A University of Vermont professor has published an open letter claiming the college’s broad definition of bias has a chilling effect on classroom discussion, calling for new measures to protect free speech and academic freedom.
Dr. Aaron Kindsvatter, a psychotherapy professor, has asked the faculty union at the University of Vermont to vote on Sept. 30 to adopt the so-called “Chicago principles,” which support unbridled free speech on campus. He’s also pushing for the faculty senate to approve such a free-speech resolution and urging the university’s Bias Response Team to explicitly promise that it won’t interfere in classroom discussions.
Kindsvatter says his efforts this semester are directly prompted by Heat Street’s investigation into bias response teams’ infringements on free speech, mentioning the story about how the University of Northern Colorado’s Bias Response Team told a professor to avoid potentially sensitive topics, including transgender issues.
“I looked at what the bias response language at the University of Vermont was, and in the vague language, I really saw another University of Northern Colorado,” Kindsvatter says.
Right now, the University of Vermont defines bias as “a personal inclination or temperament based on unreasoned judgment or belief,” adding that its definition of a bias incident “is intentionally broad.”
In his open letter to the campus, Kindsvatter wrote, “Given the breadth of the Bias Response Team definition of what constitutes a bias incident, any expressed thought from any place on any ideological spectrum pertaining to a sensitive social issue that is not expurgated to the point that it is leeched of meaning could be considered biased, and potentially appropriate for reporting.”
The open letter notes that the university’s Bias Response Team also keeps complainants’ identities confidential — meaning that “if you participate fully in the interrogation of thorny ideas, a professor or student may secretly report on you.”
A University of Vermont spokesman said the college “vigorously supports freedom of inquiry and expression within the academic community,” adding that the Bias Response Team was created in January 2015 to promote dialogue and education, especially about difficult issues.
“The intent is not to suppress speech,” says Enrique Corredera, the university’s executive director of news and public affairs. “In fact, the team has not been involved in, and the Office of Affirmative Action & Equal Opportunity has not conducted, any investigations, involving professors and speech issues. Ultimately, we are seeking to establish and maintain a healthy balance between free speech/academic freedom on one hand, and our responsibility to promote a welcoming, safe and inclusive environment for all member of our community on the other.”
But Kindsvatter says that in recent years he’s seen a troublesome tendency among some of his students.
“There is a very, very strong belief, even among graduate students, that there should be a third party or person who comes in and kind of saves people from situations in which they don’t have power,” Kindsvatter says. “I’ve seen that, and I’ve also seen really extreme ideas about what constitutes safety and the lack of safety. It’s almost like the concept of a lack of safety has crept out and out and out, to the point where words and ideas are almost considered to be expressions of violence that can really, literally hurt somebody.”
But Kindsvatter says frank classroom discussion is especially important in an era of growing violence, radicalism, and racism. That conversation helps people weigh bad or destructive ideas against better ones, he says. In contrast, suppression of free speech, including in the classroom, drives harmful philosophies underground, where they can flourish into something truly dangerous.
“I’m not looking to irritate anyone here,” Kindsvatter says, “but I really do think in a post-Orlando world, we’ve really got to be crystal clear that the Bias Response Teams don’t interfere with conversations.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.