University of Northern Colorado President Kay Norton gave her state of the university address on Wednesday, spending a great deal of time affirming UNC’s commitment to academic freedom. That’s because of the months of national backlash surrounding the school’s Bias Response Team. The team was created in 2014 to field complaints from students concerning offensive behavior.
She assured students, faculty and staff members that UNC is committed to preserving freedom of speech on campus - for faculty and students - all the while creating a campus where all can feel welcome.
This fall, UNC’s administrators and faculty senate will have their own tests ahead of them: how to balance a desire to create an inclusive university community with rigorous debate and challenging discussion.
In her speech, Norton said complaints about bias-related incidents will now go through the same pipeline as discrimination complaints. Those fall under the university’s Title IX coordinator, who handles complaints that may violate federal protections against gender-based discrimination.
Norton said there is work still to be done, ensuring that students from all backgrounds and persuasions feel included and safe at UNC. The review process is expected to be completed later this semester. Here’s how UNC got here:
2014 - The Bias Response Team Is Created
UNC launches the BRT, modeled after similar initiatives at the University of Chicago, Ohio State University and University of Oregon. The goal was threefold: first, to serve as a reporting tool for incidents involving bias based on race, gender, religion or nationality. The second was to mediate discussions between those who file complaints, and those who are the target of such complaints, leading to the third goal: to educate the university community about bias. UNC reported 44 BRT complaints in the 2014-2015 academic year, nearly half of which were reported in residence halls.
2015 - The Poster Campaign
The university launches a “language matters” poster campaign to educate students and faculty on speech that may be deemed offensive. The posters asked people to reconsider using certain words because they could be offensive to certain students. The top of one poster reads. “We say ‘person who is undocumented/DREAMer’ instead of illegal alien…” Below the text, a student holds up a sign completing the thought: “Because the word illegal is a racist slur that discriminates against people who are perceived to be immigrants. No human is illegal.”
Towards the end of the year, UNC updated its student handbook to reflect a harsher stance against bias-related incidents. The Foundation for Individual Freedom in Education rated the policy as “ambiguous,” saying that a policy like that “too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”
June 2016 - The Poster Campaign, part 2
By this time, UNC’s “language matters” posters had been posted around campus all semester. But it was one in particular that dragged the university into the national spotlight.
At the top of the poster it said, “When you say ‘all lives matter’...” Below, a black student wearing a “Black Lives Matter” sweatshirt holds up a sign saying: “You are dismissing the Black Lives Matter movement and the brutality impacting the black community.” The poster in question was defaced with two phrases: “all lives do matter” and “free speech matters.” The BRT responded by removing the poster and replacing it with another that read:
“This was the site of bias related behavior. The behavior committed here is offensive to all members of our UNC community, and we will not tolerate it. At UNC, we value the power of words and reject language and/or actions that do not align with our educational mission. We remove vandalism, not to hide bias, but to eliminate further impact of hateful speech. #languagematters”
The tale went viral on the conservative news site HeatStreet.
Dean of students Katrina Rodriguez - who is also the university’s Title IX coordinator - batted down allegations of censorship. “The intent is to educate to foster civility—not to take punitive action,” she told HeatStreet.
The Coloradoan reported in late June that the process whereby the BRT handled complaints was starting to come under fire. UNC released public records of all the BRT complaints from the 2015-2016 school year, redacted to remove identifying information about students. The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits universities from releasing such identifying information about students.
Some complaints included in the publication garnered even more media attention. For example, a complaint from a student said an on-campus cooking competition “triggered” several students with histories of eating disorders. Another complained about an unnamed student organization engaged in a chant: “I wish all ladies were birds in the sky, and I was a hunter and shoot them in the eye.”
In response to these reports, state Sen. John Cooke, a Republican whose district includes Greeley, penned an open letter to Norton on the blog “The Complete Colorado.”
“The beauty of higher education is the free exchange of ideas and speech,” Cooke wrote. “Unfortunately, UNC seems to have fallen victim to the same political correctness industry that has plagued other once great educational institutions.”
