Last fall, a transgender student complained of being “very offended and hurt” to University of Northern Colorado’s Bias Response Team. The offending incident: An English professor had asked his students to discuss transgender rights, among other social issues, weighing opposing viewpoints.
The professor, Mike Jensen, secretly recorded his conversation with Marshall Parks, the university’s ethics officer for Title IX, affirmative action and equal opportunity.
“We had a cordial visit, but Parks definitely used the ‘velvet glove’ approach, where he managed to threaten without using a threatening tone,” Jensen says. “But threatening tone or not, I can certainly tell you that I felt that I had no academic freedom.”
This is the transcript of their conversation:
PARKS: Thanks for coming in. So we’ve got the student’s perspective, kind of the the topics and what happened. Does anything ring a bell does it sound like what you thought happened? Usually there’s more than one story.
JENSEN: Let me give you this. I printed this off for you. In the syllabus, the first couple of class periods, a big portion talks about the purpose of higher education, academic discourse, So I make a huge– it’s like one of these soap box, rah-rah things, day one saying, and we talk about the attendance policy– I say, the main reason why you should be here is because you all have a unique perspective to share.
Seven billion people on the planet, no one like you, and if you’re not here, you can’t share that with us, and so I have them read this article, and that’s just part of it, but essentially the article says– and it’s written by college professors– but the article says, too often college students, any time they hear a topic that they’re uncomfortable with, instead of wanting to discuss it, they just wanna say, “I’m uncomfortable, we can’t talk about that,” right?
So we were talking in class about, these are the kind of things–
PARKS: That make you uncomfortable–
JENSEN: — in the academic world, instead of if, I said for example, you should all be here, you may be a liberal Democrat and you hold all those typical… someone might be a conservative… and both views are valid, both views deserve to be aired.
And in the non-academic world what happens is, this guy talks, and she says, “Well, you’re just a bigot,” and now suddenly it’s over, and now I’ve won the discussion.
And so I said there’s gonna be lots of things that you might even find personal, and I actually told the students that if there’s something that is so amazingly personal that you can’t discuss it, you can either, if you know we’re going to talk about it, you can tell me, “I can’t be there that day,” or if we’re into it unexpectedly, you can leave and then tell me later and I won’t be against you.
So we talked about what kind of things are they. And one someone brought up the transgender thing, and so, and this is like a whole discussion over two days not condensed into–
PARKS: — yeah, and that’s why I had you come in–
JENSEN: — and I said so, what you hear a lot in the media especially is that, we should support transgender, Caitlyn Jenner, all these kind of things, we’re all good, we’re all nonjudgmental, I said, but there are people that hold radically different views than that.
There are people who think that there is no such thing as transgender, that you can’t– the argument was, “If I’m a man I can’t say I feel like a woman because as a man I can’t know what it is to be a woman, I can only say, ‘I feel like I imagine a woman feeling.’”
And so what about those people, right? They have a valid view that should be aired and discussed.
And then, later on, we went into, there was an article I think I posted it to our Blackboard page because [unintelligible] a Blackboard page, because students participate in that more– not Blackboard, Facebook, a Facebook page. All our courses have Facebook pages because students will participate more in that than they will in Blackboard.
PARKS: We pay a lot of money for Blackboard. That’s too bad.
JENSEN: So, I shared an article about a student. It’s a high school student who’s male but identifies as female and wants to able to use the girls locker room, and the parents, in fact, Lance Berkman, who was a baseball player, a player for the Astros, I think– he did a public service announcement thing saying, “Don’t let this happen, don’t let boys go on girls lockers.”
And I said, “We all, you know, most people, or we think most people, a lot of people are saying, ‘We shouldn’t judge if he identifies as whatever.’”
But what about those parents who say, “I don’t want a boy [in there].” And what a guy who says, “Hey man, I’ll just say, I identify as a girl and I’ll be able to watch a girl shower naked.” What about that? How do you take that into account?
And so it was in fact a very nice discussion of seeing other perspectives, but it was early in the term, and the funny thing is that this would be hilariously ironic if it wasn’t kind of sad that the article says, what students do is that they run right to people and complain and so professors are afraid to talk about things for fear that they’re going to have this meeting right here, and then that’s exactly what the student did, was, did exactly what the article talks about.
PARKS: But I think one of the concerns, I think the student does identify as transgender, and so she’s hearing what I heard you say, an argument that people could make is, [but] she is hearing that as your personal opinion, and that’s where the difference is.
JENSEN: And I understand that if it’s something that’s close to home to you, you are hypersensitive to it, and it’s easy to hear something that’s not there.
PARKS: And providing obviously that we want to have the discourse, we want to have this sort of discussion– I mean that’s value for all of us being here, that part.
I think that the piece that we have to be sensitive of in this case too is that certainly Title VII and Title IX, gender discrimination issues– if someone were to say, ‘This is my opinion,” that someone perceiving that comment as discriminatory is possible.
