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Bias team threatens classroom discussion, employee rights, says public university task force

Chills speech when ‘education’ team directly intervenes

An evolving definition of “bias” at the University of Oregon is at the forefront of a critical evaluation of the bias response team’s performance and mission that was commissioned by faculty.

Rechristened the “Bias Education and Response Team” last year as its activities were undergoing scrutiny in the media for potentially chilling speech, the BERT may get more than a cosmetic facelift under the University Senate task force’s recommendations.

The final report by the task force, which spent several months reviewing the BERT, pays particular attention to how the team’s activities may interfere in the classroom and duplicate the work of other campus organizations.

Such concerns drove the creation of the task force in August, when the Senate said “national coverage” of the team had shined a light on “the potential for negative effects on free and open classroom discussions.”

Its goal? To “work with the UO administration to ensure that the BRT functions so as to encourage both academic freedom and inclusivity.”

Statistics jump around, are missing

The report catalogs how the team has changed since its founding in 1999 in response to a “classroom incident involving racial stereotyping and threats of sexual violence.”

The phrases “‘bias-related crimes’ and ‘hate crimes’ were often used interchangeably” in the team’s original charter, and as of 2003 it still said “vulgarity” and “personally destructive” remarks constituted bias.

Even that low threshold had fallen by 2007, when the team judged bias as “anything … you find discriminatory or offensive.” Such words or behavior did not necessarily violate campus rules, either.

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Bias incident reports seem to jump wildly year-to-year. The biggest year was 2004-2005, with 92 reports, followed by 2014-2015 with 85 incidents.

But the report’s graph is missing several years of statistics: nothing between 2000 and fall 2002, nor the 2007-08, 2010-11 or 2012-13 academic years. There are no statistics provided for the past two academic years, perhaps because the task force says it reviewed bias-team annual reports 2000-2015.

What the task force can say with confidence is that “a large majority” of reported incidents don’t come from the classroom, but rather the residence hall.

‘May be seen as a form of coercion’

BERT’s evolving definition of bias “transforms the perspective from which bias is measured,” the task force said.

This raises concerns that classroom dynamics could be affected if BERT continues to “directly intervene,” because “any classroom exchange may be categorized as ‘bias’ and therefore subject to administrative review, regardless of context or intent.”

According to the report, when an incident is reported to the BERT, it “accept[s] the reporter’s interpretation of events without judgment.”

The team also jumbles together reports of vastly different seriousness without distinguishing among them, according to the task force.

During one academic year, a professor penalizing a student for a class absence was treated the same as swastika graffiti and sexual assaults: all categorized as “bias” and “subject to intervention … without a clear set of guidelines.”

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The report pointed to incidents over the years in which BERT could have infringed on academic freedom and intellectual diversity, including a complaint against the student newspaper for not giving enough coverage to transgender students:

Direct engagement with the student press raises unique considerations. The University of Oregon’s policies on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech and Inquiry make clear that academic freedom extends to other forms of speech, including the student press. While members of the BERT may maintain that such a discussion is merely educational, a formal visit from an administrative organization may itself be seen as a form of coercion and an attempt to influence editorial policy.

The team also received complaints, sometimes anonymously, against co-workers and faculty that BERT in turn reported to their supervisors:

At worst, such involvement can cause potential damage to an individual’s reputation and career on the basis of accusation alone and without the benefit of an open and transparent process. The threat of involving one’s direct supervisor in educational conversations has the clear potential to have a conservative effect on classroom interactions as direct contact from an administrative delegate may be seen as a form of coercion.

Stay out of employment law

The team is also simply redundant and steps on other organizations’ toes, the task force found. Its work “as envisioned in its original mission” is also being done by the Title IX office, the Office of Affirmative Action & Equal Opportunity and, perhaps most directly, the new “Respect” portal, whose mission is “Working together to end bias and hate.”

The report recommends making “substantive changes” to the team’s “professional practices.”

It should secure private information, refer harassment and discrimination cases to Title IX and affirmative-action offices, stop intervening in classrooms via “facilitated conversations with faculty, staff and their supervisors,” and stay out of employment law, which “should be handled by Human Resources, not BERT.”

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The College Fix unsuccessfully sought comment from the administration multiple times over the last week for this report.

A public relations official told The Fix to contact a generic news email, which in turn passed the request to communications specialist Emily Halnon, who said she would forward the request to the Office of the Dean of Students, led by Kris Winter. That office did not reply.

Senate President Bill Harbaugh, an economics professor who theorized at his watchdog blog UO Matters that the BRT was renamed because of a pending story in the local Register-Guard, did not respond to repeated phone and email queries for comment. His voicemail says he does not check messages.

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About the Author
Jeremiah Poff -- Franciscan University of Steubenville