News Story

Official ‘Bias Response’ Enforcers Stifle Michigan Universities

Who corrects bias of the university’s ‘bias response team’?

Three of Michigan’s top public universities have what they call “Bias Response Teams,” which means around 121,000 college students in the state are subject to what often can be an arbitrary review of free speech by school administrators. That’s the conclusion of a recent survey by the civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, commonly called “FIRE.”

Universities implement bias reporting systems so students, faculty, or staff can anonymously report conduct or speech that’s considered offensive or concerning but not necessarily a violation of school policy or the law. For instance, “microaggressions,” which refers to intentional or unintentional slights a nonminority person makes to a minority person that’s perceived as expressing the offending person’s inherent bias, are common complaints filed as bias incidents on college campuses.

A recent survey by the Philadelphia-based FIRE names the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Grand Valley State University as institutions that have bias response systems and review teams. In total, those three universities have 121,000 undergraduate and graduate students, but bias response reporting typically also applies to administrators, professors, and other university staff.

“Bias Response Teams, when armed with open-ended definitions of ‘bias,’ staffed by law enforcement and student conduct administrators, and left without training on freedom of expression, represent an emerging risk to free and open discourse on campus and in the classroom,” FIRE’s survey said. It added that such programs can have a chilling effect on expression that takes place on campuses.

“Even if a Bias Response Team does not have the power to take punitive action, the prospect of an official investigation may make students and faculty more cautious about what opinions they dare to express,” the report said.

FIRE notes that at least 2.84 million students are enrolled in the 143 public and 89 private institutions that have bias response programs. U-M enrolls 44,718 students, MSU enrolls 50,344 students and GVSU enrolls 25,460. Together, nearly 121,000 students attend these universities and are subject to their bias response policies.

Central Michigan University eliminated its Bias Incident Response Team after FIRE sent the university a letter warning that its policy was unconstitutional and detrimental to free speech, FIRE reported last week.

Adam Steinbaugh, a program officer for FIRE, condemned the practice in a press release about the survey. “In asking students to report incidents of pure, protected speech simply because someone claims he or she found it offensive, colleges are sending the destructive message that the way for students to handle speech they don’t like is not by challenging it in the marketplace of ideas, but by reporting it to authorities.”

At Michigan State University, alleged victims or witnesses can report bias incidents to the Office of Institutional Equity or campus police.

“A bias incident is defined more broadly than an act of discrimination,” a flier from the office reads. But it also adds, “Please keep in mind that simply because the expression of an idea or point of view may be offensive or inflammatory to some, it is not necessarily a bias-related incident.”

After an incident is reported at MSU, alleged victims can receive assistance from campus police and get emotional counseling. The equity office then reviews the complaint to determine if discrimination policies were broken and if a formal investigation is necessary. A Bias Incident Response Team, which is part of the office, also reviews cases. The team is made up of eight administrators or officials, who include the director of the equity office, the university’s Title IX coordinator and the director of the LGBT Resource Center. The MSU Police Department is also represented.

The University of Michigan and Grand Valley State University both have bias response teams with similar procedures.

“The Bias Response Team is committed to providing support and a safe space for students who are targets of bias,” U-M’s website says.

U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald provided a flow chart that shows how the U-M bias response team handles reported incidents.

MSU spokesman Jason Cody said its Bias Response Team meets weekly to discuss the overall campus climate around bias incidents. Every reported bias incident is reviewed by the equity office but not necessarily reviewed by the Bias Response Team.

“Every bias incident is not discussed at those meetings,” Cody said in an email. “The Bias Response Team is focused on making sure we have an orchestrated response to certain bias issues.”

Part of the difficulty for administrators is defining bias, and FIRE says universities often cast a wide net.

In February 2016, The Michigan Review reported that a U-M residential hall director filed a bias incident report after a large snow pile shaped like a phallus was spotted on campus near a dorm.

According to the university’s housing website, “After a bias incident occurs, staff focus on rebuilding trust in the community, restoring relationships, repairing harm, and fostering healthy communication.”

Professors’ speech can also be subjected to review through bias incident reporting.

At GVSU, two professors who expressed conservative social opinions were reported to the school’s bias response team, according to documents obtained by The College Fix in September 2016. Mark Moes of the philosophy department reportedly told a class that children deserved to be raised by a mother and father. Subsequently, an anonymous student filed a complaint saying, “Moes verbally attacked the rights of same-sex couples.” A second, unnamed professor at the university declined to use alternative gender pronouns, leading to a bias incident report, according to The College Fix.

The University of Michigan received $308,639,000 in state funds in fiscal year 2016-17, the highest appropriation of any university in the state. MSU received the second most at $275,862,100 and GVSU received $68,227,900.

A recent legislative proposal released by the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute that aims to protect free speech rights on campuses could potentially effect bias response programs of universities in the states that enact the idea.

The proposal would require universities to nullify current speech codes and create an official policy affirming free expression. The bill would prevent controversial speakers from being disinvited by administrators and would reaffirm that universities should be neutral on public issues.

“There’s this idea that if you say something, it could be reported and you’d wind up being in trouble for what you said,” said Jonathan Butcher, who co-authored the proposal and is the education director for the Goldwater Institute. “It really is in the spirit of what our bill is trying to tell universities that it’s not their place to do.”

Butcher also said other policies effectively restricting expression, such as “free speech zones,” would be eliminated by the proposal. It “says not only can [universities] not have this free speech zone idea, but [university administrators] have to take a position that protects free expression — that’s part of their mission, they need to be a neutral arbiter on campus.”

The proposal would also require universities to compile annual reports for the public and legislature on how free speech issues were handled by administrators.