Bias Response Team sustains criticism about campus role

After a consultation with the FCC, members question the team’s responsibilities.

Olivia Johnson

Amid ongoing debates about free speech and microaggressions on college campuses, earlier this year, University of Minnesota officials charged a team to deal with incidents of hate speech.

Since January, the Bias Response Team has responded to over two dozen incidents — including two in the last month — but members still struggle to define their responsibilities on campus. All the cases they receive, they refer to other groups on campus.

Ann Freeman, senior consultant for University Relations and BRT leader, said that the group has solidified its purpose but is still working on pinning down their scope of responsibilities on campus.

Colin Campbell, University Faculty Consultative Committee chair and associate pharmacology professor, said he and the FCC had a more positive outlook when they took the team at face-value. But after conducting a consultation with the team, they were less enthusiastic, he said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s gone from supportive to not supportive, but I would say it’s gone to increasingly critical support or critical commentary,” he said.

Campbell and other FCC members have discussed a couple concerns they have about faculty presence on the BRT.

“If you look at the proposed membership of that BRT … I think there’s one faculty member on it,” he said. “It looks like it’s not a faculty-heavy organization or structure.”

Campbell said he thinks the BRT’s responsibilities are too broad. During the team’s consultation with the FCC, they asked how the BRT defines the terms “bias,” “response” and “team.”

“What exactly is bias? Well, that’s a tough one,” Campbell said. “What exactly is the nature of the response … a lot of the concerns are really around exactly what is going to be the function of this.”

The FCC members also questioned if the BRT has given adequate thought to their position as a reference point, he said.

Campbell said the BRT doesn’t actually respond to the reports. Instead, they refer the complainant to other campus resources.

“They are putting themselves in a potential position where they’re going to be exercising judgment about where a particular complaint or allegation should go,” he said.

Those judgment calls could cause legal problems down the road for the BRT, Campbell said.

Laura Knudson, assistant vice provost for the Office for Student Affairs and one of the team’s leaders, said some who have reported bias want immediate action from a particular office on campus, while others simply want an official to know about the incident.

Katie Eichele, a member of the team and director of the University’s Aurora Center, said the BRT wants to refer students to services on campus that can help them deal with incidents of bias, like anti-Islamic flyers that were stuffed into Minnesota Daily newspapers last April.

Other than the one faculty member, the team is composed of about 20 University staff members. It was charged by University President Eric Kaler earlier this year to respond to incidents of bias on campus.

“One of our main goals is to make sure that we have all the right people in the room, so that when a bias incident does happen … we can respond quickly and consistently,” said Tina Marisam, a team leader and assistant director in the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.

The team hasn’t received any funds from the school, Freeman said.

“I think if we get to a point where there’s something important and critical for us to do and it needs to have some funds to complete it, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” she said.