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Students blared various demands for accountability and administrative action after weeks of racist provocations on campus earlier this semester, but one question echoed throughout all the protests.
“What happens to racist students who get caught?” LSA senior Arlyn Reed asked at a de-stress event held by the Black Student Union last month to rounds of applause from the audience.
“(A University of Michigan) investigation just means it is going to be swept under the rug, and I actually want punishment for these people, because I want to feel safe on campus,” LSA freshman Madison Peterson echoed at a protest the next day.
Reed, a former Central Student Government representative, went on to propose a student sanctioning process — similar to one mandated by the sexual misconduct policy — in the face of an uptick in bias-related incidents. The Dean of Student’s Bias Response Team has logged 52 bias incidents since this July, but students are correct to point out neither University Division of Public Safety and Security officers nor administrators have publicly released apprehensions of any perpetrators.
The role of OSCR and a changing statement
The catch to Reed’s proposal is that the institutional process, in large part, already exists. The Office of Student Conflict Resolution is tasked with enforcing the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities and litigates cases spanning from alcohol abuse to falsifying University documents. OSCR uses a spectrum of tools to address formal violations of the statement, including conflict resolution, restorative justice or adjudication. Informal workshops include the option for unconscious bias training.
OSCR director Erik Wessel said the unit has handled more than one case of bias this year. E. Royster Harper, the University’s vice president for student life, however, said in a September interview she was not aware of one bias investigation to her knowledge addressed through OSCR. The statement’s language is ambiguous, and does not have a clause expressly sanctioning bias or discrimination.
While the statement gives students the right “to be treated fairly and with dignity regardless of race, color, national origin, age, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, religion, height, weight, or veteran status,” the document does not task students with the reciprocal responsibility. The only clause broaching bias incidents prohibits students from “harassing or bullying another person−physically, verbally, or through other means,” but proving such a violation in a clear and persuasive manner can be a high standard to clear.
The lack of language also means OSCR does not automatically collect data on cases of bias the office receives.
“We don’t have many metrics around that, no,” Harper said.
With the statement up for revisions next fall, some students are trying to change that.
CSG Rep. Andrew Watkins, a Public Policy senior, is leading a team of students working with OSCR, the Office of General Counsel and the Dean of Students to explore an amendment to the statement that explicitly bans bias incidents. Proposed amendments are community-based and go through rounds of review from CSG, Senate Assembly and executive officers.
“Bias incidents against an identity group on campus don’t classify as a violation under the current statement,” Watkins said. “The legal definition of harassment is much too strict — like if somebody does something offensive to a student, that doesn’t (always) qualify as harassment unfortunately, so they can’t be disciplined under that section.”
LSA junior Ayah Issa, a former CSG representative and a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Student Advisory Board, echoed Watkins.
“It’s almost unrealistic to assume things that affect students daily or what’s been happening this past month fit within that realm of harassment — and that’s wrong,” Issa said. “We are looking for a realistic turnover. We don’t know whether that’s amending the students’ rights and responsibilities statement or adding a new academic honor code.”
Harper, Wessel and Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones are amenable to the proposed amendment. Wessel maintained, however, no matter the language in the statement, it’s up to the community to change.
“Do I think that mere change to language in a policy is going to change ideology? No.” he said. “Do I think that a double-down on our University's commitment to values and the pathways that we have available to us … when harm is created in our community. … Do I think that’s always a good approach? Absolutely.”
Bureaucracy and challenges
All students and administrators cited inherent tension, though, in weighing campus climate with students’ constitutional rights to free speech.
Issa said CSG is working alongside Student Legal Services to avoid infringing upon students’ rights and instead help protect them.
“How do you mention (bias) without being too broad?” she said. “Too vague leads to too much power.”
OSCR’s complaint-driven structure itself raises barriers to victims of bias incidents; administrators cannot officially respond to incidents that are not reported.
Harper said in her experience, students might be wary of retaliation, or more often are simply unaware of the processes available to them. The Bias Response Team — which focuses more on documentation and support — does not always refer reporters to OSCR as a potential channel, often because perpetrators’ identities remain unknown.
“Students of color aren’t involved in crafting the process,” she said. “There are gaps between the Bias Response Team and OSCR, and we need to make sure students know how to use the codes. But sometimes they just don’t want to report.”
On a more surface level, many are unaware of the statement’s existence.
Engineering senior Nick Morris, for example, said he remembers agreeing to the statement, but could not recall what it specifically outlined. He said it seemed to be a generic document of rules and regulations.
“I remember signing that, but I don’t remember exactly what was in it,” Morris said. “Is it just that we have the right to receive equal and fair treatment, and that as a student, we must abide by University rules and respect other students and faculty? I remember it seeming like a generic rules, regulations and respect kind of document.”
Issa and Watkins emphasized boosting the statement’s visibility and publicizing bias-specific language. Students, they argue, will be more aware of what they are opting into.
“The first problem with the current statement, is that nobody knows it,” Watkins said. “Everyone did sign it. … There’s no exposure to it and students don’t know about it. What we are hoping with a separate document would be, maybe during the admissions process … that you explicitly agree to these terms.”
“People won’t do things if they know they will get punished or if we have a policy in place,” Issa said. “If there’s no accountability, then what do you hold a person up to?”
Precedent ––or a lack thereof
Though a bias-minded amendment would be the first of its kind at the University, several other schools already have these kinds of policies in effect.
The University of Virginia includes a section called “Freedom from Discrimination” on its policy for Students Rights and Responsibilities. The University of Michigan’s Nondiscrimination Policy, on the other hand, is more concerned with employment and institutional inequity.
“Students can expect to participate fully in the University community without discrimination as defined by federal and state law and University regulations,” the U-Va. statement reads.
The Ohio State University’s Code of Student Conduct allows for sanctioning bodies to consider violators’ bias-motivated misconduct an “aggravating factor”
The University of California at Berkeley features one of the most stringent codes of conduct, defining harassment to include “objectively offensive” actions that “substantially impair a person’s access to the University programs or activities that the person is effectively denied equal access to the University's resources and opportunities … on the basis of the person’s race, color, national or ethnic origin, citizenship, sex, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, marital status, ancestry, service in the uniformed services, physical or mental disability, medical condition, or perceived membership in any of these classifications."
Wessel said real change will depend mostly on student initiative and community action.
"What our community needs to not do is nothing,” he said. “Nothing is not the right response. The Statement of Students Rights and Responsibilities is all about students, obviously. It’s all about the student experience. It’s all about doing what we can to ensure that students are able to engage in our community without fear of the creation of a hostile environment.”
Students stress the University’s public commitment is paramount in improving campus climate.
“(The University) is the Ivy League of public schools, which makes us a role model in a sense,” Issa said. “We also understand that this is not a new topic and schools have tried to implement this and there have been court cases against this very initiative. We have that extra pressure to create something tangible. I don’t think any public university has figured it out yet.”
Neither Issa nor Watkins will be on campus under a revised statement, but both affirmed their commitment to seeing the amendment process through. Watkins said he learned to own his stake in welcoming marginalized students.
“This is my campus and I want to make sure my campus is representative of all people,” Watkins said. “Given my background (as a white man), I’ve never had an issue with safety or feeling welcomed, and that’s a privilege I hold and try to keep in mind. … It shouldn’t be that way. I just feel like I have a responsibility to people who are targeted time and time again to help them out in any way that I can.”