“Forbidden-Word” Lists Are a Symptom of Administrative Bloat

At UNC and elsewhere, the (non-)academic medium is the message.

On its “Inclusive Language” website, UNC-Chapel Hill reminds readers that words have consequences: “To fully represent the diversity of our students, faculty, staff and everyone in our community,” UNC states, “it is important to use language that supports [our] values.” Such prose is standard fare on equivalent sites across higher education. Yet a discerning reader might be a little surprised by one sentence on the UNC site, specifically: “Carolina is committed to creating an inclusive and equitable learning environment for every Tar Heel.”

As the previously mentioned reader already knows, “Tar Heel” is a term with a messy history. Though it is now commonly used to refer to a North Carolina resident, a UNC student or alum, or (most commonly) a UNC sports teams, it was once a term with strong class and racial connotations. In a recent scholarly paper, the historian Bruce Baker notes that one of the first recorded uses of the term was in an 1852 newspaper article that applied the word to Frederick Douglass, in derisive reference to his race. Baker further observes that the term evoked “work by poor people, work that dirtied the bodies of both enslaved African Americans and poor whites.”

The Chapel Hill list was produced by an office with no connection to the university’s scholarly mission.The reference to “Tar Heels” on Chapel Hill’s “Inclusive Language” site might seem trivial. After all, the point of Baker’s essay is to suggest that many North Carolinians (including whites) came to embrace a slur as a point of pride. What is worth noting, however, is that the term sits uncomfortably with the site’s recommendations concerning inclusive speech. Rather than referring to the “low income and poor,” the site advises, we should speak of “people whose self-reported income was in the lowest income bracket.” It further admonishes readers to “avoid essentialism” (i.e., “the Black race” or “the White race”), as such language presents “human groups as monolithic and as a stereotype.” If “low income” is troublesome, surely “Tar Heel” should raise eyebrows, too?

The reason for this apparent discrepancy is, I submit, that the list was produced by an office with no connection to the university’s scholarly mission. Far from being the work of an English or history department, or even a center dedicated to social justice, the list was published by UNC Student Affairs—a large bureaucracy run by a vice chancellor. This affiliation points to a crucial fact about the recent wave of “forbidden-word” lists: Many are written not by faculty but by ambitious university administrators.

This trend is readily apparent in a recent Inside Higher Ed article dedicated to such “harmful language” lists (that is, lists with a similar intent as UNC’s). Of the roughly half-dozen examples, none were produced by faculty, and none pertain primarily to classroom or other scholarly activities. As such, the lists exemplify the priorities of universities as they have metastasized beyond their core academic missions. They also demonstrate how growing bureaucracies that are not primarily concerned with academics nevertheless claim a piece of the pedagogical pie.

Consider the widely panned Stanford list. It consists of an exhaustive array of offensive terms, categorized according to the ideology or practice they are deemed to perpetuate: ableism, ageism, colonialism, cultural appropriation, gender-based thinking, imprecise language, and violence (along with a few others). One might expect such a list to be written by faculty hailing from fields such as English, history, sociology, or gender studies. In fact, the list is the work of Stanford’s IT department—or, as Stanford inevitably calls it, the “IT community.”

Specifically, the list was compiled by the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI) and the People of Color in Technology (POC-IT) affinity group and was co-sponsored by the council that advises Stanford’s chief information officer (CIO). The members of POC-IT’s advisory council include web strategists, program managers, and organizational effectiveness specialists—individuals eminently qualified in information technology. While it is understandable that an IT department would wish to encourage non-racist interactions and promote inclusive hiring, one wonders with what authority web strategists (for instance) can make pronouncements about colonialism and cultural appropriation. And does it work both ways? Could humanists object to the harmful effects of IT? Could a campus Luddite collective based in the philosophy department design a website that discourages technology that eliminates jobs or puts downward pressure on salaries?

Such lists demonstrate how bureaucracies unconcerned with academics can nevertheless claim a piece of the pedagogical pie.The Stanford IT Community’s list was eventually withdrawn earlier this year. Justifying their decision, Stanford administrators made the argument that the list was only ever an IT initiative. At two other institutions, similar lists were produced by librarians. The “Diversity Action Committee” of the University of Texas Libraries has published a “Statement on Harmful Language and Content,” which warns students that unsavory material can be found in its vast collections. At Indiana University, meanwhile, the Digital Collections Services of the university library has its own harmful language statement.

