Fake News in Academia

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Most universities have procedures for reporting “Bias Incidents” on campus, including my own, whose description (below) is typical:

Our commitment to addressing bias on campus:

Grand Valley State University strives to create an inclusive and equitable campus community where people are treated with dignity and respect.  If anyone in the Grand Valley community feels belittled, disrespected, or isolated based on their identity, there is a mechanism to report the incident (see below). The university is committed to safeguarding individual’s constitutional rights to free speech and assembly and we are also committed to addressing incidents of bias that may negatively affect individuals and/or communities at the university. 

Grand Valley facilitates educational dialogue to ensure that individuals understand both their right to free expression within the community and the impact of their expression on individuals and/or the community.  Any time an incident is reported, the reporting party will be contacted and informed about support resources available to them at the university.  If behavior appears to be a violation of university policy and/or the law, the reporting party will be informed about additional ways the incident may be addressed.

from Grand Valley State University, “Team Against Bias

Many universities and colleges have developed new and complicated (often labyrinthine), procedures for reporting “Bias Incidents,” resulting in the creation of “Bias Response Teams.” These teams, according to an extensive study carried out by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) “often deploy[ing] administrators to conduct an “investigation” of the incident and, if the “respondent” is found “guilty,” summon them for a “hearing” or an “educational” discussion…”

Bucknell

Bucknell University’s Bias Incident Reporting Process and Response

The Bias Incident protocols (and their enforcement wing, the Bias Response Teams) have come under fire from both sides of the political spectrum, and for good reason. These incidents appear to occupy a legal “gray zone”—they usually aren’t prosecuted as criminal acts, but most involve some form of “ethnic intimidation,” which is a crime in most states, including my state of Michigan.

I never examined the policies closely, but I did follow the reports on how many “incidents” occurred on American university campuses every year and the number is shocking, with some sources claiming one million incidents per year. I, like many professors I’m sure, found these numbers to be disturbing. I found myself looking around at the throngs of happy students walking around on campus—which ones are the racists? With over 20 years teaching experience, I have had students of many different religious and political beliefs and backgrounds: conservatives, fundamentalist Christians, staunch Catholics, liberals, Buddhists, socialists, etc. When I teach jazz history, in particular, race and class are regularly at the forefront of the discussion, and from my experience, today’s college students are overall much more libertarian in their outlook than previous generations. They adhere strongly to their own religious and political beliefs while at the same time recoiling at the idea of forcing their beliefs on anyone else.

I was, therefore, surprised, shortly after the election of Donald Trump last year, to receive a notification that a bias incident occurred in my college. We were told that a staff member had witnessed three young men, after exiting a classroom, facing each other in the hallway and giving each other a Nazi salute, then laughing about it. I was appalled, dismayed, and saddened, but my thoughts immediately went to the other students in the hall who must have seen this. While this would have been an affront to all students, faculty, and staff, it had the potential of being traumatic to minorities and those of Jewish descent. I followed the story closely, and after about a week when nothing had been done, I started asking questions.

I contacted the offices involved with bias incidents (including the Campus Police) and asked about the progress of the investigation. I was told that the police will not get involved unless a crime is reported. So, I waited for someone to take action, but I waited in vain and I became quite frustrated. The charge is extremely serious and I could not believe that nothing was being done to investigate it. Could we really just shrug and move on as if nothing happened? “Oh that’s terrible, we have Nazis in our classrooms…sigh…too bad we can’t do anything about it.”

I followed up with several more emails, but there just didn’t seem to be any interest in finding out what actually happened. That’s when I started investigating the incident myself. We knew the exact class that these three students were in, and I looked at the demographics of that class. The class had approximately 25 students in it; I guessed that there were perhaps 9-10 males in the class, and I was correct. It seemed rather simple, then, to ask those students about the incident and then determine which three were responsible. I put this forward to all of the governing bodies involved, but there was no interest in pursuing this avenue of inquiry. “We don’t want to alert/upset the students” was the general tone of the responses I received. We supposedly have Nazis in our classes, and we’re concerned about alerting or upsetting the students? At that point, I started to get more and more suspicious about this alleged fascist salute. I studied the class schedule, and I found out that there were at least two other classes within a few yards of where the alleged salute took place. As such, there must have been upwards of 75-100 students and at least a few other professors within 10 feet of the incident, and none of them saw anything?  How is that possible?  A Nazi salute in our hallways would, I am quite sure, create quite a stir, and in any case, would not be ignored by our students and our faculty. Not one corroborating witness came forward. Well, not one came forward of their own accord–remember that there was no investigation or inquiries made that involved the students or the professors in the nearby classrooms, much less the students and the professor from the actual class in question! With so many people milling about the same small bottleneck in the hallway, it was remarkable to me that no one else saw this alleged fascist gesture. How is it possible that only one person saw this? And where was this person when s/he witnessed the alleged Nazi salute?

I asked the reporter of the incident to meet with me to find out more, especially to determine where this person was when s/he witnessed the alleged salute. I found out that the reporter was in a room some 12 yards from where the incident took place. That’s not that far away, except that the location lies across an outdoor courtyard and there is no direct line of sight except through two sets of thick and dark-tinted windows. In order for the reporter to see these three perform the salute, the three students would need to intentionally pose themselves directly in front of the two windows in order to be seen. As the details emerged, the story was becoming less plausible.

We were being told that three students lined themselves up in front of these two windows, performed a Nazi salute to each other, and laughed about it, all of which was witnessed from this distance across a courtyard through four panes of tinted glass just after noon, on a day with no precipitation. I then visited the location several times and watched students going past and it simply did not seem possible for anyone to see much of anything from this vantage point, much less a choreographed Nazi salute and subsequent “laughter.” To be frank, I am sure I would not be able to recognize my own mother if she waved at me through these windows. (See photo below.)

