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The Rise of “Bias Response Teams” on Campus

Colleges across America are creating shadowy groups to handle complaints. Will they end up muzzling students instead?

Photo illustration by Adam Peck/Image via

“Trump 2016.” After this message was scrawled in chalk across the Emory University campus earlier this month, some 40 students met with President James Wagner to express their “fear” and “frustration,” insisting that “Trump’s platform and his values undermine Emory’s values [of] diversity and inclusivity.” Wagner reassured the students that the university would review the footage from security cameras to identify the culprit. “If they’re students,” he said, “they will go through the conduct violation process.” In a subsequent campus-wide email, Wagner declared that Emory’s “commitment to respect, civility, and inclusion calls us to provide a safe environment.” He also emphasized that the school would make “immediate refinements” to the “procedural deficiencies” of its “bias incident and response process.”  

Bias incident reporting is not unique to Emory. More than 100 colleges and universities have Bias Response Teams, which aim to foster “a safe and inclusive environment” by providing “advocacy and support to anyone on campus who has experienced, or been a witness of, an incident of bias or discrimination.” These teams have multiple missions, including educational “prevention,” investigating alleged bias incidents, disciplining offenders, and organizing “coping events” after such incidents. Depending on the campus, these teams are known as BRTs, BARTs, BERTs or BIRTs. Students and faculty occasionally serve on BRTs, but they are largely composed of administrators, with sizable representation from Residential Life and Dean of Students offices. As committees with unelected members that meet behind closed doors, they lack both transparency and accountability.  

BRTs are rapidly becoming part of the institutional machinery of higher education, but have yet to face any real scrutiny. As Carleton College faculty members committed to “rigorous studies in the liberal arts disciplines” and the vitality of diverse campus communities, we believe that the proliferation of BRTs is a grave mistake. They degrade education by encouraging silence instead of dialogue, the fragmentation of campuses into groups of like-minded people, and the deliberate avoidance of many of the most important—and controversial—topics across all academic disciplines. They are inherently anti-intellectual enterprises, fundamentally at odds with the mission of higher education. And ultimately they will undermine a bedrock principle of the modern university: that more diversity leads to better learning.

The dramatic diversification of the student body is one of the most significant trends in higher education over the past half-century. Circa 1965, about 94 percent of the nation’s college students were white and 61 percent were men; today, those figures have fallen to 59 percent and 43 percent, respectively. 

That shift was encouraged by the pivotal 1978 Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a 5-4 ruling that banned racial quotas for college admissions but deemed it permissible to include race as one of a broad “array of qualifications and characteristics” in a “highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant’s file.” (This is the policy under consideration in Fisher v. University of Texas.) In his majority opinion, Justice Lewis Powell rejected the social justice rationale for affirmative action but endorsed the diversity rationale, asserting that an otherwise qualified student “with a particular background—whether it be ethnic, geographic, culturally advantaged or disadvantaged” may bring “outlooks and ideas” that enrich “the atmosphere of speculation, experiment and creation” on campus.

Colleges and universities promote the benefits of a multicultural student body, calling diversity “a defining institutional value” that adds “depth, richness and excitement” to campus life. There has always been tension, though, between the rhetoric and the reality of diversity on college campuses—between the slogans that celebrate “differences” and how these differences really shape campus life. If the photographs of smiling students in college catalogs depict a multicultural utopia, the groups of students sitting in the cafeteria often tell a different story. Admissions officers would have you believe that campus life is a bubble, sealed off from the social inequities of the “real world” such as racism, sexism and homophobia. The news proves otherwise, whether it be the University of Oklahoma fraternity members singing a racist song or the explosion of student protests this past fall.

From an administrative point of view, there is a pressing need to more effectively “manage” campus diversity, and BRTs are at the heart of this effort. (Ohio State University founded one of the first in 2007 after “racist letters” were distributed to students through campus mail. Most are only a few years old.) Public relations, not surprisingly, have spurred the growth of BRTs, with “institutional reputation” and the desire to “reassure campus communities that administrators [are] addressing bias” as main concerns.

Definitions of bias incidents vary by campus but have the following key features: They encompass “any behavior or action directed towards an individual or group based upon actual or perceived identity characteristics.” These characteristics include “race, color, ethnicity, social class, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, age, marital status, veteran status, and physical and mental health”—sometimes even “height” and “weight.” 

A bias incident can occur “whether the act is intentional or unintentional,” meaning that “microaggressions” (subtle, often unintended slights) are squarely within bias incident territory. All “verbal, written or physical” conduct is fair game, whether it transpires in actual spaces such as cafeterias and classrooms or in the endless virtual world of social media. Examples include “symbols, language and imagery objectifying women” (University of Utah); “name calling,” “avoiding or excluding others” and “making comments on social media about someone’s political affiliations/beliefs,” (Syracuse); “I don’t see skin color,” “I was joking. Don’t take things so seriously,” and “Thanks, Sweetie.” (University of Oregon). Given the expansive definitions of bias incidents, it is no surprise that some dubious complaints are filed: Last month, at the University of Michigan, a hall director reported a “phallic snow object.” “It is the height of privilege and entitlement to be obsessively concerned with utterly inconsequential events such as this,” a member of the university’s residential staff said.

