By MARTY LEVINE
A proposed University policy requiring the reporting and possible investigation of all discriminatory speech — everything from comments during class discussions to those overheard on campus — will have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights, members of the University Senate’s Faculty Affairs committee fear, so much so that they asked to be anonymous during all debate of the policy at their Dec. 10 meeting.
“I find it rather ironic that we’re talking about the chilling effects of having our comments on the record” in the University Times, even before the policy has been enacted, said committee member Pat Loughlin, a Swanson School of Engineering faculty member, prior to the meeting. “It’s having a chilling effect already.”
“When I first read (the proposed nondiscrimination policy),” said Senate President Chris Bonneau, the only committee member who volunteered to speak on the record, “my comments were, ‘This is a non-starter.’ ”
Indeed, several committee members felt the policy-making group should scrap the current policy and begin again from scratch.
Alongside the new policy’s potential to tamp down free speech, the committee is concerned about several provisions:
There are few official checks on the investigations potentially undertaken by staff from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Office of Human Resources.
It is unclear how much investigative information these offices may share with other Pitt departments.
Mandatory reporting of overheard speech puts everyone on campus in the untenable position of policing each other.
Students may no longer feel they can speak freely in class or when meeting with faculty.
Classroom discussion of, and research concerning, the very issues creating the need for this policy — bias and discrimination — will become impossible.
With anonymous complaints allowed, and uncertainty over when the accused will be notified of investigations, the investigative process may be unfair.
“This is going to have unintended consequences and ramifications,” said one committee member. “It is the responsibility of this body” to suggest amending or nixing the policy.
“I don’t understand how one policy, under 100 pages, can possibly tackle” this issue, said another.
“There are decisions people have made about who is a protected group and who is not …,” added a third member.
“It changes all the time,” came the response.
“You don’t have to have mandatory reporting to accomplish this,” another added.
“None of this is really acceptable,” concluded one committee member, who suggested a new policy be more closely based on research concerning solutions to this issue.
“What if I don't think I was discriminated against and you do?” asked another member, adding that accusations of discrimination “can be weaponized.” If the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is to decide what constitutes discrimination, “who are they to make that decision? Because these are really subjective decisions.”
In response, a committee member pointed out that ODI staff are trained to recognize and investigate discrimination, and that one intention of the policy is to create uniform handling of discrimination claims.
In the end, committee members allowed that, while it was impossible to rid the campus of all bias and discrimination, it is a laudable goal, and that genuine instances of discrimination needed to be investigated and stopped in their tracks.
Among policy modifications being discussed by committee members are not to require mandatory reporting and to disallow the reporting of overheard remarks; confine the policy’s reach to on-campus incidents; and create an independent investigative body to handle accusations.
“Maybe the right approach is to educate people — it’s not a punitive approach,” suggested one committee member, which was echoed by others.
“Hire 50 more ODI staff and let them educate the campus” instead of investigating it, said another. But one member cautioned: “Educational (solutions) do not have a massive effect, but they do have some effect.”
Committee co-chair Lorraine Denman, faculty member in the Dietrich School’s Department of French and Italian, reported that Thomas Hitter, assistant vice chancellor for policy development and management, and other Pitt officials requested to attend the committee’s January meeting to present possible policy changes they have already devised. They also intend to speak about possible changes to Pitt’s proposed digital accessibility policy, which also has come under fire from this and other committees as well as the Faculty Assembly.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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