A week later, Norton responded with an editorial in The Greeley Tribune. She acknowledged problems with the BRT, calling the process “imperfect,” but defending it nonetheless, saying it was important to helping students solve interpersonal conflicts.
“The University of Northern Colorado does not tolerate limits on free speech, academic freedom or diversity of opinion. We do not tolerate discrimination, harassment or bias,” she wrote. “We are unequivocally committed to creating a healthy university community. And quite frankly, it frustrates me to see these values cast as antithetical to one another.”
July 2016 - A Professor Claims His Academic Freedom Is Violated
HeatStreet broke the story of an anonymous UNC professor who was “threatened” by administration in response to a bias complaint. The professor later identified himself to the Tribune as Mike Jensen, who taught several sections of a freshman composition class.
In a secretly-taped meeting with UNC Human Resources Director Marshall Parks, Jensen was asked to recount a class discussion he started about transgender people. As Jensen told the Tribune, it all began with an article from The Atlantic called, “The Coddling of The American Mind.” The piece slammed the idea of so-called “safe spaces” on college campuses. “You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness,” the article reads. “It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”
In assigning the article to his students, Jensen said he was hoping to get his students to “address things like adults and not like children.”
The example he chose to discuss was transgender people. He posed a question to his class: How can someone say they feel like a woman if they’ve never been a woman? The answer, he told the class, was that they couldn’t. They could only feel what “they think” a woman felt like.
One student in the class, who identified as a transgender woman, filed a complaint with the BRT, saying the discussion made her uncomfortable. That complaint brought Jensen into Parks’ office.
Contrary to HeatStreet’s reports, Parks never forced Jensen not to discuss the topic in his class. What he did do was recommend that Jensen avoid topics like that to save himself the trouble. Nonetheless, Jensen said he felt the constant need to “self-censor.”
Jensen is not teaching at UNC this semester, although it’s not clear whether that has anything to do with him releasing the recording of his meeting with Parks. UNC has declined to comment on Jensen, saying they typically do not comment on personnel matters.
August 2016 - University of Iowa Gets Cold Feet, Cites UNC
The University of Iowa, which had been considering a team similar to UNC’s BRT, announced they were backing away from the plan. Georgina Dodge, Chief Diversity Officer for UI, told the Iowa City Press-Citizen that the decision was due to UNC’s very public missteps with the BRT.
"One of the things that we've seen at many schools is that the [BRT]s have become almost punitive in nature," Dodge said. "When we are dealing with incidents that do not rise to the level of a policy violation, how you are going penalize someone is a big question."
Dodge said UNC and other schools with similar programs had crossed the line from meaningful mediation into "scolding panels."
"That's not what we want," she said. "That accomplishes nothing."
Dodge said UI still wants a resource for students who experience bias-related incidents, but that resource should not have disciplinary power. Whatever model Dodge decides on will be in place at UI by the end of next summer.
While Norton started the semester on a hopeful note, other university leaders were more decisive in tossing aside the idea of “safe spaces,” arguing that they impede, even destroy, honest academic discussions.
Most notable was the University of Chicago’s letter to incoming freshmen, which warned: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
During his fall convocation, Mercer University President Bill Underwood likewise took aim at the idea. He cited an incident from the previous semester, when students wrote “Trump 2016 - Build A Wall” in chalk on a university sidewalk. University leaders declined to censor the message or punish those responsible. A decision Underwood said he supported, despite calling Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s immigration proposals “bad ideas.”
“It’s not the role of the university to shield you from ideas and opinions that you find disagreeable or even that you find deeply offensive,” he said. “It is our role to to help you learn how to engage productively with those with whom you disagree, and that’s sometimes difficult.”
Perhaps pushing against the tide, Norton said Wednesday that it’s possible to have both: a meaningful way to address bias concerns on campus that didn’t venture too far into “thought police” territory, as she put it.