Donald Trump famously tweeted a question of whether schools that don't protect free speech on campus should lose federal funding, after flamboyant conservative speaker (and Trump promoter) Milo Yiannapolous was prevented from speaking at UC Berkeley earlier this year.
But generous federal funding of universities - which critics say has fueled tuition hikes and the growth of expensive university plant, property and equipment like palatial conference centers and spa-quality gymnasiums - may also create a more permanent threat to free speech on campus.
Almost three million of the the 13 million undergraduate students in the U.S. could be hearing their fellow students talk about "Bert" this year.
But they won't be talking about Bert of Bert and Ernie, or any other Bert they've met before.
They'll be talking about "BRTS," Bias Report Teams, a new collegiate institution now found on about 232 campuses that serve those 3 million students.
A new report on free speech on American campuses was just released by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a report that tabulates and surveys the rise of Bias Response Teams.
While colleges and their surrounding communities have long had mechanisms for addressing ugly hate crimes, BRTs address the subtle slights and micro-aggressions – whether intentional or unintentional – that might make someone feel unsafe.
BRTs are mainly staffed by deans, administrators, and campus staff borrowed from diversity, student life, LGBT, and Equal Opportunity offices. But FIRE reports, 42 percent also include law enforcement personnel, what FIRE called “literal speech police.”
The BRT at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. deemed the message “Make America Great Again” written on the whiteboards of two female faculty members of color as a “racial attack.” Pro-Trump messages written in chalk at the Emory University in Atlanta and the University of Michigan also prompted school-wide investigations.
BRT officials at the University of Oregon spoke with staff members of the campus newspaper in response to an anonymous complaint alleging a lack of coverage of transgender people.
Mike Jensen, an adjunct professor at the University of Northern Colorado was warned “not to revisit transgender issues in his classroom” after a student complained about If somebody has never been a woman, how can they know they feel like a woman?
“Inviting students to report a broad range of speech to campus authorities casts a chilling pall over free speech rights,” Adam Steinbaugh, senior program officer at FIRE, said in a statement. “Bias response teams solicit reports of a wide range of constitutionally protected speech, including speech about politics and social issues. These sometimes anonymous bias reports can result in interventions by conflict-wary administrators who then provide ‘education,’ often in the form of a verbal reprimand, or even explicit punishment.”
Martin Berger, the Acting Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of California–Santa Cruz told AMI that BRTs are necessary. “For many year bias reports, if they were dealt with at all, were handled haphazardly. Campuses in recent years have sought to build multi-disciplinary teams capable of handling any incident that arises." Berger says there were hundreds of reports last year at UC Santa Cruz, though he doesn't know exactly how many.
So far, according to Steinbaugh, BRTs are mainly staffed by deans, administrators, law enforcement, and campus staff borrowed from diversity, student life, LGBT, and Equal Opportunity offices. But just as these bureaucracies once did not have their own separately funded staff and offices, separately funded BRTs may be the next bureaucratic growth to sprout under the rain of federal funding.
Even the University of Chicago, whose Provost famously issued a statement against restrictive campus speech codes in 2016, has a Bias Report Team.
I interviewed Carleton College Professor Jeffrey Snyder for this article, because he'd written for The New Republic last year critical of the chilling effect of BRTs on free speech. I asked about the irony of the University of Chicago promulgating the "Chicago Statement" while having a BRT, and he agreed but said it was part of a more general problem where administration and faculty are often at cross purposes and have opposed interests - a point I was interested in hearing in part because it raises the question of whether government funding doesn't tend to expand the administrative bureaucracy and its power relative to that of faculty, and shift the mission of schools away from teaching. (Curiously Dr. Snyder a day and a half later sent me an email saying I could not use his quotes if I was writing an article for Breitbart. When I said I was, as I had originally stated, writing a short newsy piece on the FIRE report for my own employer, the American Media Institute Newswire, and then a longer more op ed-ish piece for The Hill or the Daily Caller, and I sent him a rough draft of this article, with his quotes so he could see them, Dr. Snyder decided he did not want to be quoted. Apparently it's dangerous to be an academic and be quoted in a favorable way by an author who might not be writing for politically correct venues.)