I mean you presenting that as something someone might think, not as something you think, is a big distinction here, so I think the way you present it, the way you describe it to me makes perfect sense. Again, you’re approaching the topic in a sensitive and appropriate manner.
I think the framing in things that people see as (inaudible) on specifically Title IX, right now, in the gender-based discrimination of any type, which this falls roughly into that category has been– you know, we’re getting 20, 30 complaints a semester, whereas we didn’t used to get that in 10 years, right? So I mean part of it has been positive because I think there’s an awareness of a real discrimination that’s occurring, and I think that’s a positive thing. People coming forward but I think that (inaudible) I think that you’ve handled it very well.
Not everybody’s got that figured out yet. So I appreciate you coming out and describing it to me.
I think that the student, to be fair, was also not out to get, you know, someone who’s “Bring the torch, burn down the–,” The student is not that way at all, the student just struck a cord and the student, and once it strikes the cord, how we hear and process things changes.
It’s just being filtered in all kind of strange ways so, the topic I can suspect, you can avoid throughout the entire semester, because it is one of those topics (inaudible).
I don’t know if throughout the course of your curriculum if it’s going to pop up, but if it does, just you know make sure to handle it in a sensitive way, and if you believe there’s something that has to be part of an ongoing discussion, or part of this class, I would like to reach out to the student or have the student (inaudible) but I’d have them reach out to the student and say, “This is going to be a necessary part of an additional discussion, it’s going to be Tuesday,” because organic things happen, too, but I mean if you know the topic has to be part of what you’re doing in your class, let me know so I can reach out to the student, just like you described to them before–
JENSEN: And I would hope, you know, we’re in week six now, and you know, I’ve reminded them constantly that I will say things, that I’m putting out there as a hypothetical. People think this, and it’s not my perspective.
I would bet, not that I would want to see this happen, but I would bet that if you ask a student now, if you still hold the same view, she would go, “I get it now,” you know what I mean? And transgender is—
PARKS: But the student’s not there yet. But the student’s not the pitchfork student. I mean this is just a student that just says, “This is challenging the way I think, and in addition, it’s hitting a personal button.”
JENSEN: See the goal is, let’s get you past the button so that it can challenge you because you know, because, you know, you’re the perfect person to talk about this. If you’ve got someone in the corner [who says], “Transgender is whacko,” if it’s beyond what you can do, fair enough.
PARKS: So I mean I think as long as we, we don’t put them in that position.
I mean I think, they can take this to the EEOC and you guys spend a lot of time writing documents, getting other students to say, “I heard them say it this way.” Last place we want to go. I mean it’s just—it’s not productive. (Inaudible) and your intent is not to discriminate against this student or make them feel uncomfortable, I mean, not to make them feel uncomfortable about this but to make them feel uncomfortable about how they think, and that’s a positive piece.
Spending a lot of energy explaining that subtlety to a whole lot of administrative logjam is not the best use of our time.
So if you can avoid the topic for the rest of the semester, that’s our ideal place, so then we don’t have to [inaudible] the exciting, positive part of what you are doing.
If you think it’s a topic we need to retouch on again, let me know so I can work with you and in student’s office, work with the student, keep the student where they are, which is in a pretty good place. And I just want to keep them that way.
JENSEN: Let me ask you this. Essentially, and the syllabus says this, that the topics are class-generated, which is what it should be. What do you guys care about? I try to keep them away from Justin Beiber– but, if you like it, why? That’s fair enough. You can like anything.
I never intended to come in at all this semester and talk about transgender. It came up as a discussion in class, which is what I love. So, what is your recommendation then, if at some point in the future someone says, “Did you read that article about this?” Should I say, “We can’t talk about that?”
PARKS: We talked about that a little bit earlier.
I mean: “There are other topics you can work on today. I mean, you can talk about that one, and it’s, that’s an interesting topic, and it’s still evolving, and it’s really cool in culture and society today, but what else cool could we talk about today?” That little arabesque.
I mean it’s not ideal, it’s not perfect, it doesn’t fit in with what you like to do, but I mean if we go back there again, we have another discussion and the student perceives it that you’re again saying a personal opinion, I got three investigators, and you and I are wasting a ton of time, and they have to talk to every student in the class. So, if the topic’s worth that, it’s your call.
I’ve never once been able to tell a faculty member or another employee frankly what to do. But I think just from a personal perspective, I think it’s a topic that is more central to the course, we have to find a better way to work this.
And I think I have worked that with the Dean of Students Office to say, “Hey, this student (inaudible).”
We’ve had students with these really strong kinds of religious beliefs, we just had to get them out, they just aren’t in a place where they can take a class and have discussions like that. And so we just have to get them in a different spot.
