Professors hounded by their university for encouraging debate

June 23, 2016 • 12:00 pm

We all know that some universities, when they espouse an allegiance to free speech and open debate, really mean they want only speech that doesn’t offend anyone, and only want debate about issues that aren’t controversial (but then why have a debate?). Fortunately, that’s not true of all universities—my own is a welcome exception. But the lip service to free speech combined with hand service slapping down offensive free speech is going on in an invidious way at one school, the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) in Greeley.

Reports at Heat Street, as well as at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), detail how two UNC professors were investigated—simply for asking students to discuss and debate controversial topics. In both cases, student complaints triggered (sorry for the pun) inquires by the school’s “bias response team,” a group devoted to sniffing out and punishing incidents of offensive speech.  Heat Street obtained the records of these investigations simply by using the Colorado version of the Freedom of Information Act.

Here’s one described by both sources (wording from Heat Street):

In one report reviewed by Heat Street, a professor, whose name was redacted, had asked students to read an Atlantic article entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” about college students’ increasing sensitivity and its impact on their mental health.

The professor then asked his students to come up with difficult topics, including transgender issues, gay marriage, abortion and global warming. He outlined competing positions on these topics, though he did not express his personal opinion.

In a report to the Bias Response Team, a student complained that the professor referenced the opinion that “transgender is not a real thing, and no one can truly feel like they are born in the wrong body.”

“I would just like the professor to be educated about what trans is and how what he said is not okay because as someone who truly identifies as a transwomen I was very offended and hurt by this,” the student wrote.

A member of the Bias Response Team met with the professor, the report says, and “advised him not to revisit transgender issues in his classroom if possible to avoid the students expressed concerns.” The Bias Response Team also “told him to avoid stating opinions (his or theirs) on the topic as he had previously when working from the Atlantic article.”

Now that’s bizarre. I’ll take the professor’s word, as reported by FIRE, that he was simply inciting debate (I did that all the time when lecturing as a creationist in my “Creation vs. Evolution” course at the University of Maryland), but it’s unconscionable to tell the professor to avoid stating opinions expressed in the article itself. In fact, the Atlantic article by Jon Haidt and FIRE president Greg Lukianoff, which I’ve mentioned before, would be a great thing for students to debate. It should be required reading item during the fall “indoctrination period” given to incoming first-years at nearly every American college.

Here’s the second report from Heat Street (my emphasis):

In a separate incident, a professor, whose name was also redacted, asked his students to choose from a list of debate topics, some of them regarding homosexuality and religion.

The Bias Response Team’s notes summarized: “Specifically there were two topics of debate that triggered them and personally felt like an attack on their identity ( is this harmful? Is this acceptable? Is this Christianity? And Gay Marriage: should it be legal? Is homosexuality immoral as Christians suggest?)”

The student, whose name is redacted and who is referred to as “they” in the report, complained that “other students are required to watch the in-class debate and hear both arguments presented.”

“I do not believe that students should be required to listen to their own rights and personhood debated,” the student wrote. “[This professor] should remove these topics from the list of debate topics. Debating the personhood of an entire minority demographic should not be a classroom exercise, as the classroom should not be an actively hostile space for people with underprivileged identities.”

The Bias Response Team wrote that while this incident “did not reach a level of discrimination,” members still contacted the professor to “have a conversation… [and] listen to his perspective, share the impact created for the student and dialogue about options to strengthen his teaching.”

The Bias Response Team wrote that once the conversation was completed, they wanted a full report of “the outcome of your time together. . . so I can document and share with the student that outreach was completed.”

I really feel sorry for that professor, who has Big Brother looking over his shoulder and is apparently expected to grovel.

In fact, these students are going to go out into a world in which many people think homosexuality is immoral, and that gays shouldn’t marry. Shouldn’t they discuss this issue before they do? (I presume this was taught in a course in which the issue was relevant.) Asserting that “gay marriage is a right,” which is presumably what this student would say, isn’t much of an argument, for assertions of rights are meant to shut down debate. They’re not reasoned arguments. Why are they considered rights? This is the kind of thing students should be pondering.

If I were teaching a class on the use of evidence, for instance, an appropriate topic would be Holocaust denialism, for it’s a pervasive topic and held by many. It is, in fact, the topic of a new book that I have, Denying History by Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman. Shermer has written about this before, and I found the topic fascinating. I suppose, as a secular Jew, I should be offended by such a debate, but that’s absurd. The arguments held by denialists were unfamiliar to me, as was much of the evidence refuting them. I learned a lot from that chapter in one of Shermer’s earlier books, I look forward to reading about the issue at greater length.

