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One 2016 study by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression found that roughly 38.4 percent of the 471 public and private colleges it surveyed publicly declared having bias-response teams. By 2022, a study of 824 institutions by the group Speech First (responsible for many anti-BRT lawsuits) found the percentage closer to 56 percent. Public colleges were somewhat more likely to have BRTs than private colleges, but they are common at both. Differences in methodology may render these two surveys less than directly comparable, but the evidence suggests that BRTs have become quite common.
It’s important to acknowledge the problem bias-response teams are attempting to respond to. The late 2010s saw an increase in hate crimes on college campuses. In 2017, the FBI reported 280 hate-crime incidents at the universities it tracks, up from 194 in 2015. This reflects a general spike in hate crimes across the United States, mostly vandalism or destruction of property. There are two important caveats. First, that hate crimes generally remain rare in the U.S., compared with crime more generally, and their dynamics are more complicated than the narrative of “white supremacy” sometimes allows (i.e., white people appear to be underrepresented as perpetrators of hate crimes relative to their proportion of the population). Second, hate-crime hoaxes, though rare, also seem to have increased, which may suggest that the current moment’s obsession with race, racism, and identity may have incentivized some students to see alleged victimhood as status.
Nonetheless, concern about such incidents is valid. But bias-response teams, of course, aren’t meant to handle crimes, but rather lesser bias incidents that don’t rise to the level of either a crime or a code-of-conduct issue. In effect, one person says something that offends another. One of the main criticisms lobbed against the teams concerns the extreme vagueness of the concept of “bias” involved. What if BRTs chill legitimate speech, including on difficult topics related to race, sexuality, religion, and other identity issues?
Not all of the teams work the same way. Some may simply provide emotional support or advice for students who believe they’ve experienced bias, without collecting information on or contacting alleged bias-doers (I hesitate to use a word like “perpetrator” which is, itself, biasing and criminalizing). Others may contact alleged bias-doers, keep files on them, pressure them to apologize, sanction them, or simply act as conduits toward other, harsher sanctioning bodies. Because bias-response teams often involve college administrators and college police officers, the perception of the teams as coercive bodies is not unreasonable. FIRE reports that almost half of BRTs include campus law enforcement, and nearly two thirds include student-conduct administrators — but only 27 percent include faculty members. “By including police and student-conduct administrators on their bias-response teams,” the group concludes, colleges “send a message to students that undercuts claims of respect for freedom of expression: If you say something that offends someone, you may (or in some cases will) be investigated by police.“
Many of the teams allow for anonymous reporting, in some cases creating Kafkaesque situations in which individuals are sanctioned without ever even being told why, let alone being able to defend themselves. In 2023, for instance, an Ohio Northern University professor named Scott Gerber was informed that an investigation had begun against him, one that could potentially result in his dismissal — but neither he nor his lawyer was informed what, exactly, the investigation was investigating.
Campus free-speech problems are, at this juncture, well documented. These controversies are probably partly responsible for a decline in public trust in colleges. The kindest thing that can be said about BRTs is that they are merely one part of a larger constellation of diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, the damaging effects of which have been well documented. Summarizing the current evidence for The New York Times, the journalist Jesse Singal wrote that the “diversity training that is currently in vogue — mandatory training that blames dominant groups for DEI problems — may well have a net negative effect.”
But bias-response teams go far beyond most other components of the DEI constellation. A system that depends on anonymous reports and encourages some people to turn in others for wrongthink is intrinsically abusive.
It’s not possible to blame the surge in mental-health problems among college students on BRTs, but it is easy to see how BRTs don’t help. Their very existence may signal to students that minor infractions are “traumatic.” This may be part of a larger societal problem of reverse-cognitive behavioral therapy, wherein resilience and independence are de-emphasized and instead “lived experience” becomes a euphemism for catastrophizing, personalizing, and negativity bias.
Nor is there any evidence that the teams contribute in any way to fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging among students. Again, one might intuit the opposite. I can’t think of a worse way to create camaraderie among a diverse group of students than to institute an anonymous snitch system whereby they can aggressively police one another’s speech.
Given the lack of evidence that BRTs work to promote any useful goal, one must assume that their adoption is primarily political. Like other fashionable policies that have swept colleges during the past decade, like anti-microaggression training and required DEI statements for employment, there is little evidence that they work and plenty of reasons to suspect that they are harmful.
This year, Stanford University changed its bias-response system; it will no longer contact, investigate, or track students accused of biased but protected speech. This is a fantastic move in the right direction. If bias-response teams are not withdrawn altogether, universities must, at the very least, make a handful of necessary revisions. First, anonymous reporting must be dropped. People should always have the right to know by whom they are accused and of what. And if BRTs are mainly for “support” of students, then anonymous reporting is rather pointless, as it’s impossible to offer support to an anonymous person. Second, as at Stanford, such systems should no longer contact, track, or create and retain files on accused students, nor should they be involved in any sanctioning, including directly reporting students to code-of-conduct investigations. If a student accuses another student of violating a code of conduct, a team might refer the student directly to the relevant authorities and inform them about that process. But the bias-response team should be firewalled from sanctioning systems. Third, BRT members should be trained in free-speech issues.
As universities have begun to roll back other DEI efforts, it may be time to consider whether BRTs are worth the cost. Certainly, we should be alert to hostile exchanges between students and develop ways to help them find shared empathy across differences. But the approaches we’ve tried for the past 10 years don’t seem to be working.