Digital-reporting systems on college campuses are not a new concept. Yet they are currently being manipulated, even exploited, to fuel a campus culture in which peers and even faculty patrol each other for “biased” speech and activities.
In recent years, colleges and universities across the United States have proven that maintaining free speech, academic freedom, and the pursuit of truth is low on their list of priorities. Instead, allegedly “inclusive” and “diverse” university environments regularly fall prey to a single political narrative, often accompanied by the silencing of those who do not agree. As colleges and universities have pursued this goal, an alarming repurposing of technology has emerged: so-called bias-reporting systems such as those designed by tech-firm Maxient. The practice of digitally reporting and cataloging “bias incidents” raises not only legal questions but also questions concerning the individual due-process rights of students. Yet, despite these concerns, Maxient-designed systems have already made themselves at home on college campuses, among them North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
What is Maxient?
Maxient describes itself as follows:
Whether it’s student discipline, academic integrity, care and concern, or Title IX matters, Maxient provides a place to easily manage records for your student body’s conduct and well-being. Modern colleges and universities are complex organizations. By improving communication and collaboration across the institution, Maxient helps to identify students in need of assistance and coordinate the efforts of departments to provide follow-up.
As this description indicates, not everything about Maxient and similar systems is novel. Digital-reporting systems have long been utilized for campus-safety purposes, student conduct, Title IX concerns, academic integrity, etc. It was only in recent years, however, that Maxient expanded its offerings to include so-called bias reporting. For example, this Maxient sub-site used by the University of Wisconsin-Madison invites students to report one another for microaggressions, non-threatening verbal incidents, and online bullying, among other campus phenomena.
The practice of digitally cataloging “bias incidents” raises questions about the rights of students.Not only is Maxient a medium by which students can make bias reports, but it is also a system in which sensitive student data are stored. Students visit a page on a university website after witnessing an instance of “bias,” then they fill out a form detailing the event. That form is then submitted and housed within the Maxient system, where campus administrators can review it in perpetuity.
Reporting at NC State
At NC State, bias reporting is located within the Office of Student Conduct. That office’s “Report an Incident or Concerning Behavior” page allows students to submit different forms depending on the situation, all of which are powered by Maxient software. In addition to non-academic violations (including but not limited to alcohol, disorderly conduct, drugs, hazing, harassment, and physical violence), possible reporting circumstances include academic integrity violations, relationship or interpersonal violence, sexual misconduct, and so-called community climate concerns. Under this last option, which invites students to “Report Community Climate Concerns and Bias Impact,” the university states that
the OIED Impact Response Team reviews reports of bias-related events, incidents, behavior or actions and supports restorative and educational responses to address the individual, collective, and institutional impacts. For more information about bias impact and impact response please visit the OIED Impact Response page.
This “OIED Impact Response” page lays out the purpose of the team, which is to “address the outcomes of DEI-related incidents that negatively affect our campus community climate.” The page encourages students to submit bias reports so that a trained coordinator can consult with the students in question to set in motion restorative practices, preventative education and programming, or other actions, depending on the circumstances. As at many universities, these reports can be filed anonymously.
Reporting at UNC-Chapel Hill
At UNC-Chapel Hill, bias reporting is housed within the Equal Opportunity and Compliance (EOC) office. That office states that its purpose is to
handle student, employee, and visitor reports of discrimination and harassment based on age, color, disability, genetic information, national origin, race, religion, sex (including gender, gender expression, or gender identity), sexual orientation, and veteran status.
Bias reports at UNC-Chapel Hill are anonymous, and submissions receive follow-up from a response coordinator. UNC-Chapel Hill uses a Maxient competitor called Symplicity for its reporting. The relevant page can be viewed here.
The biggest problem with bias reporting is that it can be an assault on free speech.UNC-Chapel Hill’s EOC office defines “bias” on a separate page. The definition notes that potential areas of bias include height and weight, personal attributes, race, and gender.
UNC-Chapel Hill does utilize Maxient elsewhere within the Office of Student Affairs. The Report Incident page gives several links that redirect to Maxient software, where various injustices can be reported: academic dishonesty, non-academic misconduct, and violations of alcohol policy. Again, all of these reports can be filed anonymously.
The Problem with Bias Reporting
The biggest problem with bias reporting is that it can be an assault on free speech. In the past, students and faculty with dissenting opinions worried about being ostracized by their peers, making lower grades in certain classes, or suffering from the lack of viewpoint-diversity on campus. Now, students and faculty who think against the grain must worry about being reported to administrators who, in turn, provide echo-chamber punishments and arbitrary consequences to ideological nonconformists.
The system also operates on the logic that every student reported is guilty until proven innocent. Embedded in all bias-reporting forms is the assumption that the reporting party is being honest and is not falsifying or dramatizing the account in question. Because reports are frequently anonymous, there is little accountability for the reporting party. This essentially skews the system to favor the reporter and condemn the reported student.
While every report is voluntary, bias reports are available permanently, and the system can act as a form of “surveillance software,” keeping records of students who may have no idea that such records exist. These databases may follow students long after their collegiate careers are over.
In truth, the fault for this state of affairs does not lie with tech firms like Maxient but with higher-education administrators who encourage students and faculty to tattle on each other when issues of “bias” arise. If this sounds like a Chi-Com-style “social-credit” scheme, well, universities should adjust their processes accordingly.
Magdalene Horzempa is a former Martin Center intern, a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and a board member of the UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance.