Response Team (Bias IRT) can identify an incident of speech/imagery as bias related and determine that it is still protected speech," she said. Depending on what happens with the investigation, Feldblum said, speaking generally, available sanctions could range from warnings and probation to suspension or expulsion.
Both Stoller and Kevin Kruger, president of the NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said that, as a private college, Pomona has a lot of discretion to discipline students involved in the group. On the other hand, at public colleges the First Amendment often offers more protection for speech, as was the case when students at public institutions were found out to have attended the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August. While critics called for their expulsions, colleges said they couldn’t act.
However, Kruger also said that it might not be clear-cut what action is applicable, or appropriate.
“I think it would be hard, but not impossible, to take action simply on the basis of a student participating in the group, or even posting an offensive meme, if that meme was not in and of itself threatening or harassing to an individual,” he said. “But they also might determine, as a community, these are not the views we want in our community.”
Kruger also said that as online discourse opens up more opportunities for racism or prejudices to be aired, universities need to reach out to students who are part of minority and marginalized groups.
“This is all in the same bucket of the national discomfort we’re having with free speech, what it means, under what circumstances -- it’s all in the same space,” Kruger said. “I think colleges are really struggling with trying to live up to [being] a marketplace of ideas, but in the context of pretty awful things being said.”