We all know that some universities, when they espouse an allegiance to free speech and open debate, really mean they want only speech that doesn’t offend anyone, and only want debate about issues that aren’t controversial (but then why have a debate?). Fortunately, that’s not true of all universities—my own is a welcome exception. But the lip service to free speech combined with hand service slapping down offensive free speech is going on in an invidious way at one school, the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) in Greeley.
Reports at Heat Street, as well as at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), detail how two UNC professors were investigated—simply for asking students to discuss and debate controversial topics. In both cases, student complaints triggered (sorry for the pun) inquires by the school’s “bias response team,” a group devoted to sniffing out and punishing incidents of offensive speech. Heat Street obtained the records of these investigations simply by using the Colorado version of the Freedom of Information Act.
Here’s one described by both sources (wording from Heat Street):
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.”
Now that’s bizarre. I’ll take the professor’s word, as reported by FIRE, that he was simply inciting debate (I did that all the time when lecturing as a creationist in my “Creation vs. Evolution” course at the University of Maryland), but it’s unconscionable to tell the professor to avoid stating opinions expressed in the article itself. In fact, the Atlantic article by Jon Haidt and FIRE president Greg Lukianoff, which I’ve mentioned before, would be a great thing for students to debate. It should be required reading item during the fall “indoctrination period” given to incoming first-years at nearly every American college.
Here’s the second report from Heat Street (my emphasis):
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.”
I really feel sorry for that professor, who has Big Brother looking over his shoulder and is apparently expected to grovel.
In fact, these students are going to go out into a world in which many people think homosexuality is immoral, and that gays shouldn’t marry. Shouldn’t they discuss this issue before they do? (I presume this was taught in a course in which the issue was relevant.) Asserting that “gay marriage is a right,” which is presumably what this student would say, isn’t much of an argument, for assertions of rights are meant to shut down debate. They’re not reasoned arguments. Why are they considered rights? This is the kind of thing students should be pondering.
If I were teaching a class on the use of evidence, for instance, an appropriate topic would be Holocaust denialism, for it’s a pervasive topic and held by many. It is, in fact, the topic of a new book that I have, Denying History by Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman. Shermer has written about this before, and I found the topic fascinating. I suppose, as a secular Jew, I should be offended by such a debate, but that’s absurd. The arguments held by denialists were unfamiliar to me, as was much of the evidence refuting them. I learned a lot from that chapter in one of Shermer’s earlier books, I look forward to reading about the issue at greater length.
Here’s another topic worthy of debate: Peter Singer’s argument that infants with incurable deformities or diseases should, in some cases, be euthanized. That is, it’s a form of post-birth abortion of life. I think there’s a case to be made for that, and it would be fascinating to put students on teams to debate the issue. (When I taught my course in Maryland, the last assignment was such a debate, but I put all the evolution-accepting students on the pro-creationist side, and the creationists on the pro-evolution side.)
If we are going to discourage debate in the classroom, or limit it to topics that can’t offend anyone, then we do the students a disservice. It’s a hard world out there, and lots of people have opinions you’ll find completely misguided. (42% of Americans, for instance, are young-earth creationists.) If we’re to function in a democracy, we have to be able to state our positions clearly and defend them rationally. What UNC is doing is shutting down that avenue, perpetuating a generation of coddled adolescents who can’t stand to even hear an opinion differing from theirs.
To see other things the UNC Bias Response Team has investigated, go here. One student filed a report when the student health center asked her if she needed birth control!
Finally, here’s the logo for the UNC Bias Response Team. Note the dissonance between “valuing intellectual and academic freedom and open exchange of ideas” and fostering “well-being and inclusiveness”. As the incidents above show, these ideals are incompatible.
Values: The University of Northern Colorado believes that its distinctive service to society can only be offered in a student-centered atmosphere of integrity that is grounded in honesty, trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility. For this reason, the University is committed to promoting an environment in which:
academic integrity is valued and expected;
excellence is sought and rewarded;
teaching and learning flourish;
diversity of thought and culture is respected;
intellectual freedom is preserved; and
equal opportunity is afforded.