The University of Northern Colorado administrator had no idea he was being recorded last fall as he sat down with an English professor, asking him to change his lessons after a student complained to the school’s controversial “Bias Response Team.”
Heat Street has exclusively obtained this recording, provided by the adjunct professor, who does not have tenure and asked to remain unnamed to avoid retaliation. The conversation’s tone was warm and informal—but its basic message, far less so: Avoid talking about transgender issues or face possible investigation or legal repercussions.
The professor’s transgression? He’d asked his class to discuss controversial social issues, including transgender rights. A student complained to the University’s Bias Response Team. “I would just like the professor to be educated about what trans is and how what he said is not okay because as someone who truly identifies as a transwomen I was very offended and hurt by this,” the student wrote.
After the Bias Response Team received the student’s complaint, Marshall Parks, the university’s ethics officer for Title IX, affirmative action and equal opportunity, scheduled a meeting with the professor.
In the recording of that meeting, Parks warns the professor that if he expresses his opinion about transgender identity in class, it could be perceived as discrimination under Title IX and Title VII. Parks also mentions how such discussion could possibly result in investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“It’s not ideal, it’s not perfect, it doesn’t fit into what you like to do,” Parks says, asking the professor to avoid discussion of the topic. “But if we go back there again, we have another discussion, and a student perceives it that you’re again saying a personal opinion, I’ve got three investigators, and you and I are wasting a ton of time, and they have to talk to every student in your class. So if the topic’s worth that, it’s your call.”
By deadline, neither Parks nor a University of Northern Colorado spokesman had responded to Heat Street’s request for comment.
The Bias Response Team’s write-up of the meeting, reviewed earlier by Heat Street, makes no mention of Title IX and Title VII threats, nor of an EEOC investigation, describing the professor as “helpful and cooperative” and saying he “felt this was workable” to avoid discussing transgender issues in class.
The professor tells Heat Street he walked away with a totally different impression.
“We had a cordial visit, but Parks definitely used the ‘velvet glove’ approach, where he managed to threaten without using a threatening tone,” the professor says. “But threatening tone or not, I can certainly tell you that I felt that I had no academic freedom.”
The recording also suggests that more professors may face similar pressure to avoid controversial topics.
Parks mentions on tape that the University of Northern Colorado has begun getting between 20 and 30 complaints a semester that may qualify as Title IX gender-based discrimination, “whereas we didn’t used to get that in 10 years, right?” he says, adding that “I think that’s a positive thing.”
In the discussion with Parks, the professor references an Atlantic article he assigned as reading for his class.
“This would be hilariously ironic if it wasn’t kind of sad,” the professor told the official from the Bias Response Team. “The article says, what students do is they run right to people and complain, and so professors are afraid to talk about things for fear that they’re going to have this meeting here, and that’s exactly what this student did. Did exactly what this article talks about.”
The University of Northern Colorado hasn’t invited the professor back to teach since fall semester, when students reported him for bias. It’s unclear how much his controversial teaching style had to do with that decision.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.