Coping with the Proliferation of Hate and Bias on College Campuses

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Incidents of hate, bullying, and additional forms of racial and other bias have proliferated on college campuses in recent years. Charlottesville, Va. — once associated with a bucolic college town — has become a code word for hate-filled violence fomented by white supremacist groups who marched with torches across the campus of the University of Virginia. Bananas etched with the words “AKA Free” (AKA stands for Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black sorority founded in the U.S.) hanging from nooses and cotton branches attached to Confederate flags invaded American University’s campus in Washington, D.C., after an African American was elected student government president. And an African American ROTC college student waiting for a bus near the University of Maryland, College Park was killed in what has been deemed a hate crime. 

These events and others have forced colleges and universities nationwide to develop strategies to prevent, address, and resolve the growing issues of incivility, hate, and bias on their campuses. 

The Statistics
According to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Center on Extremism, there have been 346 incidents — including the distribution of fliers, stickers, banners, and posters — of white-supremacist hate and bias propaganda on campuses since Sept. 1, 2016. Two hundred and sixteen colleges and universities have been affected in 44 states and the District of Columbia. 

Some of the most active supposed hate groups include Evropa (allegedly responsible for 158 of the 346 reported incidents of white supremacist propaganda), the Patriot Front, Atomwaffen Division, and Vanguard America. The hardest-hit states were Texas (61 cases) and California (43 cases). Between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, 2017, there were 147 incidents of white-supremacist hate and bias propaganda appearing on college campuses, representing a substantial increase over the 41 incidents during the 2016 fall semester. According to ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, “White supremacists are targeting college campuses like never before.”

The LEAD Fund Project on Civility, Hate, and Bias
The Fund for Leadership, Equity, Access, and Diversity (LEAD Fund) — a nonprofit affiliate of the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity (AAAED) — has launched the Project on Civility, Hate, and Bias on Campus. With support from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the LEAD Fund conducted listening sessions in the Midwest in February 2018, as well as webinars, to learn how institutions of higher education are coping with the increasing incidents of hate and bias. The organization is also conducting a survey of college and university equal opportunity professionals regarding hate and bias incidents on campuses.

The Resolution: Addressing Incidents
At the AAAED, we have learned from the Southern Poverty Law Center as well as our own members — including former president of the American Association for Affirmative Action Beth Wilson, JD, and diversity and inclusion expert Ken Coopwood Sr., PhD — that institutions of higher education should engage in a three-part initiative to avoid or resolve hate and bias on campus: prevention, crisis management, and post-crisis assessment and healing.

Before an incident occurs, campuses should:

● Establish protocols and policies regarding hate and bias incidents on campus
● Address conflicts that don’t violate policy (i.e., hate speech and hate speakers)
● Make training opportunities available to the campus community
● Conduct a preliminary investigation upon notice of potential or actual problems
● Take interim actions upon notice of potential or actual problems before they become a crisis
● Create a crisis management committee
● Establish a bias incident reporting system

Crisis Management
During the incident or event, campuses should:

● Put safety first
● Denounce the act as soon as possible
● Work with the media to provide accurate information and dispel misinformation
● Support targeted students and employees with counseling and other services to make them feel safe and valued
● Coordinate with campus police and other institutional departments as needed and as appropriate
● Adjudicate where there is wrongdoing by students or personnel that is covered by campus conduct policies

Assessment and Healing
After the incident, campuses should:

● Review efforts to address and resolve the problem
● Follow up with remedial actions and training
● Debrief with relevant staff regarding future actions and prevention
● Seek justice and avoid blame
● Promote healing within the campus community
● Where necessary, promote cultural change, including diversity and inclusion policies and campus climate surveys

The Challenge: Hate Speech and Climate Surveys
Where hate speech is concerned, public colleges and universities must be mindful of their responsibilities under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and, possibly, state constitutions. Any policy restricting speech — especially hate speech — should balance and articulate students’ interests, objectives, and rights with the school’s interests and objectives. Just as the First Amendment does not immunize physical attacks on persons or property, it does not immunize discriminatory conduct illegal under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, civil rights acts, or labor laws. 

Finally, colleges and universities may impose “time, place, and manner” restrictions on speech, but these restrictions must be content-neutral.— meaning they are universally imposed without regard to the viewpoints or messages being conveyed or expressed. While they do not have to adhere to the same standards when it comes to the First Amendment, private institutions actively embrace the principles of free speech and academic freedom. There may also be state laws that mandate these principles and that cover both public and private colleges and universities.

Campus climate surveys are essential if an institution wants to measure and gauge the extent to which its faculty, staff, and especially students feel safe and valued and are thriving and productive. Climate surveys are not new to the academy; however, according to our discussions with members of the listening sessions, they are not uniformly used throughout higher education. 

Looking Ahead: The Importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
The increasing incidents of incivility, hate, and bias on campuses since 2016 demand that colleges and universities pay greater attention to prevention, crisis management, and post-crisis assessment, including cultural change with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion. In polling the attendees of the LEAD Fund listening sessions, however, we learned that the institutions represented were in varying stages of development of a concerted and organized policy to address these challenges. Our work indicates that, in many instances, there remains much to be done to promote and sustain a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion on campuses.●

Shirley J. Wilcher, JD, CAAP, is the executive director of the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity. Wilcher is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. The AAAED is a partner of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our June 2018 issue.