President Obama’s outgoing Secretary of Education would like all public universities to make one major change before he leaves office: make a “commitment to diversity” that includes the establishment of “safe spaces.”
In a “Dear Colleague” letter sent to schools earlier this week, Sec. John B. King, Jr. suggested that students at American universities require special attention to preserve their emotional well-being, and that community understanding must be a top priority of higher education.
That community understanding, he said, requires a special, now-familiar institution: the safe space.
“Institutions can proactively support student success and college completion,” he says, by creating “venues for safe and open dialogue on issues of race and discrimination among students, faculty, staff, and leadership of different backgrounds.”
He went on to say that “colleges have a responsibility to make sure schools are safe and supportive places for all” and that students “never fear being threatened or attacked,” despite the fact that higher education has long been a bastion of free thought, intellectual discourse and difficult discussion.
He also seems to confirm the Obama Administration’s support for so-called “bias response teams,” committees on campus that can dole out punishments for perceived “microaggressions” and “harassment.”
“When institutions become aware of any form of discriminatory harassment that creates a hostile environment, they are legally obligated to promptly and effectively address the harassment, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent harassment from recurring, and remedy its effects,” King states. “Institutions should also make clear and widely publicize the ways that students can file complaints of harassment and discrimination.”
Of course, bias response teams are now at work in plenty of schools—shutting down offensive holiday parties, chastising students for cultural appropriation in their Halloween costumes, issuing citations for bikini posters, and policing triggering Harry Potter murals across this great land.
Fortunately, he does mention that colleges should protect students’ free speech rights —but only after stressing that “diversity” be paramount. Intellectual diversity— or diversity of political opinion—is never mentioned in the letter.
“Dear Colleague” letters do not have the force of regulation or an Executive Order, but they do make clear to schools how the administration suggests handling certain issues with federal law implications.
For instance, a 2011 DOE “Dear Colleague” letter suggested schools use both Title IX and low evidentiary standards to investigate instances of sexual assault on campus. Campus sexual assault complaints skyrocketed as schools implemented the policy, from 400 in 2010 to nearly 2,500 in 2014, as did complaints of denial of due process and false prosecution.