Muzzled Professors: An Inside Look at How One College Lets Students Censor Classroom Debate

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By Jillian Kay Melchior | 10:40 pm, June 19, 2016

For many students and professors, one of the great appeals of college life is being exposed to new and different ways of thinking. But that age-old process is now under threat at schools around the country. Take the University of Northern Colorado.

After two of the school’s professors asked their students to discuss controversial topics and consider opposing viewpoints, they received visits from the school’s Bias Response Team to discuss their teaching style. The professors’ students had reported them, claiming the curriculum constituted bias.

These incidents, both in the 2015-2016 academic year, reflect a growing trend in higher education. College students increasingly demand to be shielded from “offensive,” “triggering” or “harmful” language and topics, relying on Bias Response Teams to intervene on their behalf. Such teams are popping up at a growing number of universities.

Heat Street filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get a look at some of the complaints to UNC’s Bias Response Team, and a sense of how the team is handling those petitions. In one report reviewed by Heat Street, a professor, whose name was redacted, had asked students to read an Atlantic article entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” about college students’ increasing sensitivity and its impact on their mental health.

The professor then asked his students to come up with difficult topics, including transgender issues, gay marriage, abortion and global warming. He outlined competing positions on these topics, though he did not express his personal opinion.

In a report to the Bias Response Team, a student complained that the professor referenced the opinion that “transgender is not a real thing, and no one can truly feel like they are born in the wrong body.”

“I would just like the professor to be educated about what trans is and how what he said is not okay because as someone who truly identifies as a transwomen I was very offended and hurt by this,” the student wrote.

A member of the Bias Response Team met with the professor, the report says, and “advised him not to revisit transgender issues in his classroom if possible to avoid the students expressed concerns.” The Bias Response Team also “told him to avoid stating opinions (his or theirs) on the topic as he had previously when working from the Atlantic article.”

In a separate incident, a professor, whose name was also redacted, asked his students to choose from a list of debate topics, some of them regarding homosexuality and religion.

The Bias Response Team’s notes summarized: “Specifically there were two topics of debate that triggered them and personally felt like an attack on their identity (GodHatesFags.com: is this harmful? Is this acceptable? Is this Christianity? And Gay Marriage: should it be legal? Is homosexuality immoral as Christians suggest?)”

The student, whose name is redacted and who is referred to as “they” in the report, complained that “other students are required to watch the in-class debate and hear both arguments presented.”

“I do not believe that students should be required to listen to their own rights and personhood debated,” the student wrote. “[This professor] should remove these topics from the list of debate topics. Debating the personhood of an entire minority demographic should not be a classroom exercise, as the classroom should not be an actively hostile space for people with underprivileged identities.”

The Bias Response Team wrote that while this incident “did not reach a level of discrimination,” members still contacted the professor to “have a conversation… [and] listen to his perspective, share the impact created for the student and dialogue about options to strengthen his teaching.”

The Bias Response Team wrote that once the conversation was completed, they wanted a full report of “the outcome of your time together. . . so I can document and share with the student that outreach was completed.”

The University of Northern Colorado did not respond to Heat Street’s request for comment about whether the Bias Response Team is a threat to free speech and academic freedom. We also asked to be put in touch with the professors who had received complaints, but we did not hear back before publication.

Ari Cohn, a free-speech lawyer with the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said it was “deeply troubling” that UNC professors had been forced to respond to bias reports and to defend exposing their students to a variety of ideas.

“If even challenging a student’s views with a hypothetical opposing opinion is now off-limits, then truly nothing is sacred,” Cohn wrote in an email. “If professors are forced to modify their teaching styles to avoid such exercises, not only does it infringe on their academic freedom rights, but it does a tremendous disservice to students’ intellectual development.”

As Heat Street recently reported, in addition to these bias reports filed against professors, UNC’s Bias Response Team also received complaints about a campus poster that “contained the word ‘crazy’ used in a mocking and flippant way”; after a professor described valence electrons as “retarded”; after an event during Eating Disorder Awareness Week featured a “triggering” healthy-foods competition; and after a Health Center worker asked whether a student needed birth control.

UNC’s Bias Response Team also hung 680 posters on campus last semester as part of a #languagematters campaign warning students against offensive language. Off-limits words included “crazy,” “poor college student” and “hey, guys.”

To date, more than 100 U.S. public colleges and universities have established Bias Response Teams.

 — Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.

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