Given the percentage of library holdings that are digital these days, as well as the vast quantity of information they make available, these collections play a vital role in modern universities. Nevertheless, IU makes a point of reminding patrons that they might not like all they find in IU’s collections: “Users may encounter offensive, harmful, or otherwise outdated language in archival materials and special collections.” Consequently, IU makes it possible to file a complaint against library materials. Patrons are encouraged to report offensive materials using a “Harmful Language Report Form,” as part of the library’s commitment to “updating language that is in our control to edit.”

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a famous story in which he imagined the universe as an infinite library, consisting of innumerable chambers filled with books. In Borges’s library, even his own story could be found on one of its shelves, as could another story that directly contradicted it. Borges understood that the endless variety of cultural expression made the concept of an “orthodox” library tantamount to a logical fallacy. In current academia, this insight has lost its purchase. Do Indiana University’s libraries contain a direct refutation of its “harmful language statement”? Would updating that language fall under librarians’ “control to edit”?

Elsewhere, the “Suggested Language List” at Brandeis University is, like its counterpart at UNC, hosted by a unit found in the Division of Student Affairs: the Prevention, Advocacy and Resource Center, or PARC. This center seeks to prevent interpersonal violence—notably sexual assault and domestic abuse—through various educational programs. It also provides support for individuals who have been impacted by violence. It stands to reason that one category of Brandeis’s list deals with “violent language.” For instance, it cautions against referring to a type of undershirt as a “wife beater.” More tenuously, another category address “culturally appropriative” language, discouraging terms such as “powwow” and “spirit animal.” This center clearly provides a valuable service, but one wonders what is gained by connecting its mission to academic-sounding discourses about justice and oppression.

Even if forbidden-word lists are presented as “advisory,” they exist as weapons in administrators’ arsenal for penalizing faculty.Much discussion of forbidden-word lists (and related cultural phenomena) tends to focus on the progressive worldview of college faculty. I do not seek to challenge this point, though I wonder if it is as noxious as some claim. Rather, I want to emphasize that these trends are also related to broader transformations within university culture, of which the expansion of the administrative sector is perhaps the most salient. A recent article in the Economist observes that the “embrace of [progressive ideologies] by students and professors might have remained inconsequential had it not been for the part played by administrative staff.” It cites studies suggesting that “administrators are even more left-leaning than the professors” (with liberals outnumbering conservatives by 12 to one, according to one survey).

My own sense is that most administrators are driven less by ideology than by careerism. At a time of considerable discontent among the professoriate—due to declining salaries, precarious job security, and doubts about the value of the academic career—administrators have increasingly become enforcers of workplace discipline. Even if forbidden-word lists are presented as “advisory,” they exist as weapons in administrators’ arsenal for penalizing faculty.

Several years ago, Ross Douthat made this very point: Far from being revolutionary, the new progressivism is “relatively easy to fold into the mechanisms of managerialism, under the tutelage of the human resources department.” Banning microaggressions—and perhaps policing language—“isn’t Marxism, cultural or otherwise; it’s just a novel form of Fordism.”

Administrators, moreover, expend considerable energy on harmonizing often irreconcilable imperatives. On the one hand, they feel pressure to honor academic freedom and free-speech mandates (of the kind that exist in North Carolina and UNC policy). On the other hand, they are aggressively focused on enrolling students in an increasingly competitive market. That means devoting significant resources to student affairs divisions and adopting policies popular with students (as forbidden-word lists can be). Like Boris Johnson, university administrators tend to be pro having cake and pro eating it. Or, in the words of Stanford’s president, “the free expression of ideas and an inclusive community are essential parts of the same whole.”

In my view, controversial issues relating to race, gender, and difficult historical moments have an appropriate and even necessary place in the classroom when taught for educational purposes by qualified specialists. They should not be taught in order to advance a doctrine but in a spirit of free inquiry that focuses on critical thinking—assessing evidence, contextualizing, examining multiple viewpoints, and so on. A major problem at present is that these issues are effectively being taught by university administrators who, though they may provide important services to their campuses, have little academic training. As my colleagues Martha McCaughey and Scott Welsh put it, many of these administrators teach an unvetted “shadow curriculum.”

If this is in fact the case, what are the implications for initiatives such as the recently announced plan to create a Civic Life and Leadership school at UNC? Creating a new school does nothing to address the administrative agenda. A moderate or right-leaning academic unit could teach viewpoint diversity to its heart’s content, but undergraduates would still be subject to UNC Student Affairs and its “Inclusive Language” injunctions. And administrators are still going to be under pressure to do what they can to cater to students. UNC’s chancellor has already issued a pro-cake, pro-eating it statement. If free expression is valuable, should higher-ed leaders not be held as accountable as faculty? To paraphrase Marx, who will administer the administrators?

Michael C. Behrent is a professor of history at Appalachian State University.