Here’s another topic worthy of debate: Peter Singer’s argument that infants with incurable deformities or diseases should, in some cases, be euthanized. That is, it’s a form of post-birth abortion of life. I think there’s a case to be made for that, and it would be fascinating to put students on teams to debate the issue. (When I taught my course in Maryland, the last assignment was such a debate, but I put all the evolution-accepting students on the pro-creationist side, and the creationists on the pro-evolution side.)

If we are going to discourage debate in the classroom, or limit it to topics that can’t offend anyone, then we do the students a disservice. It’s a hard world out there, and lots of people have opinions you’ll find completely misguided. (42% of Americans, for instance, are young-earth creationists.) If we’re to function in a democracy, we have to be able to state our positions clearly and defend them rationally. What UNC is doing is shutting down that avenue, perpetuating a generation of coddled adolescents who can’t stand to even hear an opinion differing from theirs.

To see other things the UNC Bias Response Team has investigated, go here. One student filed a report when the student health center asked her if she needed birth control!

Finally, here’s the logo for the UNC Bias Response Team. Note the dissonance between “valuing intellectual and academic freedom and open exchange of ideas” and fostering “well-being and inclusiveness”. As the incidents above show, these ideals are incompatible.


Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 1.24.38 PM

Here’s UNC’s mission statement, which pretends to value “diversity of thought and culture”:

Values: The University of Northern Colorado believes that its distinctive service to society can only be offered in a student-centered atmosphere of integrity that is grounded in honesty, trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility. For this reason, the University is committed to promoting an environment in which:

  1. academic integrity is valued and expected;

  2. excellence is sought and rewarded;

  3. teaching and learning flourish;

  4. diversity of thought and culture is respected;

  5. intellectual freedom is preserved; and

  6. equal opportunity is afforded.

h/t: Barry

64 thoughts on “Professors hounded by their university for encouraging debate

  1. Just knowing you might be investigated by the Bias Response Team is enough to make teachers take the path of lease resistance and just avoid troublesome topics. The Bias Response Team should be disbanded. It’s creepy.

  2. Another validation as to why I got out of academic research.////the business model, the “everyone is wonderful” and too many ‘WAGS’ (whiny ass graduate students.

  3. The students are probably worried about actual anti-LGBT students also being in the class. But still, how about the study of the legal issues concerning the Dred Scott decision? Is that off the table?

    Or more peripherally shall we ignore Charles Dickens highly racist remarks about Native Americans and (Asian) Indians, or Voltaire’s deplorable remarks about Africans?

    This is a sloppy metaphor, but to have to issue a “trigger” warning suggests a weapon that is already locked and loaded. Remove the ammunition and you don’t need a trigger warning.

  4. As you say, these issues are going to come up in the real world, and I would have thought that a university classroom environment was a great place to discuss them. There’s nothing like having your arguments prepared because you know what those who disagree with you are going to say.

    We’ve all had the experience of thinking of a fabulous rejoinder to an a-hole at 2 am the next morning. There are several situations where I no longer have that happen to me simply because I’m ready.

    And in a largely supportive environment like a university, it’s great being able to stick up for yourself. When I was there, there were still a lot of people who thought women should be seen and not heard. I rather enjoyed taking them down.

    The argument is on the side of things like same-sex marriage – I say make the most of a classroom situation to get your ducks in a row for the real world, and perhaps change the minds of those who haven’t yet had the opportunity to explore the topic.

    Imagine also, for example, a LGBT person from a small town who’s only ever heard that there’s something wrong with them hearing an opposing view openly expressed and supported. That could be a powerful and life-affirming experience.

    1. I note that all of your arguments are about how the University provides you with opportunities to not change your mind about anything. 🙂

  5. I can see these controversial topics being treated very carefully or not at all at the high school level, but college? Give me a break. That’s why we go through advanced education, fer cryin’ out loud! And get off the grass!

  6. Professor, just answer the question! Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of a debate team?

  7. Critical Theory and its open hostility to free exchange of ideas strikes again. The infantilism and cult of victimhood that pervades contemporary discourse meshes nicely with the narcissistic ‘vanguard’ ideology of Marcuse. Immature, even if well-meaning students are empowered by those faculty and administrators who gain power by promoting this sort of authoritarianism.

  8. Snowden goes on about mind control when it had no effect on Mateen (who was investigated on tip offs from fellow Muslim at his mosque, not his perusal of ISIS sites)
    This is busy body virtue signal club controlling our lives and its a scourge

  9. Notice the emphasis on ‘affirmation’ and ‘denial of one’s existence’.

    For a number of years in business publications recruiters and employers have been commenting about the current generation, brought up with the constant emphasis of self esteem, to require constant stroking. These wilting little flowers seem to be unable to function unless those around them continually expound on how wonderful they are.

    Now it’s becoming a major and political disease. Dammit folks, your ‘validation’, whatever that is, CERTAINLY should not depend on other peoples’ constant reassurances that you are ok, you’re wonderful.

