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Students at University of Northern Colorado Forced to Use ‘Mandatory’ Gender Neutral Language

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By Jillian Kay Melchior | 2:56 pm, October 26, 2016
  • On at least five sociology syllabuses, students were warned that gender-neutral “inclusive language is mandatory”
  • They also warn that “it is not appropriate to make personal statements about faith at any time”
  • This isn’t the first time the University of Northern Colorado has tried to censor speech on campus
  • Last year, the school told a professor to avoid discussing transgender issues in class to avoid offending students

More colleges around the country are launching “inclusive language” campaigns that encourage students to avoid everyday words and phrases that could possibly offend someone, somewhere—”hey guys,” “mankind” and “man-made” are just a few of the terms now frowned upon.

The University of Northern Colorado has also jumped on the “inclusive language” bandwagon. But at the Greeley, Colo., university, there’s an extra wrinkle:  In at least five classes in the last year, the new, ultra-inclusive lexicon wasn’t optional—it was required.

Sociology professor Kelly Davis included the inclusive language requirement on at least four syllabuses in the spring, according to records reviewed by Heat Street. By deadline, she had not returned Heat Street’s multiple phone calls or responded to emailed questions about how she enforces the rules.

Sociology professor Mark Shuey included the requirement on the syllabus for his Sociology of Minorities class during the spring. He tells Heat Street that he borrowed the language from Davis without giving mandated inclusive language much thought, and that he’ll likely remove it next semester out of concern for students’ free speech.

“That’s me overlooking something at the spur of the moment,” Shuey says. He added he hasn’t enforced “mandatory” gender-neutral language, nor have any students objected to it. He says he wouldn’t make students use gender-inclusive language or punish them for failing to do so.

“What I’m really getting at is, have your own opinion, but be kind to each other,” he said.

The University of Northern Colorado faced criticism earlier this year after Heat Street broke the news that its Bias Response Team had hung 680 posters around campus last year warning students against using offensive language, including some gendered phrases. The Bias Response Team also told one professor to change his lesson plan and avoid controversial topics, including transgender issues, so he didn’t offend students.

Regarding the inclusive language requirement by Davis and Shuey, a spokesman for the school, Nate Haas, told Heat Street that the contents of syllabuses are “left to the discretion of each instructor.”

“That latitude reflects our commitment to academic freedom,” Haas said.

Haas did not answer emailed questions about the consequences for students who fail to use gender-neutral language, or how this requirement reflected on UNC’s commitment to free speech.

For his part, Shuey said that, in general, he wants his syllabuses to communicate that students should make arguments in class and in their papers based on strong facts, not opinion.

“If you’re dealing from opinion, I’m going to call you out on it. … I have several students whose total reality is based on Fox News. That’s opinion-based, not fact-based. … If you start saying what Fox News says, I’m going to call you out,” Shuey said, adding that he generally hates “binary concepts” and wants his students to have a more nuanced view of the world than white versus black or conservative versus liberal.

Both Shuey and Davis’ syllabi also include warnings that “it is not appropriate to make personal statements of faith at any time, which will be used to evaluate other forms of religion.”

Shuey said he’s never had a student object to using gender-neutral language out of religious beliefs about transgender issues.

“But if someone pushed it, I’d say, first off, I’d ask, ‘Why the resistance? Why the anger?’ And most of the time, those people are religious, and most of the time [I’d say], ‘If you really believe in Jesus, you’re supposed to serve people, not judge them. Are you really following what Jesus wants you to do?’” he said.

Asked about what would happen if a student still felt morally uncomfortable about the inclusive-language requirement, Shuey said: “When people are like that, where they can’t see white privilege, or they’re wrapped up in their religion, I focus on not deterring them from that. I try to make them look at the bigger picture. … Some students are going to be more resistant, but I’m not going to give them an ‘F’ because they said ‘he’ or ‘she.’”

Discussion of transgender issues played a central role in the controversy surrounding earlier UNC censorship. This fall, adjunct professor Mike Jensen had his students read “The Coddling of the American Mind” and then discuss controversial issues, including transgender rights.

After a student complained to the Bias Response Team about being “very hurt offended and hurt” by the discussion, UNC’s ethics officer for Title IX, affirmative action and equal opportunity met with Jensen. That administrator warned Jensen that if he expressed his opinion about transgender identity in class, he could face claims of discrimination under Title IX and Title VII, as well as a probe by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

Following news reports of the college’s effort to censor the discussion in Jensen’s class, UNC shuttered its Bias Response Team, citing free-speech concerns.

The controversial syllabi reviewed by Heat Street could be interpreted as part of UNC’s struggle to protect free speech while also preserving an inclusive campus. While the syllabi embraced the “inclusive language” trend, they also seemed to shun trigger warnings.

“Be prepared that some discussion topics or comments may make you feel uncomfortable and challenge what you believe to be true or right,” syllabus text used by both Shuey and Davis said. “However, it is my belief that such confrontation is an integral part of learning and the classroom is the ideal forum for such exploration. Also, listening to and learning from diverse views can enrich us all; therefore, one must feel safe to express oneself.”

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

 

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