Window

Windows through which the alleged salute was seen, from the location of the reporter.

I then asked the reporter if there might be another explanation for what s/he witnessed. We encourage our students to think critically with a healthy dose of skepticism, which is what I tried to do here; there are many benign explanations for whatever was seen across the courtyard before we arrive at “students gave a Hitler salute in the hallways.” It could have been “high fives,” mimicking a basketball dunk or a free throw from the previous evening’s game, throwing a hackeysack ball or something similar, a fraternity salute/gesture, or perhaps it did have an ideological component and it was a clenched fist Marxist salute? Or maybe they were just waving at someone down the hall. (Of course, they could also have streamed and binge watched episodes of Hogan’s Heroes and were just joking around, which would have been inappropriate, but hardly a sign of a white supremacist uprising.)

The response was quite adamant: “I’ve lived in a german-speaking country and I know a Nazi salute when I see it.”  Well, as an “appeal to authority,” this leaves a lot to be desired. I’ve lived in a german-speaking country as well and I don’t remember any training to recognize fascist salutes being provided upon entering the country. (In fact, the fascist salute is a crime in the two most populous “german-speaking countries,” Germany and Austria, which means that it is highly unlikely that one would become somewhat of an expert in recognizing the salute from living in one of these countries, but I digress.) When I pressed further, the reporter said: “Well, I saw it in context.” “What context?,” I asked. “Everyone knows that the election of Donald Trump has emboldened the white supremacists.” And now I finally had my answer—there was a bias incident, but it had nothing to do with a racist salute. This was a textbook case of confirmation bias—the reporter “saw” what s/he was expecting to see. Our students may have done something, but even a cursory investigation shows that this alleged bias incident is, at best, completely implausible. These students did not “Sieg Heil” each other in our hallways as reported.

A few weeks later, I was informed that the Dean of Students had looked into this, and “concluded that no further action was warranted” and the file was closed. I was perhaps as stunned by this as the initial report. We had all of the information needed to determine what happened, and yet there was no interest in pursuing it. A bias incident was filed that contained serious charges that could easily be construed as ethnic intimidation, and we knew which classroom it came from, and yet it was not deemed worthy of police investigation.

So, the file was closed, but the charge remains. The incident will be reported as a “bias incident” on our campus for the year 2016, and these students’ parents could easily read it and not realize that their sons are those who supposedly perpetrated one of the bias incidents. Our students–specifically three males out of a class that had approximately ten males in it–stand accused of solidarity with one of the vilest ideologies ever to stain the earth. They were not allowed to answer the charge, deny the charge, or provide their explanation as to what may have happened on that day in November, yet the charge stands and the bias incident is acknowledged will be logged for the record, giving it a legitimacy it does not deserve. This was an affront to me as a professor and I felt as if someone had to speak out for the students who had no voice, indeed, they weren’t even aware that they had been accused of something. With the current bias protocols, it’s not “innocent until proven guilty,” it’s “guilty until proven innocent,” and since there is no opportunity to prove your innocence, you’re just guilty.

It is hard to imagine a system with more potential for abuse than the one that has been instituted on campuses all across the nation. At Wake Forest University, their bias incident protocol reads almost like a recruitment flyer to increase bias reporting:

“Even if you’re not sure if what you witnessed or experienced was bias-related, we still want to hear from you.”

The protocol almost invites what it purports to curb, and in doing so, it promotes misinformation and divisiveness. What is the purpose of bias incident reporting, if not to help stop the incidents from happening? As it stands, it appears to be a “feel good” mechanism for culling data on perceived bias incidents but the data is clearly unreliable (although it does make for sensational headlines). If we’re serious about campus climate issues, then these charges should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. Instead, we let our students stand accused and maligned, ignorant of any charges made, as they unknowingly become one of the millions of alleged “criminals” committing bias crimes on our campuses. The system must be revised to hold all parties accountable for their actions, which includes serious consequences for filing false reports. To allow this to continue in its current form is an affront to the truth and to justice, both of which supposedly sit at the core of academia’s mission.

About FraKathustra

http://www.kurtellenberger.com

2 Responses to “Fake News in Academia”

  1. Did you ever feel like you got a satisfactory response from Jesse and his team? KS

    Sent from my iPhone

    • I did have a very good meeting with the whole team, which was helpful. I learned more about the process and the impossible challenges they face with this, and they heard about this incident in full. The issue here is that they operate in a “perception is reality” for the reporter, and since most of this kind of thing is not a “crime” that can be prosecuted, it chugs along with various accusations being made. The reporting is anonymous, which is also problematic–makes it simple to use this process as propaganda. In addition, the reporter, when not anonymous, decides (for the most part) whether any further actions should be taken. Some are legitimate, some aren’t. It’s not really part of their concern to try to figure out which are which, they are there to make sure that the reporter is “heard,” so it is also supposed to function as some form of “therapy.” It seems to me that creating a process that mixes criminal/near criminal activity, anonymous reporting, reporter-driven response/action, and therapy, makes it what it is–cumbersome, confused, rife with potential for abuse, and ultimately, untrustworthy, and thus ineffective. GV is not unique–as I researched this, I found similar processes everywhere. There has to be a better way to do this–I think that at a minimum, anonymous reporting should not be allowed–reporters should identify themselves when reporting, and those identities should not be revealed by the university. I think that would be a good start to establishing some integrity in this process–without that, knowing what I know now, it’s impossible to take any of the claims seriously because there’s no way to tell the real from the fake.

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