In May 1999, a University of Oregon student said to his class that Hispanic people have a poor work ethic. In the arguments that ensued, one student said to an Asian classmate over email that if she didn’t shut up, “you will see what racism truly is.” After the university president didn’t expel him, campus exploded in a controversy that led to a protest, a sit-in and the arrest of 31 students.
This upheaval gave birth to what is today the Bias Education and Response Team. Now, if you see or hear something offensive on campus, you can report it to BERT; their mission is to start a conversation before a situation like what occurred in May 1999 happens again.
BERT is a team of staff that receives and reviews reports of bias or racism on campus by “offering support, referral and opportunities for dialogue,” according to its mission statement. Administrators designed BERT as a team of educators, but faculty leaders are worried BERT is interfering with free speech. After 17 years of operation, faculty members are trying to change the way BERT operates.
The History of BERT
BERT was created in May 1999, when a comment made by a student sparked a protest that resulted in the arrest of 31 students, according to an Emerald article from 1999. The ignition point was a presentation on Hispanic communities in which a UO student said Hispanic individuals have poor work ethic and blamed their culture.
In the heated discussion that followed, students took to email to criticize or defend the statement. Eventually, a student threatened three women in the class, saying to one that she deserved to be sexually assaulted.
Former president Dave Frohnmayer didn’t expel the student. A rally at the Erb Memorial Union followed, and 75 protesters went to Johnson Hall to stage a sit-in. When they stayed after-hours on the floor of Johnson Hall, 31 were arrested for trespassing.
Students demanded action after the arrests. One demand included the formation of a “discrimination response team” that would “notify authorities, provide victim support and ensure due process for the accused discriminator.”
This discrimination response team evolved into the Bias Response Team, which was recently renamed the Bias Education and Response Team.
Racism is not as blatant today, said Quantrell Willis, the assistant dean of students at UO and chair of BERT.
“Racist organizations have figured out, ‘Maybe we don’t need to do this on TV and in public,’” Willis said.
Controversy arose when BERT released its 2014-15 public report, UO spokesman Tobin Klinger notes. The report includes over 80 case summaries ranging from offensive posters to sexist comments to physical assault. None of these reports named specific people or departments — only where the incident took place.
On each of these cases, the report describes how BERT responded; many reports were simply submitted so there could be a record. But on some, BERT sent case managers to meet with both sides. In one case, when graduate students said there was a lack of “cultural competency” in their department, BERT set up a conversation between 12 students and 14 staff and faculty members.
Discussions and trainings aren’t obligatory, Willis said. However, there are situations listed in the BERT report where departments hosted cultural competency trainings because of a complaint. It’s unclear if these were required; Willis could not discuss specific cases.
Points of contention
BERT needs oversight, Dr. Kyu Ho Youm thinks. Youm is a leading expert on free speech and holds the Jonathan Marshall First Amendment Chair at UO’s School of Journalism and Communication. BERT doesn’t have a set of specific guidelines and has intimidated Youm’s colleagues, Youm said.
“People are afraid to speak up (against BERT),” Youm said. Youm’s fear is that faculty members, especially non-tenured employees, are at risk of losing their jobs due to BERT’s unchecked actions. BERT says in its mission statement that its purpose is not to investigate the reports it receives.
UO Senate President Bill Harbaugh says administration shouldn’t have influence over what goes on in the classroom. Youm believes the culture BERT creates keeps students from the “real world” by coddling them.
“Being offended is part of intellectual growth,” said Youm.
Willis says BERT doesn’t want to police people on what to say, but educate them on how to say it.
“Sometimes we just don’t know the things that we say could harm someone,” Willis said.
BERT helps measure bias and racism at the University of Oregon, Willis said. BERT has not yet released a report for the 2015-2016 school year, but Willis expects more cases because of the current presidential race.
The rupture in perspectives caused faculty members to form their own team to audit BERT. On June 30, University Senate formed a task force responsible for observing the Bias Education and Response Team, and will be chaired by journalism professor Chris Chavez and math professor Chris Sinclair.
The task force aims to see what BERT has been doing, Sinclair said. This includes what BERT investigates, what materials it collects, what it does with those materials, whether there has been disciplinary action and what impact BERT has on freedom of speech in the classroom.
The task force and Willis are willing to work together: Both sides advocate for some kind of resource for students who feel they’ve experienced bias. Sinclair said he doesn’t expect a complete dissolution of BERT but a more transparent and structured policy.
Bias response teams can be found at some other universities in the U.S., such as Chicago University and University of Northern Colorado, but Youm thinks that this task force is the first in the nation to address free speech concerns.
Examples of bias reports, word for word:
A student reported that a guest lecturer characterized a group of people in a biased and discriminatory manner.
Bias Type: Race
Response: A BRT Advocate met with the reporter, and a BRT Case Manager facilitated a conversation between the student and the professor.
A staff member reported that a poster featured a triggering image.
Bias Type: Body Size
Response: Reported for information only. A BRT Advocate offered support to the reporter.
An instructor reported that a student called them a derogatory slur in a course evaluation.
Bias Type: Gender, Gender Identity/Expression
Response: A BRT Advocate spoke with the reporter, and a BRT Case Manager met with the registrar, who was able to have the slur redacted from the evaluation and is exploring the possibility of preventing this in the future.
Willis says administration will be as transparent as possible when changing BERT. He says he wants to hear ideas from the community.
“This is not something we’re trying to hide,” Willis said.