This student, by and large, was receptive to the concept and the class. It was just that that one piece was too personal. So you didn’t know it, you didn’t step on her on purpose, and I think, if we can avoid it through the semester, great, if you don’t think we can, I think that’s OK, too.
Again, I think I would circle back and maybe get you and I to have a quick conversation over with the Dean of Students to work with the student and say, “I think this is likely to come up because it is a topic of great interest to the class. Here’s how I presented it, and I will continue to present it in a similar manner.”
So, you know better how that class is taken shape, and after six weeks, if there’s certain things (inaudible).
I think the topic, and it’s hard to read the statement from the student. I can’t tell if it’s just the fact the topic came up that suddenly put her in this place, put her in this place where, it felt like it was an opinion of viewers or other students or something. I don’t know what that trigger was. I don’t know if we can still have a discussion of the topic.
I just don’t get a sense we want to end up there again. But you know what the nature of that class is. The personality of that class. I understood that topic (inaudible) come up since then.
JENSEN: I don’t know which—I’m teaching four sections—I don’t even know where section came from. So, the topic has come up since the first week, but not in every class because every class is different.
PARKS: And the conversation has largely been the same kind of that you described the first time?
JENSEN: Yeah, just that… I mean that’s always the way it is. There are two sides to this issue. Both sides feel passionately about it. This is what they think. What do you think about those?
PARKS: I think it’d be…it does come up, and you don’t know which of the four sections. Yeah, you can’t–
JENSEN: –You never know which one to avoid–
PARKS: Right. If does come up, then say, I think it’s worth just one more of those reiterations, like you’ve done probably ten times already, that my personal opinion doesn’t matter here, and this isn’t my personal opinion. These are the opinions of other people (inaudible). What mine is is irrelevant– or not irrelevant– it’s just–
JENSEN: Yeah, I’ve in fact told them, I don’t want you to know what I think–
PARKS: I think that if this topic comes up again, I think I would reiterate that one more time. We haven’t had, I’ve also had issues like this (inaudible) and other students have kind of jumped in too, where the students reached out and said, “This bothers me,” (inaudible) “this bothers me too,” which is a good sign. And again, in a (garbled)… You’re right in the middle of it, you know what happened, (garbled)
JENSEN: Actually, I’ve always taught the community colleges before now, so I’ve had student from 18 to 70.
PARKS: Yeah, more nontraditional.
JENSEN: Yeah, and so, my first day classes, “How many of you are over 20,” and nobody raised their hands. It totally blew my mind. I’d never taught a class with all right-out-of-high school kids before.
PARKS: How many years have you been teaching here?
JENSEN: This is my first semester. I’ve been teaching for 20 years, but this is my first semester.
PARKS: For some reason, I thought you were here before.
JENSEN: My son was here, he just graduated from here.
PARKS: My son’s a junior here, that’s cool.
JENSEN: So, let me ask you. I want to be clear and know how I should approach this. (Inaudible.) There is no topic that is, except for writing, that is necessary for this class. It’s a writing class. So, you always have…we talk about writing–
PARKS: — you’ve got something interesting to write about–
JENSEN: Exactly. So, I try to just, anything that seems interesting, I’ll post on Facebook. You guys post. And then whatever they talk about, that’s where we go. And I try—I see myself as kind of a facilitator—let me guide the discussion. And I always talk about mutual respect, you know.
So, would you, if, in one or more classes, there are more stories about transgender stuff, and people flip. Should I? Because I hate that idea, “We can’t talk about this.”
PARKS: The students bring it up. You don’t post the article that starts the topic. I think for now. I mean, I just think that’s reasonable.
JENSEN: Just asking for trouble.
PARKS: It’s pragmatic.
I’ve got people who really want to poke the bear. So, you know, leave here, you go out and say, “Son of a bitch in HR, and he told me– I’ll say whatever the hell I want,” and that’s happened.
That’s not what you’re asking. I mean, if you’re not initiating a topic, that’s a huge plus. If a student initiates a topic, I think I would just take that one extra step of saying, “Like all these interesting topics we are talking about, and I know we’ve talked about this one before, it’s been–” and you don’t want to out the person either, but “we’ve been on this topic before, and it created some conflict. So, I want to be clear, this topic like all others, there are multiple opinions on it, and all opinions we listen to and value and want,” I think that’s perfectly fine.
And I mean, when we came in, my purpose of meeting with you is hearing your context of the discussion. I will write down what context I will to hear of the discussion. (Inaudible). You said it. And that’s exactly the kind of conversation you want on a college campus. And, again, and fortunately the student has been reasonable in their concerns. They’re not a “we can’t have that.” They’re not acting like that at all.
(Audio cuts out as phone buzzes.)
PARKS: … respectful to this student and their concerns, so I feel good about that, and it’s interesting. If I was a better writer, I’d take your class. It sounds interesting.
JENSEN: None of us are very good writers, so. When you have students write about things they don’t care about, that’s when it’s not fun.