Under Fire

Grand Valley State University emphasizes diversity and inclusion, but often people only associate those terms with questions of identity, such as race, sexual orientation or religion. Diversity, it seems, is rarely associated with ideas or opinions.

But the success and function of a university depends entirely on the open exchange and celebration of diverse thoughts, so, to GVSU and any other school, diversity of ideas and opinions should be highly valued and sought after. Recently, GVSU was charged with neglecting its responsibility to encourage free expression as its policies were deemed unconstitutional by a national advocacy group.

This month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released its annual report listing which American universities are and are not acting in compliance with First Amendment rights. GVSU received a “red light” rating — the worst possible rating — for what a FIRE representative said was a policy that compromised freedom of expression.

In an effort to encourage physical diversity at GVSU, the university implemented a “biased incident” policy. According to this policy, “Bias incidents can cause alarm, anger, fear or resentment in others or endanger the health, safety or welfare of anyone in the university community. They are directed toward an individual or group because of their race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, sex/gender, gender identity, gender expression, political affiliation, religion, familial status, marital status, disability, age, height, weight or veteran status. Bias incidents take many forms — words, signs, symbols, threats or actions — electronic or in person. They include acts of intimidation, vandalism, harassment, and expressions of hate or hostility; they have an adverse impact on a learning environment that is inclusive of all.”

The staff of FIRE has expressed concerns that this type of vague language may discourage students from speaking their piece if it in any way may be perceived as offensive. Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s individual rights defense program, said in Sarah Hillenbrand’s article, “Fire issues GV worst student rights rating for bias incident protocol,” that many of the acts considered to be bias incidents in the policy include speech protected by the First Amendment.

“Many ‘expressions of hate or hostility,’ for instance, constitute protected speech, as do incidents that cause ‘anger’ or ‘resentment,’” Bonilla said. “Further, there is no constitutional right to not be made to feel ‘belittled’ or ‘disrespected’ by another student’s expression. The sheer number of factors considered by the policy, including gender identity, gender expression, religion and even political affiliation, makes it highly possible that intellectual debates or honest statements of opinion on sensitive topics can constitute a bias incident under the policy.”

Perhaps FIRE is correct.

The policy doesn’t outline the limits of certain topics that are known to generate heat but are still up for debate in the U.S. Consider, for example, the ongoing conversations about LGBT rights, women’s abortion rights, immigration and even obesity. No matter what stance is taken on these topics, there is room for someone to feel “alarm, anger, fear or resentment.” Can advocates or opponents of these causes file biased incident reports against students who express differing views? Are students allowed to express pro-Palestinian opinions while among Jewish classmates or pro-Israeli views around Muslims?

Some students might maintain views that others deem “offensive” or that might “cause alarm, anger, fear or resentment,” but public debates of almost any topic can generate heat and angst. So what exactly defines a biased incident? A very specific answer to this question needs to be worked out by the GVSU administration.

It is so crucial that students feel that their identities are protected — whether they be black or white, gay or straight, atheist or polytheist, conservative or liberal — so that they are welcomed as valued contributors of the GVSU community. But the way that GVSU implements this protection must be well defined so as not to trump constitutional rights. And to prevent the sacrifice of spirited debate that inevitably arises from critical thinking.

For many students, including some of us at the Lanthorn, a fear of crossing the line has left us silent in the classrooms. And if students can’t raise their hands, then the idea of diversity is compromised. If students can’t hear an opinion different from their own without feeling hostility or offense, then the idea of diversity is compromised.

And then our liberal arts education has failed to expose us to new ideas and foster true critical thinking. As GVSU serves as a safe haven for diverse groups, it should be a breeding ground for different ideas, not a shiny factory pumping out the latest model of “critical thinking” robots, who really repress minority views to avoid being offensive.

So diversity? GVSU appears to do a decent job promoting diversity of some forms. But while color and ethnicity are often the most “visible” ways to show that a school is diverse, if students are all of the same mindset with the same views — whether they actually agree with everyone else or feel pressured into doing so in order to fit in — it makes for dull debate and conversation.

If everyone has a like perspective and those who don’t conform are brushed aside, then the university does not have or accept diversity.