Anyone can report a “bias incident,” including “faculty, staff, students, as well as parents, alumni and visitors to campus.” Reporters may be “victims,” “witnesses” or even “third parties”—and they may choose to remain anonymous. That opens the door to hoaxes. Indeed, more than 20 percent of all the bias incident reports filed at one university during a single academic year were “pranks,” the investigation of which “occupied a great deal of time and attention for multiple staff members and senior level administrators.”

We do not want our campuses overrun with eager “see something, say something” “student informants.” Far from empowering students with the requisite skills for having difficult conversations, bias response initiatives, as a Boston College student asserted, encourage “students to ask the administration to solve problems instead of solving them amongst themselves.” At University of California, Santa Cruz, a student filed a bias incident complaint that a single poster advertising a college “mafia” game was “extremely offensive to me as an Italian American woman” and “could result in harassment of Italian American students on campus”; the poster was removed. As the aforementioned Boston College student lamented, BRTs create “a false, and dangerous impression that the administration can/should police speech on campus to ensure everyone is ‘comfortable.’” 

“Police” is an apt word. A vice chancellor at University of California, Santa Barbara encouraged students to report “hate crimes or bias incidents” to the campus police department and the Office of Judicial Affairs. (Santa Clara University even instructed students to call 911 if a “bias incident is in progress or just occurred,” a policy subsequently revised.) A study based on extensive interviews with BRT members representing 17 colleges and universities found they devoted more time to “punishing and condemning the perpetrators of specific acts” than to community-wide education. A criminal justice framework informs much of the work done by BRTs, with terms such as “victim,” “perpetrator” and “offender” being used. Punishment was swift indeed in the recent “ethnic stereotyping” brouhaha at Bowdoin, where students who hosted a “fiesta” featuring tequila and mini-sombreros were forced to move out of their room, placed on social probation, and required to complete future educational programming. The college president described the party as an “act of bias.”

Let us be clear: Bias and discrimination are real and pressing concerns on campuses across the country. There must be channels for students, especially those from historically underrepresented populations, to communicate their concerns to administrators and their peers. Institutions need to keep on top of “campus climate” concerns through surveys and community-wide discussions. But to institute a formal body that assesses the merits of bias incident complaints is profoundly misguided. They run counter to the basic conviction that we learn best through experimental trial-and-error: changing our minds voluntarily, not because we are told to. Nothing quite kills intellectual exploration like the fear of causing offense. “How are students supposed to feel empowered to share their honest opinions on social issues,” a student at UC Santa Barbara asked about the campus’ BRT, “when they run the risk of being accused of ‘undermining our culture of inclusivity?’” 

Peer learning, the hallmark of a residential liberal arts campus, is immeasurably better when students are not mirror images of one another. But diversity works its magic only through meaningful contact between people with varying “identity characteristics.” Contact, by definition, will sometimes lead to conflict. Imagine a conversation between an evangelical student and a gay student on same-sex marriage, or a discussion about U.S. drone policy between a dove and a hawk. Such conversations are invaluable. But without the space to debate and argue, students won’t ever be forced to confront the underlying assumptions framing their worldviews. BRTs threaten to drive students into their own corners with peers who look and think like them, reducing the potency of diversity to a glib slogan on admissions brochures. 

In addition to threatening the vitality of informal peer learning, BRTs pose a threat to the basic integrity of classroom teaching. Among the most frequently reported bias incidents are classroom comments perceived as “derogatory” or “insensitive.” Apart from flagging intentionally fraudulent reports, BRTs rarely determine that a particular complaint does not qualify as a “bias incident.” At the very least, then, “accused” professors will need to have a “professional development” conversation with a BRT member as a result. At the most extreme, they may find themselves in the position of University of Colorado, Boulder sociologist Patricia Adler, who faced pressure to resign after some students complained about a prostitution lecture she regularly delivered. Faculty, of course, are not paragons of virtue and will no doubt sometimes make obtuse comments, but BRTs will prevent us from doing our jobs the best way we know how. 

Much of what we teach and how we teach could come under fire with BRTs in place. They would, for instance, undermine co-author Amna’s strategic use of provocation, a pedagogical device that yields some of the best educational moments in her course. In a class on women in South Asia, Amna screens the controversial film Bandit Queen—a biopic of Phoolan Devi, a low-caste woman who endured extreme sexual violence, ultimately becoming a Robin Hood-esque outlaw. Amna uses the film knowing that students will be outraged by both the content and the director’s approach. Students’ strong reactions, in fact, lay the necessary groundwork for a critical discussion about the politics of representation. Does the film exploit—or challenge—stereotypical depictions of “third-world” women? Is there a limit to artistic license when a creative work is presented as a true story?   

