“University of Michigan brings back the Soviet Union with its bias response team,” the conservative-libertarian website The College Fix announced last spring. Similar headlines have warned that such teams punish free speech and are the latest example of political correctness run amok in higher education.
Claims that bias response teams function as the thought police on campuses are false. The truth about these teams is more complex, and less nefarious, than headlines acknowledge. Through our research, including an article we published in The Review of Higher Education, we’ve sought to understand the purpose and functions of bias response teams from the perspectives of administrators who run them at 19 colleges throughout the nation.
Misconceptions about bias response teams abound. What do these teams generally do? They:
- Receive reports of incidents that may involve prejudice from students, faculty and staff;
- Reach out and seek to support those who file reports;
- Engage those who were the subjects of reports in voluntary, educational conversations; and
- Monitor trends in the campus climate to inform educational efforts.
They also refer incidents that go beyond the scope of the team’s purview -- crucially, those that involve institutional policy violations or criminal acts -- to the professionals on the campus who are already designated to handle them, such as student conduct offices or campus police.
What do bias response teams not do? In the vast majority of cases, they do not have the power to discipline or sanction any campus community member. Bias response teams generally adopt a nonregulatory approach. They do not shut down free speech or charge into classrooms to stop offensive statements from faculty members or students. A federal judge in the University of Michigan case brought by Speech First affirmed as much, remarking “The university considers this voluntary and the student has no obligation to come in.”
In our article, “A Balancing Act: Whose Interests Do Bias Response Teams Serve?” we report that administrators who lead and serve on teams are well intentioned but often lack sufficient resources and time to carry out their charges. They are frequently caught in the middle of the demands of two groups, neither of which they are typically able to fully satisfy: 1) senior administrators, who would prefer that the negative press generated by bias on campus would go away, and 2) students demanding action and, sometimes, punishment of those who carry out acts of bias and hate that nonetheless fall short of a policy violation.
We also refer to bias response work as a balancing act because team members would like to focus their work on educational efforts that uphold stated diversity and equity commitments of their institutions. But in practice, they often contribute to institutional public relations efforts and find themselves relying on the language of crime and punishment (such as "perpetrator," "victim" and the like), even when they are aware that their teams do not possess the power to discipline anyone.
As we describe in another research article, team members are clear that they must respect First Amendment and state- and institution-level free speech protections. Even though their power lies in education and persuasion, they describe difficulty in finding sufficient time and resources to engage in educational work that might shift institutional culture and reduce manifestations of bias in the first place.
Occasionally, a team exceeds the scope set for it, but in such cases, corrective action is usually swift and highly public. For instance, at the University of Northern Colorado, a team was disbanded following concerns that a faculty member’s academic freedom had been violated. Yet there is simply no evidence that such actions are common at the hundreds of institutions now operating bias response teams. We need not abandon bias response work simply because a few individuals misinterpreted their charge. Institutions that have not yet implemented a team, or have disbanded a team, must still ask what institutional actions are being taken to improve the campus climate.
Based on our research, we take a tempered view of bias response work. We reject the loudest claims that the teams are thought police. But we also acknowledge that significant institutional investments must be made to root out long-standing bias and hate on college campuses -- beyond creating teams that, by design, focus on specific incidents rather than the larger institutional culture. One of our participants described the consequences of this incident-driven orientation and the rush to publicly condemn individual incidents:
An incident occurs, and it can get confused with being the disease, as opposed to a symptom … For example, a single racist act is not the same as racism. Yet, it can be very seductive for an institution or an individual to, in the face of even a horrific incident, to say, “Oh my gosh. That’s awful. We need to respond to that.” You respond to the incident but don’t recognize that that incident was just a symptom of something that was already occurring in more subtle ways.
All students deserve a chance to learn and thrive on campus without being targeted for who they are. But the challenges of combating hate and prejudice in higher education will not be solved solely by appointing a few administrators who are already stretched thin by other obligations to oversee a bias response team. Instead, such a team might be one tool in a broader campuswide equity and inclusion effort, pointing to the frequency and types of bias experienced by campus community members, connecting them with resources, and informing the work of faculty, staff and students working to create more inclusive campus environments.
In short, bias response teams are neither the quick fix that many administrators might desire nor the political correctness police, as some free speech advocates claim. We call on colleges to both accurately articulate their efforts to reduce bias on campus and to stay focused on the larger goal of creating welcoming, equitable learning environments for all students.