This is a guest post by Professor Aaron Kindsvatter, associate professor at the College of Education, University of Vermont.
Earlier this year, I read that at Northern Colorado University conversations about gender identity were shut down to spare the feelings of a student who was offended. Moreover, the professor overseeing the class was investigated by the Northern Colorado University Bias Response Team. I believe that open discussions about gender identity are necessary to decrease hostility against sexual minorities, because prejudicial beliefs can be interrogated rather than be suppressed, and was disappointed that such discussions were being shut down. Upon checking the bias response policy at my own university, the University of Vermont, I felt compelled to write the following open letter.
Dear University of Vermont Students,
As many of you know, it’s been a difficult year in our country. We have seen our men of color shot under what seem to be extraordinary circumstances by police, and we have seen our police officers shot. In a tragedy that has impacted the entire country, we have seen our LGBT citizens gunned down in the worst shooting in U.S. history. Further, there is a Presidential campaign in progress in which outrageous bigotry has been expressed with such regularity that it has almost lost its ability to shock. Although you have to be careful about how you talk or write about these issues at the University of Vermont, you may take some comfort in knowing that these issues are being thoroughly discussed at the University of Chicago. If you don’t know what I mean, please read on.
This is a time when we need our very best thinkers to get the very best educational experiences that they can, and to take those experiences out into the world. I am proud to say that I think both you (the students), and we (the faculty) are up to the challenge. Perhaps as we learn to engage contentious ideas together we can contribute to a society where words are used more and bullets are used less. Although this sounds straightforward, it is not. If words, and by extension ideas, are to be thoroughly interrogated in the University setting, and if we are serious about contributing to a culture in which we engage one another rather than enacting violence against each other, then we are required to express and critique ideas freely and reject the notion that ideas and violence are synonymous. The necessary end to which such freedom of inquiry leads is that students across the ideological spectrum will be exposed to ideas that they find uncomfortable, wrongheaded, annoying, and even offensive. If you have classes with open inquiry at the University of Vermont, you may be exposed to the biases of other students or of the faculty. Bias, according to the University of Vermont Bias Response Team is:
…a personal inclination or temperament based on unreasoned judgment or belief. Bias may be reflected in behavior (verbal [i.e., speech], nonverbal, or written [i.e., ideas expressed in words]) that is threatening, harassing, intimidating, discriminatory, hostile, unwelcoming, exclusionary, demeaning, degrading, or derogatory and is based on a person’s real or perceived identity or group affiliation, including (but not limited to) race/ethnicity, age, disability status, gender, gender identity/expression, national origin, sexual orientation, veteran status or religion.
If, during the course of interacting with others in your classes, you observe another person, a student or professor, having a belief (or thought) pertaining to a social issue that you deem to be unreasoned, or engaging in a judgment pertaining to a social issue that that makes you uncomfortable, one option you have is to let the Bias Response Team know. They will look into matter and may provide the offending person with education, enact restorative justice, or engage in some other intervention to change the offending person’s thoughts. Keep in mind that your perception of bias need not conform exactly to the parameters noted above. The University of Vermont Bias Response Team notes:
“This definition of a bias incident is intentionally broad to reflect our values to create and sustain an inclusive, safe, and productive community for all of our members.”
Bear in mind that the Bias Response Team has committed to keeping any report you choose to file with them a secret. So though you may feel some concern that if you participate fully in the interrogation of thorny ideas, a professor or student may secretly report on you, you as a reporter will most likely be able to remain anonymous. Although this policy goes a certain distance towards protecting those who report bias, it also creates an inevitable tension for everyone across the ideological spectrum who expresses a thought that someone of a different ideological strain may find offensive. Given the breadth of the Bias Response Team definition of what constitutes a bias incident, any expressed thought from any place on any ideological spectrum pertaining to a sensitive social issue that is not expurgated to the point that it is leeched of meaning could be considered biased, and potentially appropriate for reporting.
The fear of being reported or investigated, which stems from vaguely worded speech codes and a tendency towards intellectual isolationism, has been termed the “chilling effect.” The result of the “chilling effect” is that issues relevant to our most serious social concerns may go unexplored, or may be presented in a circumscribed manner in order to fit narrow interpretations deemed to be “safe” (i.e., unreportable or unpunishable) within the context of the intellectually isolated community.
Hopefully the fear of being reported will not interfere too much with the sophistication, quality or expanse of your education at the University of Vermont. However, it is worth noting that at universities like the University of Northern Colorado, Northwestern University, Seattle University, Yale University, and the University of Oregon, the Bias Response Team model, or closely related policies and values designed to protect students from harmful ideas, have significantly interfered with pursuit of critical inquiry and the benevolent exchange of views into issues around social justice and diversity. Unfortunately, despite the stark lessons inherent in these unfortunate incidents, the broad and restrictive language of the Bias Response Team at the University of Vermont remains in place.
To some, the implicit assumption in the language of the Bias Response Team at the University of Vermont; that adults who attend the University of Vermont are unable to tolerate or resolve difficulties arising from the expression of a diversity of views on their own, may seem to be at odds with the concepts of agency, independence and intellectual, emotional and spiritual fortitude that the university experience is designed to foster in students preparing for participation in a pluralistic society; but the maintenance of intellectual safety always comes with a cost of some kind. The same could be said of intellectual freedom by the way, which brings me to my final point.
If you were to reach the conclusion, after reading this letter and investigating and reflecting on this matter on your own, that the language of the Bias Response Team at the University of Vermont does not, in fact, foster the inclusivity, the sense of safety or the productive community that its creators purport that it does; you may be interested to know that the University of Chicago has a somewhat different set of ideas pertaining to academic inquiry and the fostering of diversity and resilience that is inherent in their policies on academic freedom and the language of their bias response system. You can read about these ideas here and here.
If you find the University of Chicago approach to bias response and academic freedom preferable to the Bias Response language of the University of Vermont, I urge you to contact the Dean of Student’s Office at the University of Vermont and let them know. You can do so at this webpage. If you do so, you may wish to inquire as to who is presently in charge of determining if a belief or judgment expressed in a University of Vermont classroom is unreasoned, and what that person’s qualifications to do so are.
If you find anything in this letter suggestive of unreasoned thinking or judgment, and if it offends or otherwise upsets you, you can report the author to the Bias Response authorities at the University of Vermont.
Aaron Kindsvatter, Ph.D.