When Dr. Snyder surveyed the existing BRTs only a year ago he found only 100. This year the FIRE report finds over twice as many. The FIRE report's author, Adam Steinbaugh, says that though the number of BRT's is growing, he doubts it doubled in one year, and he suspects Snyder just had a different method of surveying campuses (Steinbaugh surveyed 500).
Off-campus rioters used the occasion of a peaceful protest by students of Yiannapolous at U.C. Berkeley last week to set fire to university property. A group of students and faculty at NYU protested another conservative speaker, Gavin McGinness, the next day. Earlier this week the student government at Santa Clara University banned its local chapter Turning Point USA, a group that advocates "fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government," reportedly claiming that such beliefs and discussions were in themselves racist and made liberal students uncomfortable.
Steinbaugh (and Snyder) points out that though conservative and libertarian groups feature heavily in reports on campus censorship, campus speech codes and institutions like Bias Report Teams can and are being used by almost anyone, including white students who claim they are offended by Black Lives Matter style protests or lecturers claiming policing in America targets blacks, by conservative students claiming they are offended by progressive groups claiming then candidate Donald Trump was racist, and even by progressive and minority students squabbling among themselves. In a 2015 incident, discussed by FIRE founder Greg Lukianoff in an article he co-wrote for The Atlantic, when a group of Asian students at Brandeis University had an installation on campus attempting to raise awareness about smaller, unintended slights referred to as "micro-aggressions" - things like being questioned about "where did your family come from?" or "what was your first language?" - only to have it shut down by other students claiming that the installation itself was a micro aggression.
According to FIRE, only half of the BRTs surveyed said they believed there was a tension between free speech and combatting bias. Almost half involved law enforcement officials in their bias reports.
Steinbaugh thinks the impetus behind the growth of BRTs is more bureaucratic than purely ideological, resulting more from campus administrative bureaucrats importing harassment reporting and counseling practices from corporate HR departments than from ideas about taking power from or censoring privileged groups and empowering minorities derived from academics like Herbert Marcuse or Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick.
Trying to find proponents of Bias Report Teams who will discuss them can be difficult. Two days spent emailing Dr. Archie Ervin, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education finally resulted in his secretary reporting that he said he was getting ready to go on a trip and could not talk. Attempts to reach those in charge of Bias Reports at the University of Chicago was similarly difficult. The number used to make a Bias Report asks the caller to choose from a menu including being connected to the police or to the "Dean on Call," with the latter option leading to a beeping voice mail box with no greeting or other message. One University of Chicago dean's office referred me to an employee in a student affairs office with an LGBT portfolio who is on the University website, but when called turns out to have left the university the year previous.
Dozens of email queries to campus BRT offices around the country and to a variety of civil rights groups produced only one response. to the earlier quoted Martin Berger, Acting Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Campus Diversity Officer for Faculty. Berger argues that FIRE is wrong to be concerned that police officers on are on the BRTs: "They seem concerned that 42% of bias teams contain members of law enforcement. They apparently take this as a sign that police are used to suppress free speech... Campuses in recent years have sought to build multi-disciplinary teams capable of handling any incident that arises." But lumping "any incident" reported as "bias" seems to be exactly the problem: having a belief, stating a belief, and other forms of protected speech, are lumped together with violence, threats, intimidation. In a previous era much of what most people would view as "bias" that should be punished on campus would simply be considered "hazing." But punishing "hazing" means punishing actions, not protected speech or beliefs - it is not a tool of re-education to eliminate wrong thoughts. (A few university BRTs - George Washington University, the University of Virginia - do actually also refer to the older concept of "hazing.")
If President Tump and the GOP decide to reign in federal spending on post-secondary education, especially in the non-STEM subjects, highlighting the institutionalization of censorship on campus may give them plenty of talking points and anecdotes that will resonate with the voters who elected them.