The Rise of Microaggression Reporting Systems, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Case Western Reserve

Earlier this week I noted a small dispatch from the campus PC wars that is very close to home: The Atlantic’s “Coddling of the American Mind” essay became part of the story itself when a professor at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) was investigated by his school’s Bias Report Team after using the essay to discuss the treatment of opposing viewpoints in the classroom. (I since discovered another meta anecdote: The Washington Post last month ran a photo-laden feature on “The New Language of Protest,” and the six terms addressed were: cultural appropriation, microaggression, safe space, trigger warning, starting the conversation, and … “responding to the charge that they are coddled.”)

Many readers have responded to the UNC incident by highlighting similar Bias Reporting Systems at their own colleges. Here’s Steve:

I’m an undergrad studying physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University, and at my glorious institution we have our own “Bias Reporting System.” I have not heard much about its use, meaning that either it is seldom evoked or that the administration wily tries to keep incidents quiet.

But I almost had a brush with it when I published a letter to the editor of our student newspaper responding to an opinion piece entitled “Please Stop Talking.” I got on the bad sides of a few social activists by publishing my response.

The original opinion piece argued that rich, white, well-educated, heterosexual, European, cisgender males (which I am dubiously part of) should not have a voice in discussions regarding social issues. While I agreed with many of the statements in “Please Stop Talking,” I noted that excluding people like me from the discussion is cutting out a significant portion of the population from debates that desperately need to include everybody at the table. I got called a “shitlord” for my effort, learning what that term meant in the meantime.

I’m glad I did not get called before the Bias Reporting System; I’m busy studying.

Another reader, Patrick: “Though its form and function is most likely different from the one described at University of Northern Colorado, the University of Chicago has had a Bias Response Team [BRT] since at least 2010, as a 24/7 response line.” From that link, this passage seems pretty mild:

Although the BRT can assist students in determining whether a violation of law or University policy may have occurred, and may refer students to additional resources should such a violation be likely, the BRT cannot initiate disciplinary action or impose sanctions.

In contrast, Karen flags what appears to be a far more expansive BRT:

Here is a link to a system in place at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Although I am not a student there, I understand that the system is used frequently with some incidents remaining anonymous and others being made public.

From that link, the following passage is a bit startling:

The College has a zero tolerance for hate crimes and bias incidents and will act swiftly and effectively when such are reported. … A hate crime is an actual criminal offence motivated in whole or in part by the offender’s bias towards the victim’s protected group status. A bias incident is conduct, speech or expression that is motivated by bias based on the person’s group status but which does not involve criminal behavior.

Bundling together hate crimes with bias incidents? Invoking violent acts of hate in the same breath as microaggressions? That seems, as many activists say, problematic.

Here’s another reader from another school:

My alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, has made a lot of moves on bias reporting systems in the past couple years. They introduced the Bias Report and Support System (the BRSS) in 2014, which students are supposed to use if they experience an incident of bias (though I can’t say how seriously it was taken by students).

The school published several summary reports detailing how many incidents had been reported, and on what bases. The reports for Spring 2015 and Fall 2015 show about 45 incidents being reported each semester, the vast majority of which were on the basis of race/ethnicity, though the reports don’t say what actually happened in each incident, and it is not fully clear what action was taken as a result of the reports.

It’s interesting that the vast majority of bias reports from Fall 2105, charted below, originated in the classroom—a place that typically has much more decorum than a dorm or common area, two spaces you’d expect more sexism and bigotry to bubble up. But no, the classroom:

From a current student at Wash U:

I have not personally been affected by the Bias Report and Support System, but if it counts for anything, I agree with the argument that programs like this only cheapen the value of a college education. There was an incident about the system that I found so amusing that I saved. Back in April, some students wrote “Trump 2016” in chalk on the sidewalk, which “triggered” some other students, leading them to report “bias." I will forward you the email from the administration.

From that email:

Dear Students,

Political speech and expression are encouraged on our campus. Particularly in an important election season, this is a time for you to be active and engaged citizens and to feel free to join in rigorous debate and discussion of ideas and opinions. At the same time, I encourage you to be thoughtful in the way you share your ideas and opinions, and to do so within a few university guidelines.

Yesterday, university administrators were made aware through the Bias Report and Support System of several chalkings that appeared on campus in support of a presidential candidacy and sharing some of the campaign’s messages. Some of these chalkings were in violation of university policies, as they were written in unapproved locations, and therefore were removed. We also know that similar chalkings have occurred at other college campuses around the country.

In any instance, it is important that supporters of any political campaign know they have a right to express their views. However, we do have university policies related to political activity. You can become familiar with them here. We also encourage all members of our community, including our students, to consider the effect of your messages on your fellow community members. Like the open expression of ideas, respect for one another is a fundamental aspect of our life together as a community.

Wash U, Evergreen, University of Chicago, and Case Western Reserve are just a handful of the “more than 100 colleges and universities [with] Bias Response Teams,” according to Jeffrey Aaron Snyder and Amna Khalid, two professors at Carleton College who wrote an informative piece for The New Republic in March. Here they run through examples of bias incidents from a range of schools:

All “verbal, written or physical” conduct is fair game [for BRTs], 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). [...]

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.”

But the best takeaway from the piece: “Nothing quite kills intellectual exploration like the fear of causing offense.”