The University of Oregon has published its annual report from the school’s “Bias Response Team.” The report summarizes all 85 times last school year that students (and some faculty and staff members) formally sought help from administrators over instances of perceived bias against them or their peers.
In a handful of cases, students alleged that actual crimes — such as vandalism or physical assault — had occurred. Mostly, though, the complaints involved asking the university administration to cocoon students from upsetting but constitutionally protected speech. Or, sometimes, to compel offenders to proffer more appeasing, apologetic speech.
Among the incidents for which Oregonians sought redress or punishment:
● A poster featuring a “triggering image” displaying “body size” bias.
●Sexually explicit doodles on Post-its.
●Too little coverage of transgender students in the newspaper.
●A professor writing “an insulting comment on their online blog.”
●A professor joking that a nontraditional student was “too old to answer a question about current events.”
In some cases it wasn’t clear what the offense was, or why “bias” was alleged. One student “reported that a tutor consistently ignores him,” and tagged the incident as “Bias Type: Age, Ethnicity, Gender, Race.”
When in doubt, blame any unsatisfactory encounter on bias, and call in the authorities.
Oregon is one of more than 100 schools with a formal system for reporting such non-criminal “bias” complaints. These systems have been implemented over the past decade in part to help schools take the temperature of racial and ethnic tensions on campus. Which seems like a worthwhile goal, given high-profile incidents involving racial slurs, swastika-laden vandalism and the like.
But many such programs have mission-crept into disciplinary, pseudo-parental roles.
They have encouraged student informants to rat out peers (anonymously, if they choose) for building a phallic snow sculpture; playing a party game called “mafia” (which one student complained was anti-Italian); or chalking sidewalks and marking whiteboards with support for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Students have also asked administrators to regulate speech in other ways. The University of Minnesota’s recently introduced free-speech code, for example, has been opposed by students who want the school to guarantee “special opportunities for those who are not well-spoken,” as City Pages’ Susan Du reported.
I applaud students who want to create a diverse, welcoming atmosphere on campus. I admire their drive to make the world around them a better, more inclusive place. What puzzles me, though, is this instinct to appeal to administrators to adjudicate any conflict.
Rather than confronting, debating and trying to persuade those whose words or actions offend them, students demand that a paternalistic figure step in and punish offenders.
Adult students, in other words, are demanding more of an in loco parentis role from their schools. And administrators appear ready and willing to parent.
The cause of this evolution is unclear. Perhaps the culprit is the consumerization of higher education, or the rise of helicopter parenting. Maybe it’s the consequence of other forms of administrative bloat on campuses.
The advent of social media may also play a role. Sensitive to bad PR, administrators may encourage students to report problems inward and up the food chain rather than potentially megaphoning their complaints outward, on Twitter and the like.
Whatever the cause, infantilizing students does them — and the social causes they support — no favors.
Colleges are supposed to be places where young adults develop the critical thinking and social skills to peacefully, productively engage with people with whom they disagree, whose ideas they may even find detestable. But today’s students — and tomorrow’s workers — are discouraged from resolving such conflicts on their own.
They are not learning to use their “logic and reason and words,” as President Obama urged in his Rutgers University commencement speech, during which he chided students for forcing Condoleezza Rice to withdraw from an earlier talk.
And missing this developmental milestone is detrimental not only to the continued production of knowledge but also to the functioning of a democratic society.
Much is written about our siloed, polarized political debate, and our refusal to empathize or engage with our ideological opponents. It’s hard not to see a sort of caricature of this problem on campuses today, where students don’t learn the tools they’d need to engage even if they wanted to.
What happens when today’s students graduate and no longer have a designated authority figure to appeal to? What becomes of public discourse then?