In June, Heat Street wrote a series of stories about the Bias Response Team at the University of Northern Colorado and its efforts to clamp down on debates inside and outside the classroom that it believed could make students feel uncomfortable. The school was trying to shield students from discussions about current issues like transgender people. It was also instructing students, via posters put up around the campus, to avoid seemingly innocuous words and phrases like “crazy” or “hey guys” that it believed could “trigger” other students.
Now, a new batch of emails reviewed exclusively by Heat Street and the Greeley Tribune show that the publication of those stories sparked a backlash from politicians, professors and prospective parents who were concerned about the chilling effect of the Bias Response Team on free speech. The emails also show administrators at the college scrambling to do damage control as that negative reaction snowballed.
In one private email, UNC’s president, Kay Norton, responded to Heat Street’s reportage: “Well. The larger conversation is clearly necessary. It looks like the three articles cover everything they could cover (yeah, I may be naïve). I’m hoping we’ll get a little respite while we get our act together about how we are going to handle this better in the future.”
Meanwhile, Colorado State Sen. John Cooke, a Republican, ripped the university’s censorship in an open letter, which Norton later bemoaned in an email as an “unfortunate escalation of the reaction to the Bias Response Team.” Records from UNC’s lobbyist show that Cooke was also “forwarding the email [he wrote to Norton] to all the Republican senators to discuss what further action can be taken!”
Less publicly, Republican State Sen. Jack Tate also expressed his frustration over the Bias Response Team. “If in fact the University has been engaged in a most cynical, Marxist type of social engineering, then you can count me as someone who feels extremely betrayed. I can not believe I was in a position where I was advocating for the University,” Tate wrote, asking for an in-person meeting with Norton.
The new batch of emails we reviewed were part of a Freedom of Information Act request we filed with the University of Northern Colorado. They show that after the publication of our stories, the university quickly drafted talking points for legislators, admitting that some of the Bias Response Team’s reports “suggest an inappropriate effort to influence what happens in our classrooms,” and promising improvements and further discussion in the fall of 2016.
In addition to the political backlash, UNC’s Office of Enrollment Management & Student Access began receiving emails from potential students expressing concerns about the Bias Response Team. The office’s assistant vice president wrote about how “the narrative about how we are handling bias is now in the prospective student/family sphere,” according to the emails we reviewed. Norton responded that “prospective students are a critical audience.”
One administrator noted that the Dean of Students had already “received at least one [note] from a prospective graduate student.”
Another email, from a parent, links to Heat Street’s reporting. “Our 16-year-old daughter is considering applying to UNC but after reading this article my wife and I have serious reservations about allowing her to attend,” he writes. “We want our daughter to be exposed to many ideas, experience open and honest debate during her college years AND learn that the real world isn’t (and shouldn’t be) concerned about coddling her or providing ‘safe spaces.’”
One of our original stories delved into the university’s decision to hang 680 posters on campus as part of a #languagematters campaign about offensive speech. The posters instructed students to avoid even seemingly boilerplate phrases like “hey guys” and “that’s crazy.” Another of our stories described how the Bias Response Team had met with professors who had asked their classes to discuss controversial social issues, and told some of them to suppress their personal opinions and avoid certain topics.
Word spread quickly. The Greeley Tribune, which had earlier reported on UNC’s Bias Response Team, quickly picked up the story, as did national media including Fox, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner and the New York Post. When National Review emailed UNC for comment, Norton wrote that it “is a prominent conservative publication. This is serious.”
In one email written after those stories were published, the special assistant to the provost noted that someone in the registrar’s office had heard from family in Dubai about the Bias Response Team, adding “what a freaking small scary world.”
One psychology professor at the school wrote to administrators, forwarding the Washington Examiner’s writeup and noting that “we often co-exist with the word ‘Orwellian,’” saying that in his search of “university AND Orwellian,” UNC popped up as the third result on Google.
Not all of the feedback was negative. Several faculty members commended Norton’s public response.
Michael M. Kelly, student trustee of the Student Senate, slammed Sen. Cooke’s letter, commending the Bias Response Team and adding that “what we are saying is that specific words, phrases and action can really have a negative impact on our students’ successes as well as their own health.”
Music professor Jonathan Bellman wrote to administrators about the delicate balance between responding to racism and bias on campus and protecting free speech. “When the Anti-Bias people get it wrong, they can get spanked, and that’s that,” he wrote. “Process improved; good intent is intact.”
The new records reviewed by Heat Street and the Greeley Tribune hint at forthcoming changes to the Bias Response Team. One email suggests the team may create a position for a faculty representative. In another email, political science professor Stan Luger gave administrators “a heads up that the Faculty Senate Welfare Committee will be taking up this issue in the fall.”
The records also show that, even before Heat Street’s reporting, the UNC’s Bias Response Team was wary of criticism about free speech. When a researcher approached the university about participating in a survey about bias response in higher education, Katrina Rodriguez, vice president of campus climate and culture, emphasized in an email that she wanted UNC’s response to remain confidential.
“I don’t want to give [the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education] et al, another link to our info,” Rodriguez wrote.
“Katrina, I had the same thought,” wrote back Reyna Anaya, who oversees UNC’s Bias Response Team.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.