Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Bias Response on Campus

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Bias Response on Campus

Article excerpt


Imagine four students, each at a different university in the United States. Student A happens to be jogging across campus during winter. She rounds a corner near a residence hall and observes a sculpture made of snow. As she gets closer, she sees that the sculpture is in the shape of a penis.1

Student В does not run by a sculpture, but she does come across a group of her peers at a table displaying cookies, cupcakes, and other pastries. The group is conducting what it calls an "Affirmative Action Bake Sale," which entails charging different prices based on the race or ethnicity of each customer. Asians must pay more than Caucasians, and Hispanics must pay more than Native Americans.2

Student C observes a group of African American students walking quietly together in front of the student union. Some of the students in the group carry placards. A few of the placards contain the following statement: "All lives don't matter . . . White lives don't matter . . . Blue lives don't matter ... Black lives matter."3

Student D is in an undergraduate political science class. During a class discussion on immigration policy, one of her classmates expresses strong support for the construction of a wall between the border of the United States and Mexico. A few days later, another student in the class argues that consumers should boycott products made in Israel to show support for Palestinian causes.4

The students who encounter these scenarios could respond in any number of ways. They might consider them distasteful, distressing, humorous, insightful, frightening, or inconsequential. They might tell a campus police officer about what they see or hear. They might notify the Dean of Students office. They might do nothing. Increasingly, though, students are choosing another option: reporting these kinds of incidents to a Bias Assessment and Response Team (BART).

BARTs operate at roughly a third of the universities in the United States, and the number is growing.5 The programs are known by a variety of names-Bias Response Team, Bias Education Team, Inclusive Community Response Team, Campus Climate Response Team-but they work much the same from school to school. In essence, BARTs investigate, assess, and intervene in reported bias incidents on campus. If a student encounters a penis-shaped snow sculpture or feels offended by a classroom comment, for example, she can report the matter to a BART through an online reporting portal. From there, the BART has a range of options, including referring the matter to law enforcement or opening a disciplinary investigation. The BART might also question a reported speaker about an incident, offer support to the reporting party, or facilitate some form of mediation between the speaker and the reporting party.

For BART proponents, the programs serve to reinforce institutional commitments to diversity and inclusivity. They believe that bias reporting and investigation protocols will enable schools to prevent discrimination and cultivate educational environments free from hostility. Universities now approach these longstanding and important goals with greater urgency in light of recent high-profile antidiscrimination protests and the ever-intensifying competition to recruit students.

But BARTs do carry risks. The most immediate risk relates to speech-related chilling effects. Universities exist to advance knowledge through open and critical inquiry. However, serving that purpose becomes more difficult when students and faculty feel reluctant to challenge orthodoxy or share unpopular opinions. The worry with BARTs is that the risk of facing an investigation into one's reportedly biased speech will discourage certain avenues of intellectual pursuit. Students may elect silence over the discussion of controversial topics. Faculty may alter their pedagogical methods or research agendas to eliminate any chance of causing offense.

The often vague definitional and jurisdictional features of BARTs reinforce these fears. …

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