    This whole, self indulgent idiocy is pervading more and more of our society. Years ago, Wendy Kaminer warned that the ‘anti bullying’ movement was heading in an anti free speech direction, and met a lot of resistance at the time. Bullying is bad, but not continuously affirming your wonderful worth is NOT bullying.

    I don’t know what the answer is, when just DISCUSSING a very level headed analysis (like the Atlantic article) is terrifying and justifies bringing in the thought police.

    1. +1 seems to be an ongoing process since WW2 generation (baby boomers) on as get more secure forget that the base of modern prosperity and social justice is not infinitely robust and that life is not perfect.

      1. Funny you mention that. After I posted, I thought, “how would these people stand up to something like Americans did in WW2”? We are raising a generation with no emotional or moral strength whatsoever.

        1. I’m relatively sure the WWII generation would not have any idea what these people in college are doing today. The baby boomer generation, that would be those born after WWII, like me, say 1950, can hardly understand any of it. But it was probably my generation that raised the first group of these over sensitive creatures.

        2. A whole generation is it, with no “emotional or moral strength whatsoever”? Seems a bit Chicken-littleish, don’t you think?

          These Bias Response Teams (BRT) certainly are deplorable and the special snowflakes they are there to “protect” are maddeningly silly. But I think their place in the public consciousness reflects that silliness, not either their numbers or their influence (though I will admit that influence is creeping through parts of society).

          That’s not to say we shouldn’t push back hard on them. They have dangerously fascist tendencies that should not go unchallenged. Worse still are the adults (you know what I mean…college admins, professional societies, etc) that enable them, with things such as these BRTs. Those people, who really should know better, should be condemned loudly and persistently, as Prof Ceiling Cat does.

          But the sky is not falling.

          Just MO.

        3. In WW2 we put up with segregation in the military so the good old days were not really that good.

          1. Not for long…Truman desegregated the military in Korea. So the military was desegregated long before the schools.

  10. “Finally, here’s the logo for the UNC Bias Response Team. Note the dissonance between ‘valuing intellectual and academic freedom and open exchange of ideas’ and fostering ‘well-being and inclusiveness’. As the incidents above show, these ideals are incompatible.”

    This paragraph sums up the obtuseness of so many college administrators. It is impossible to allow the open exchange of ideas while catering to the insecurities of children, who are totally unprepared to deal with the harsh realities of living outside the sheltered walls of a university. Colleges are producing a generation of students who really may suffer psychological issues when they enter the workforce. Only then will they come to realize that when their feelings are hurt there will be no mommy or daddy to run to soothe them.

  11. Bias Response Team, you cannot make that stuff up… In Germany, back in the day, this was called a Blockwart.

    1. “Bias Response Team, you cannot make that stuff up”

      Damnit FloM, that was going to be my line. Verbatim. Well . . . I would have written a different word than stuff.

      I doubt George Carlin himself could have thought up “Bias Response Team” on his best night.

  12. I have visions of the Bias Response Team showing up the in a Ghost Busters style ambulance with blaring sirens.

    “I ain’t afraid of no microagression!”

      1. Ummm, not that I waste much time on movie news, but didn’t I hear somewhere that “they” are re-hashing Ghostbusters with an all-female lead acting crew?
        (Still haven’t sen the original, and still see no need to.)

          1. From what I’ve heard of the plot line, I doubt I’d be able to suspend my disbelief for long enough. It’d be more of a lynching than a bit of asphyxiatory entertainment. Just not my cup of tea.

            1. Ah, but as Tolkien noted, it’s not about willing suspension of disbelief, it’s about secondary belief. The film posits a different cosmos in which ghosts do exist and runs with the idea. It’s well scripted, well produced and, well … Sigourney Weaver.


              1. Sigourney was in the first Ghost Buster’s movie? I never noticed that in the myriad trailers I’ve fast-forwarded through.

        1. But if you don’t find the following dialogue funny, it might not be for you.

          Dr Ray Stantz: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by dickless here.
          Walter Peck: They caused an explosion!
          Mayor: Is this true?
          Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes it’s true.
          Dr. Peter Venkman: This man has no dick.


  13. I have mixed feelings about this and actually became more sympathetic to the complaining students as I read this post.

    If you were a Jewish survivor of a Nazi concentration camp and holocaust denial was debated in your presence, wouldn’t that be a bit much? Wouldn’t it be appropriate for you to be overwhelmed by anger, to become violent even? If I were in charge of a group and I knew a holocaust survivor was in the group I wouldn’t dream of allowing that debate to take place out of sympathy for you.

    If my take on that is correct, how would debating whether being gay is right or wrong be any different?

