In Addressing Campus Bias, Duke Threatens Free Speech

Following a particularly tumultuous year, Duke University has issued a lengthy report to address “bias and hate” on campus. 

The controversy began with reports that a noose was found hanging from a tree in April 2015. Students were disappointed by the administration, and demanded stronger responses from campus authorities to actions they claimed were motivated by hate. This spurred multiple lists of demands from different student groups.

The university responded in November 2015 with several forums and announced the creation of the Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues—a body of 29 faculty, administrators, alumni, and students, who were instructed to “carry out a broad review of Duke’s policies, practices, and culture as they pertain to bias and hate in the Duke student experience.” 

Just six months after the task force was created, it has released its final report. The 70-pager details listening sessions the task force members held with various campus groups, the results of campus climate surveys, and outlines numerous recommendations for policy and culture changes deemed necessary for Duke.

The report claims many students deal with an atmosphere of bias on a daily basis, one that is “not an explicit hatred or bigotry, so much as an insensitivity and disturbing lack of awareness, making many feel unsupported if not unwelcome at the university.” Among factors that contribute to this atmosphere are Greek Life organizations, which only accept “occasional token gay members,” according to the report.

A sizable portion of the report uses data collected from surveys such as the Senior Survey instrument, which is issued annually by Duke. While the committee cited the results to illustrate pervasive bias on campus, the responses actually indicate that the overwhelming majority of students feel secure and generally satisfied with the sense of community on campus. The survey finds that, “89% of Asian, 83% of black students, and 85% of Hispanic students expressed feeling secure in 2013 and 2014, compared to 60%, 61%, and 56% respectively in 2003-2004.” This calls into question rhetoric by activists that there is severe racial tension on campus. 

Unfortunately for those students who did say they were unsatisfied with the campus climate, the survey failed to ask them to indicate the sources of their distress, which should have been a priority.

The most consistent recommendation throughout the report was the creation of a “process for addressing bias and hate incidents when they occur.” This process would most likely involve strengthening the campus Bias Response Team (BRT), a body tasked with gathering information and addressing campus bias incidents. Bias response teams are becoming a staple at many universities, but they often lack transparency and accountability.

These teams typically consist of staff members and administrators who respond to anonymously reported acts of bias. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a recent survey of BRT members at 17 colleges found that most of the teams spend “relatively little time on their primary stated functions—trying to educate the campus community about bias—and instead devote their efforts mainly to punishing and condemning the perpetrators of specific acts.”

The anonymity of the system makes it impossible to hold those who make false reports liable, a problem demonstrated at John Carroll University, which reported that more than 20 percent of bias reports filed in 2014 were later deemed pranks.

Empowering anonymous systems for the reporting of perceived biases poses significant risks to both student and faculty. Writing for New Republic, Carleton College professors Jeffrey Aaron Snyder and Amna Khalid stated, “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.”

Not content with just modifying student behavior, the Duke task force found many problems inside the classroom as well. The report claims that the lack of openly gay faculty members makes gay students feel unsafe and unwelcome, and that it is unacceptable for faculty to neglect discussion about campus bias incidences, even when it is completely unrelated to the course content.

The report also claims that Duke should provide more courses focused on diversity and identities, even if students are unwilling to take them and they become wasteful expenditures. The report recommends that Duke address the “lack of willingness to take classes that are related to an identity not shared by the student.” The report stops short of recommending a mandatory class dealing with bias and diversity issues, citing that some taskforce members “expressed anxiety that such a class could devolve into an exercise in indoctrination and a ‘buzzword-fest.’” But the task force report still recommends future work to incorporate such a mandatory class into the Duke undergrad curriculum. 

More troubling recommendations for faculty include a mandate that students be allowed to leave or miss class during “important campus events,” and requiring readings to “represent multiple points of view from a variety of authors.” These recommendations risk undermining academic freedom for faculty. There must be an understanding that professors are qualified to choose course material and reasonably control attendance policies. 

The report also says Duke will be successful eliminating all bias and hate if it does the following:

  • Names are pronounced correctly.
  • People do not laugh at insensitive jokes.
  • People choose to use respectful language when speaking about identity.
  • No one feels the need to justify when they were chosen or hired.
  • People can hold hands with whomever they wish.
  • People can wear whatever they wish and feel comfortable walking across campus.
  • People can join organizations, attend events, or enroll in classes without concern about being judged based on identity.

Most of these recommendations only address superficial problems. One of the task force’s most important recommendations is that Duke establish itself as a local and national leader in the area of diversity—an impossible task if an administration obsesses whether anyone laughs at an inappropriate joke.

Policing language, and forcing students into classes they have no interest in, is unlikely to produce changes in campus climate that could outweigh the threat to academic freedom. 

It seems the task force would rather project an appearance that Duke is fixing the issues, rather than find the sources of the alleged rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia, and taking action.