On a College Campus? Don’t Try to Tell a Joke

If you hurt someone’s feelings, or might have potentially hurt their feelings, campus bias response teams are ready to pounce.


Tell a joke, and you might make someone laugh. But tell a joke on a college campus, and you might make someone report you to the administration’s Bias Response Team (BRT)—an Orwellian bureau that investigates students and faculty members for saying the wrong thing.

The wrong thing could be any remark, gesture, joke, or jape that offends anyone for virtually any reason. If the university’s spies are listening, you could be ratted out to a panel of administrators who keep files on alleged perpetrators, suggest ways for offenders to be more politically correct, and even submit their names to disciplinary committees.

Dispatches from the bias incident case files are illuminating. The University of Oregon’s BRT publishes a yearly review (PDF) of its activities that includes summaries of all 85 bias incidents investigated by the administration last year. They will come as a shock to anyone who mistakenly believes that universities do an adequate job of protecting free expression on campus.

“A student reported that a professor wrote an insulting comment on their online blog,” according to the case files of the BRT at the University of Oregon. “[We] met with the reporter, and a BRT Case Manager held a professional development conversation with the professor.”

In another case, “a student reported that a sign encouraging cleaning up after oneself was sexist. A BRT Manager followed up to ensure the sign was removed.”

A staff member who made a “culturally insensitive remark” was reported to the dean of students.

And when an anonymous student filed a report complaining that the student newspaper didn’t feature enough transgender writers, the BRT met with its editors. The case files called this “an educational conversation.” A more objective chronicler might call it the university trying to intimidate a student-run press into making editorial changes.

In other situations, the BRT contacted the affirmative action office and anti-sexual violence council.

The summaries are vague, and it often isn’t clear what exactly was reported. We can’t tell, for instance, whether the culturally insensitive remark was something consequential—like the n-word—or something less offensive—like “American.” No doubt some of these occurrences were serious, and merited administrative follow-up. But the BRT doesn’t distinguish between harassment and hurt feelings: it routinely intervenes, regardless of the severity of the infraction. It is always on the side of the claimant, no matter how silly the claim is.

College anti-bias groups—which have spread like wildfire over the last few years—go by different names on different campuses: the University of Chicago has a Bias Response Team, Vassar College has a Bias Incident Response Team, and the Ohio State University has a Bias Assessment and Response Team. They operate on more than a hundred campuses, and their mission is usually the same: ostensibly, to make the university a safe place, where “safe” is defined as “silent.”

It’s distressingly easy, after all, to accuse someone of bias. The University of Colorado-Boulder, for instance, asks people with information—they need not be students, or even affiliated with the university—to go to its website and make a report containing all relevant details on the perpetrators, including their dates of birth, phone numbers, and ID numbers. The BRT—which is typically composed of administrators, rather than students or faculty members—then intervenes.

It would be wrong to say the standard for determining whether an incident reflects “bias” is subjective, but only because there isn’t a standard at all. If a person witnesses an occurrence in which someone’s feelings were hurt, or seemed like they were hurt, or weren’t hurt at all but nonetheless could have been, that person is encouraged to file a bias report. The reporter need not even be the aggrieved party, and can file anonymously. Extra attention is given to incidents that stem from a victim’s race, religion, gender, disability status, sexuality, political views, age, class, or size. That’s right: body-shamers can be questioned by the university’s secret police.

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Oregon’s files are the most illuminating, because the university maintained and published very thorough records. (Its bias response team did not respond to requests for comment.) But dozens of other campuses are engaged in similar practices.

At the University of California at Santa Cruz, a student reported that “a faculty member made inappropriate jokes of grading like a ‘Nazi’ and continually addressed the class as guys.” Such remarks probably weren’t worth any follow-up, but because UC-Santa Cruz has a BRT—and because, well, it’s UC-Santa Cruz—the claim was carefully considered.

Needless to say, civil liberties advocates are concerned. Azhar Majeed, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is worried about the extent to which universities are policing common interactions between students.

“One can imagine the chilling effects this would have,” he said.

For example, a professor might decide it’s in his best interest to steer clear of an important but controversial topic out of fear that his students will report him. Indeed, this is already happening: Law professors are giving up on teaching sexual violence law because too many students complain that the subject triggers them, according to Harvard University’s Jeannie Suk. This is quite a setback for gender equality in the criminal justice system—society needs lawyers, prosecutors, and judges who are educated in this critical aspect of the law—and it’s the result of subtly tipping the scales against free expression in the classroom.

No doubt some proponents of good manners will cheer this news and wonder why anyone would complain about colleges encouraging students to be better behaved. But college isn’t kindergarten: Administrators at public universities do not have the right to bully their impolite students. On the contrary, students and faculty members enjoy broad First Amendment protections. And if they are afraid to speak their minds, the dialogue on campus will suffer.

Which is not to say that rude and hostile students should live free of consequences. By all means, let their friends and neighbors shame them. It may even be appropriate to teach them to change their views. But the right place for such an undertaking is the classroom, and the correct educational vehicle is the professor. When professors are free to criticize their students, and students are free to defend themselves, a beneficial exchange of ideas can take place. Everybody walks away better informed.

The anti-bias bureaucracies are an entirely different animal, since their authority stems from the university administration itself. Students who are called before a bias tribunal are at an enormous disadvantage, and will feel like their continued enrollment requires deference to the authority figures.

And while some students doubtlessly say some awful things that merit an administrative response, others seem like clear victims of an ideologically motivated campaign of silencing. A campus where students live in constant fear of becoming the subjects of formal complaints—where everyone is encouraged to collect information on each other and turn it over to the authorities—is not a healthy community. It’s 1984.