The advent of academic tracking in the early twentieth-century is a key topic in co-author Jeff’s field, the history of American education. It requires a close look at Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman (1877-1956), chief architect of the first intelligence tests used to place students in different educational programs (college prep, vocational ed. and the like). Terman was a card-carrying eugenicist who believed that “racial differences in general intelligence” could not be “wiped out by any scheme of mental culture.” “Mexicans,” “Indians” and “negroes,” according to Terman, were innately “dull,” destined to be the “world’s hewers of wood and drawers of water.” When students engage with Terman’s work, they begin to understand how powerful social currents such as racism, Social Darwinism, and anti-immigration sentiment informed IQ testing, academic tracking, and the shape of the modern high school.  

More broadly, this example speaks to the kind of imaginative critical analysis essential to history as a discipline. We have to contemplate and discuss how it is possible that people in the past held views we find morally reprehensible today, an undertaking rife with “bias incident” pitfalls. Just imagine tentative answers to the following question: Why do you think Terman and other highly educated people of his generation found racial hierarchies so attractive? We would not feel comfortable posing questions like this knowing that one student’s response might result in a bias incident complaint from a peer. This would only ramp up the all-too-common student fear of saying “the wrong thing.” 

Bias reporting policies blur the all-important distinction between articulating a position and endorsing it—a distinction many no longer see. At Dartmouth, student activists demanded that the college ban from campus the use of “any racially-charged term” such as “illegal immigrants.” Similarly, the BRT at Oregon suggests faculty add the following “classroom behavior” statement to their syllabi: “no racist, ableist, transphobic, xenophobic, chauvinistic or otherwise derogatory comments will be allowed.” 

A recent draft report on Title IX by the American Association of University Professors concludes that universities sometimes “overreach and seek to punish protected academic speech” in adjudicating sexual harassment charges. There is “a tendency,” for example, “to treat academic discussion of sex and sexuality as contributing to a hostile environment.” Consider too last year’s controversy at the University of Minnesota over a poster advertising a panel discussion about free speech, which featured a Charlie Hebdo cover illustration of the Prophet Muhammad. In response to a petition signed by over 300 people condemning the “blasphemous” use of the image, the university’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office held a formal investigation and concluded that “university members should condemn insults made to a religious community in the name of free speech.”

Bias reporting puts at undue risk those of us who teach in the humanities and social sciences, fields that explicitly address “identity characteristics” such as race, social class, and sexual orientation. In an Inside Higher Ed piece on the flaws of trigger warnings, seven humanities professors maintain that “faculty of color, queer faculty, and faculty teaching in gender/sexuality studies, critical race theory, and the visual/performing arts will likely be disproportionate targets of student complaints about triggering, as the material these faculty members teach is by its nature unsettling.” The same could be said about the faculty most likely to be subject to bias incident complaints. At a community college in Minnesota three years ago, a female African American professor was reprimanded by the administration for “offending” three white male students during a discussion of “structural racism” in a communications course. With BRTs in place, white students will be more likely to file complaints against faculty of color as well as students of color for “offensive” remarks and actions. There is a real danger that these policies will boomerang to harm the very groups they were intended to protect. (This, for example, is a recent BRT complaint from John Carroll University: “Anonymous student reported that African-American Alliance’s student protest was making white students feel uncomfortable.”)

At the University of Richmond in the spring of 2008, a black doll was found hanging from a noose in a campus theater, with a note that read, “Art is dead. Long live art.” In the aftermath of this incident, Glyn Hughes—sociologist and administrator—led the effort to create a BRT and formulate the university’s “bias incident protocol.” As chair of the Richmond BRT, Hughes mediated bias incidents on campus, while also closely following national BRT policies and trends. In a candid essay, Hughes explained how he became increasingly skeptical of BRTs overwhelming public relations function. Incidents were presented as “scandals,” isolated instances of “hatred or ignorance” perpetrated by bad apples, he wrote. Through BRTs, campus communities could profess that everybody was “shocked” and congratulate themselves on taking a righteous stand, all the while ignoring institutionalized prejudice and discrimination. Hughes’s damning conclusion: “diversity and social justice efforts” such as BRTs too often “reproduce rather than challenge systemic inequities.”

BRTs are fatally flawed. Adjudicating “he said, she said” incidents is a logistical nightmare, if not downright impossible for thinly stretched administrators. There will no doubt be examples of injustice where the “accused” are investigated—even penalized—over paltry evidence, or where the discipline meted out is far too harsh for the alleged “crime.” What’s more, BRTs will result in a troubling silence: Students, staff, and faculty will be afraid to speak their minds, and individuals or groups will be able to leverage bias reporting policies to shut down unpopular or minority viewpoints. BRTs will substitute diktats for debate when what we need most is constant, frank conversation. By almost any measure, colleges and universities are more diverse today than they have ever been, and that’s the paradox: BRTs will turn the genuine, transformative educational power of diverse voices into a farce.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Glyn Hughes is an administrator in the University of Richmond’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. He is the director of the school’s Common Ground initiative.