    1. Your take on it is not correct, assuming “take” means “opinion”.

      University students are not served by these sorts of well-intentioned “protections”. They are infantilized by them. Holocaust survivors in Skokie had to deal with neo-nazis parading through their community. The solution is not to destroy the rights of free expression. The solution is to learn to counter awful ideas with better ideas. You can’t learn how if you are afraid of hearing ugly thoughts spoken.

              1. That’s funny again, but it’s beginning to seem like you’re unable to explain whether there are limits to this – maybe you think debating white superiority is okay.

              2. I guess I have to make the obvious explicit. I think debating anything is OK. We don’t need thought police telling us what is OK material to debate.

              3. That thought crossed my mind as I was typing my reply. As on cat’s paws it came…

              4. You don’t think that having a debate on any given subject is essentially accepting the premise that the issue is unresolved – whites might be superior after all? Is that a debate that would be appropriate only in an all white class or in one with a few black students who would learn from the exercise and be made better equipped for life by it? Or a discussion about homosexuality – disgusting perverts or natural and okay? Just as an exercise, mind you, not any kind of endorsement of one side or the other, but these have been questions and students having a hard time with their own identity could be helped by it.

              5. Students are first and foremost supposed to learn how to think critically in an adult world where real differences exist. Protecting them from “hurtful ideas” is disrespectful. It infantilizes them.

                There is an important difference that you are failing to recognize. There are debates that aren’t worth the time it takes to have. But there are no debates that should be avoided because an adult might have his/her feelings hurt.

                Students working through identity issues deserve help. Limiting debate on the subject of sexual identity is not a way to help. It is, frankly, just a form of keeping the subject in the closet. It is the opposite of help.

            1. I believe they have had that debate and found it false.

              Thomas Jefferson more or less had that debate in writing and it proved his prejudices for us later. Not some of his better attempts at science.

        1. Then you don’t understand.

          If someone finds the proposed topic too upsetting to participate, they should just excuse themselves, rather than having the discussion shut down altogether.


    2. Overwhelmed by anger? Maybe. Violent? No. This is a classroom. You are supposed to learn to defend your opinions. This applies not only to the students with “correct” ideas. If the teacher has to say ” There will be no debate. Gay rights are good. Those who disagree are bad. No discussion is allowed.” Who has learned anything? The gay student hasn’t learned why others might hate them, nor how to defend themselves. The fundamentalist student hasn’t learned that someone their religion condemns is a real person with the same feelings they have.

      I remember taking part in a classroom debate on abortion. There were very strong opinions on both sides. A guy on the con side made the argument that women who get pregnant are obligated to bear the child because to do otherwise would be disobedience to the men who control them. Most of the girls present went apeshit. But they didn’t cry. They didn’t flee the room. They didn’t file complaints or lawsuits. They ARGUED. This was in my 8th grade class in 1976. I hope today’s college students can be as strong as those 12 and 13 year olds.

    3. Where are you going to get a Holocaust survivor who is less than 71 years old and a first-year tertiary education student?

  14. “Valuing … academic freedom and open exchange of ideas”/fostering “well-being and inclusiveness” — UNC has trapped itself, like a rat in a coffee can, chasing the tail of its own false antinomy.

  15. Perhaps THEY should discuss what a bias actually is and have a look at the root of the ‘problem’ understanding that, might give insights how they come into being and what the fuck to look out for and reconcile their own.

  16. This sickens me. The answer to hateful speech is more free speech, not the bias police. Why suppress speech when you have right on your side? Look at what MLK accomplished by speaking the truth. He was killed by those who wanted to suppress his free speech. Maybe I have just gotten old and idealistic…

    1. “Maybe I have just gotten old and idealistic.”

      The young are the idealists. The old are carelessly revolutionary. Whaddia got to lose?

  17. I really feel sorry for that professor, who has Big Brother looking over his shoulder

    Big Brother looking over one shoulder ; Big Sister over the other. And I literally struggle for words for where the other Big gender Identities are standing, and worry about how some of them are positioning themselves.

  18. I am sympathetic to the notion that there are positions that are so well established that to debate them is insulting. (For example, “Men are and ought to be isonomic to women.”) This includes various ethical ones, etc. However, I don’t know how to make up a principle by which those ones, especially those related to “personal identity” can be walled off from those we are willing to debate. Consequently, I side with those who would allow almost anything. But, I would further add, that unless one is teaching a course *on* debate or the like (and maybe not even then), one should restrict in some ways if only to keep the class manageable, and allow students proper (intellectual!) preparation.

    1. I should add that restrictions here would be the course *content*. So for example, debating the merits of same-sex marriage (however tangentially related) is off topic for a class unit on, say, abortion, in a health care ethics class.

  19. We need to give these groups better names:
    Young American Stasi Club
    Freedom from Speech Brigade
    KGB Don’t
    Intramural Shushing Team
    Don’t Ask Student Commity
    Pol Pot’s Joy Luck Club

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