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Faculty member accused of bias criticizes policy’s lack of due process, punitive nature

This story is a part of an in-depth, two article feature on Beloit College’s bias incident policy. The other article, entitled “National civil liberties group questions Beloit College bias incident policy’s ethics, legality,” can be read here.

A professor at Beloit accused of bias says the college’s bias response process handled the situation poorly, denied them due process and potentially damaged their career.

“It was stressful and it still is. It never goes away,” the faculty member said.

Beloit College’s controversial bias incident policy, which began a “one-year pilot phase” beginning in October 2016, has been the object of widespread controversy and scrutiny since it was proposed in spring 2015. Administrators claim that the process is non-disciplinary and offers “educational opportunities” to those involved. For a faculty member (who requested anonymity for this article) who was reported by a student, being accused of bias was a confusing and embarrassing ordeal.

To this faculty member, the entire experience with the bias incident system was a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings that ultimately provided little resolution and a great deal of unresolved anxiety.

The bias incident policy allows campus community members to report other community members for perceived biases. These reports can be made anonymously. The lead responders for the hate and bias team, which is currently composed of Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Office for Inclusive Living and Learning Cecil Youngblood and Associate Professor of Sociology Kate Linnenberg, then investigate the claim. 

The faculty member mentioned above was approached by Youngblood while getting lunch. Youngblood asked to have conversation with the faculty member. Shortly thereafter, the faculty member learned that a bias incident had been filed against them. According to the faculty member, a student had claimed that the faculty member had made an inflammatory claim about people with mental illnesses. The faculty member felt they had been misquoted by the student, that the statement was taken out of context during a classroom explanation of how some people view mental illness and that the claim was “ludicrous.”

According to the faculty member, there was a three week lag between when the incident was alleged to have occurred and when Youngblood informed them that an incident had been reported. Youngblood posted a note on the Terrarium notifying the campus that the bias incident policy had entered its pilot phase on Oct. 14, and The Round Table was unable to confirm when the report was filed with the lead responders.

The faculty member said that they offered a verbal explanation of the events to Youngblood at an initial meeting and was then asked to write their own account of the events, which was submitted shortly after receiving the notification of the bias accusation. The faculty member said that no further correspondence was exchanged until after classes ended in December.

A verbal follow-up only came after the faculty member notified Provost and Dean of the College Ann Davies that they were uneasy about the silence. The lead responders informed the faculty member that they had mentioned during the earlier verbal meeting that if the student did not wish to pursue the matter, that would be the end of the process. “I did not have a recollection of it when I talked with [Youngblood] in December. Of course, as I was processing the accusation in our initial meeting, I may have missed some details that were verbally relayed to me.  I would argue that these sorts of things shouldn’t be handled orally.”

The details of the student’s decision to not pursue the bias complaint were not made clear to the faculty member, who had hoped to clear up any misunderstanding with the student through a mediated conversation that could counteract any perceived power dynamics. Instead, the faculty member felt left in the lurch after being levied with a serious accusation.

“The bias incident policy is bureaucratized miscommunication,” the faculty member said. “It is giving institutional power to miscommunication.”

Several members of the Beloit College community have questioned and criticized the possible implications of the bias incident policy since the concept was brought before the college.

Professor of Education and Youth Studies Bill New opposed the bias response policy from the outset and remains skeptical of its function, particularly within an academic environment that promotes freedom of thought.

“I opposed the bias response policy and its policing function when it was introduced, and I’ve seen nothing since to change my mind,” said New. “I’m concerned with freedom, in the form of permitting administration to decide what it’s proper for me to say and to whom. My freedom to disagree with, even offend, students, colleagues, and administrators is perhaps the only good justification for tenure. It’s discouraging to me how little dissent — except in prescribed forms — is valued.”

As it is unclear how these bias reports are stored, it is also unclear how a potential bias accusation could impact a faculty member seeking tenure.

Professor of Philosophy Phil Shields shares New’s concerns and was an early critic of the policy. “I believe subsequent events both nationally and on campus seem to support my fears that our recent actions and policies in academe, including setting up bias response teams on college campuses, are reactive and play into the polarization of America,” said Shields. “Despite our policy’s stated intent to encourage dialogue, we are an overwhelmingly left-leaning campus, and students know which opinions are okay to express and which are not.  By linking ‘bias’ in general to ‘hate speech’ our policy has a chilling effect on open communication across campus and drives unpopular beliefs and opinions underground.”

Professor of Political Science Beth Dougherty also initially opposed the policy, though most of her concerns about the specific language were ultimately resolved before the policy was set into motion. However, Dougherty still believes that institutionalizing this kind of policy “could erode students’ agency and resilience and make them passive.”

“Students need to learn how to respond, resist and overcome these kinds of situations in meaningful ways,” Dougherty added. “I am not convinced a bias incident policy is the best way to accomplish that.”

Even one student who filed a bias incident report has come to believe the policy is majorly flawed. Andrew Collins’20 submitted a bias incident form after an individual vandalized posters for Collins’s club, the Beloit Republicans. He said that he found the process to be “entirely unproductive and a massive waste of [his] time.” Collins added that he now feels he should have approached an established disciplinary body.

Collins also stated he finds “the policy both poorly conceived and, when used, poorly executed.” He believes that the bias incident policy, as it stands, “contains some ridiculous intellectual acrobatics” that threaten the school’s commitment to academic freedom. “Not only does [the policy] run contrary to free speech and academic freedom by directly policing what is said in and out of the classroom,” Collins said, “it also has no place in an institution of higher learning.”

“The program and policy deserves to be scrapped,” Collins said.

A major issue with the policy for the accused faculty member is the perceived lack of a clearly established process under which reported incidents are investigated and resolved. “My own experience is that it really ignores the person who is ‘accused’ or is the ‘alleged perpetrator of a bias incident’ — I’m not sure what to call them — this person has absolutely no efficacy in the process,” the faculty member said. “On the upside, I got to write my account. But then I don’t know what happened with it, who it was shared with or where it is now. All I know is that I was informed the student didn’t want to take it any further and that was it.”

This faculty member rejects the claim that policy is non-punitive. “What I have publicly heard from Christina Klawitter, Ann Davies and others was that this policy was non-disciplinary. I disagree,” the faculty member said. “How could you not consider this punitive? Someone says you have perpetrated a bias incident. You are guilty until you respond to the allegation. How that cannot be construed as anything but punitive, I don’t understand.”

It is also unclear what information is recorded during the bias report process and where it is placed following a report through the bias incident protocol. “I don’t know,” the faculty member said when asked if they knew whether or not this accusation had been permanently recorded, “but I would love to know. And the fact that I don’t know that leads me to be more skeptical this isn’t punitive in someway.”

The faculty member chose to remain anonymous for this article because of how others in the Beloit community would perceive them in light of this accusation. “There is still stigma associated with this,” the faculty member said. “It feels punitive, and just as bad, I am concerned it has affected my teaching and made me more tentative.”

The faculty member believes that the policy came from a well-intentioned place, but was not as carefully crafted as it should have been with due process and free speech suffering acutely as a result.

“People want to feel as though they are doing something,” the faculty member said, “and they sometimes don’t see, or maybe even don’t care, that in their haste to look as if they are being responsive, they are actually exacerbating the problem they are trying to solve.”

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