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Complaints filed with UMich Bias Response Team often target professors

Verbal complaints also highlight students reporting overheard microaggressions

Classroom discussions — and in particular complaints about professors — are a significant source of verbal bias grievances recently lodged with the University of Michigan’s Bias Response Team, according to records obtained by The College Fix.

The language professors used often upset students, as well as complaints of misgendering and offensive jokes, according to copies of bias complaints filed during the spring semester.

The College Fix obtained the 15 most recent verbal bias complaints filed with the University of Michigan’s Bias Response Team through a public records act request. In other words, the Fix sought only complaints of bias that were verbal in nature, not written.

The specific request for verbal complaints was an attempt to review how the spoken word is received in an atmosphere designed to include thought-provoking and sometimes controversial discussions. Moreover, the verbal request aimed to look into whether students’ right to free speech — even offensive speech — is a common complaint to the Bias Response Team.

While admittedly a small sample size, the 15 verbal complaints that stemmed from incidents during the spring 2018 semester indicate that overheard conversations in dorms and libraries become fodder for bias complaints, and that classroom discussions and professors’ actions are also targeted.

In particular, six of the 15 complaints stemmed from classroom incidents involving professors. This was ascertained despite university officials heavily redacting details of the incidents in the reports provided to The Fix.

One incident involved a student becoming upset over use of the n-word during a class reading. After explaining why hearing the word “made me upset,” the bias report stated, the student remained distressed at the professor for defending its use after the scholar explained: “saying the word was acceptable because it was in the content of the reading.” The university redacted what was being read, exactly.

The student, in the complaint, “disagreed saying that it’s never acceptable to use racial slurs” and added they felt “extremely distraught” and not “safe going back to class” for fear that their “final grade will be affected for speaking up.”

In a second bias complaint, a professor was reported on for using the term “fag**t” while teaching the course material. The student reported that the professor had previously used the term “homosexual.” The type of bias lodged against the professor was “sexual orientation,” with the student complainant saying use of the word made them feel “extremely uncomfortable.”

In a third report obtained by The Fix, a student reported to officials that a professor continued to “misgender” them despite repeated requests to use their preferred pronoun. And in a fourth report, a student accused a professor of employing “offensive stereotypes and jokes.” University officials heavily redacted the details of this complaint, but it was filed under “national origin/race” as the type of bias.

In another report, a student accused a professor of videotaping “students without consent” while “doing a class activity at front of the room” and not providing an “option not to participate while being filmed.” And in the sixth professor-related report obtained by The Fix, a freshman complained about their professor discrediting their comments. Again, the report was heavily redacted by university officials, so the student’s specific complaints were indeterminable.

The College Fix had stated in its public records act request that university officials could redact names and identifying information to protect privacy, but campus officials took that a step further, whiting out large swaths of many of the complaints so that the specific details of the grievances were very difficult to determine. Nevertheless, it’s clear that classroom discussions and professors’ words and actions are a frequent target of verbal bias complaints.

Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the University of Michigan, voiced concern against making determinations based on a sample size of 15 verbal complaints.

“I would caution you from reading too much into a small sample of bias reports from a very specific period of time,” Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The College Fix. “Classroom interactions and interactions with other students would be the bulk of a student’s interactions of all types on just about any college campus.”

Bias complaints about professors are not isolated to the University of Michigan.

In one of the most widely reported incidents, several years ago a professor at the University of Northern Colorado was investigated by the university’s Bias Response Team for comments made while playing “devil’s advocate” in class. After national uproar, the university disbanded the bias response team.

The College Fix in 2016 also reported on the case of two professors who voiced conservative viewpoints at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. They were then reported to the school’s bias response team by students in their class.

Last year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education also highlighted examples from Case Western Reserve University in which one professor was reported for an assignment that challenged students to write about a “gay child being kicked out of their house,” and another professor was reported for required readings that students complained included “racist depictions of First Nations people.”

The American Association of University Professors declined to comment to The College Fix about professors being the frequent subject of complaints to bias response teams.

As for the other verbal reports from the University of Michigan obtained by The College Fix, nearly half dealt with students complaining about overhearing peers using alleged racist language and microaggressions in places such as dorms or the library, or having conversations or interactions students found offensive. Again, most of the details of these reports were heavily redacted and what exactly students were saying to offend their peers was blocked out.

The University of Michigan is currently facing a lawsuit by a First Amendment advocacy group that alleges its Bias Response Team hinders free speech on campus. In response, university officials in June revised their policy to state they won’t punish speech with “legitimate purpose.”

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