On a College Campus? Don’t Try to Tell a Joke

May 26, 2016 by

If you hurt someone’s feelings, or might have potentially hurt their feelings, campus bias response teams are ready to pounce.

Tell a joke, and you might make someone laugh. But tell a joke on a college campus, and you might make someone report you to the administration’s Bias Response Team (BRT)—an Orwellian bureau that investigates students and faculty members for saying the wrong thing.

The wrong thing could be any remark, gesture, joke, or jape that offends anyone for virtually any reason. If the university’s spies are listening, you could be ratted out to a panel of administrators who keep files on alleged perpetrators, suggest ways for offenders to be more politically correct, and even submit their names to disciplinary committees.

Dispatches from the bias incident case files are illuminating. The University of Oregon’s BRT publishes a yearly review (PDF) of its activities that includes summaries of all 85 bias incidents investigated by the administration last year. They will come as a shock to anyone who mistakenly believes that universities do an adequate job of protecting free expression on campus.

“A student reported that a professor wrote an insulting comment on their online blog,” according to the case files of the BRT at the University of Oregon. “[We] met with the reporter, and a BRT Case Manager held a professional development conversation with the professor.”

In another case, “a student reported that a sign encouraging cleaning up after oneself was sexist. A BRT Manager followed up to ensure the sign was removed.”

A staff member who made a “culturally insensitive remark” was reported to the dean of students.

And when an anonymous student filed a report complaining that the student newspaper didn’t feature enough transgender writers, the BRT met with its editors. The case files called this “an educational conversation.” A more objective chronicler might call it the university trying to intimidate a student-run press into making editorial changes.

In other situations, the BRT contacted the affirmative action office and anti-sexual violence council.

The summaries are vague, and it often isn’t clear what exactly was reported. We can’t tell, for instance, whether the culturally insensitive remark was something consequential—like the n-word—or something less offensive—like “American.” No doubt some of these occurrences were serious, and merited administrative follow-up. But the BRT doesn’t distinguish between harassment and hurt feelings: it routinely intervenes, regardless of the severity of the infraction. It is always on the side of the claimant, no matter how silly the claim is.

College anti-bias groups—which have spread like wildfire over the last few years—go by different names on different campuses: the University of Chicago has a Bias Response Team, Vassar College has a Bias Incident Response Team, and the Ohio State University has a Bias Assessment and Response Team. They operate on more than a hundred campuses, and their mission is usually the same: ostensibly, to make the university a safe place, where “safe” is defined as “silent.”

It’s distressingly easy, after all, to accuse someone of bias. The University of Colorado-Boulder, for instance, asks people with information—they need not be students, or even affiliated with the university—to go to its website and make a report containing all relevant details on the perpetrators, including their dates of birth, phone numbers, and ID numbers. The BRT—which is typically composed of administrators, rather than students or faculty members—then intervenes.

It would be wrong to say the standard for determining whether an incident reflects “bias” is subjective, but only because there isn’t a standard at all. If a person witnesses an occurrence in which someone’s feelings were hurt, or seemed like they were hurt, or weren’t hurt at all but nonetheless could have been, that person is encouraged to file a bias report. The reporter need not even be the aggrieved party, and can file anonymously. Extra attention is given to incidents that stem from a victim’s race, religion, gender, disability status, sexuality, political views, age, class, or size. That’s right: body-shamers can be questioned by the university’s secret police.

Oregon’s files are the most illuminating, because the university maintained and published very thorough records. (Its bias response team did not respond to requests for comment.) But dozens of other campuses are engaged in similar practices.

At the University of California at Santa Cruz, a student reported that “a faculty member made inappropriate jokes of grading like a ‘Nazi’ and continually addressed the class as guys.” Such remarks probably weren’t worth any follow-up, but because UC-Santa Cruz has a BRT—and because, well, it’s UC-Santa Cruz—the claim was carefully considered.

Needless to say, civil liberties advocates are concerned. Azhar Majeed, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is worried about the extent to which universities are policing common interactions between students.

Source: On a College Campus? Don’t Try to Tell a Joke – The Daily Beast

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