The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
One of the latest things in universities, including at University of California (where I teach) is condemning "microaggressions," supposed "brief, subtle verbal or non-verbal exchanges that send denigrating messages to the recipient because of his or her group membership (such as race, gender, age or socio-economic status)." Such microaggressions, the argument goes, can lead to a "hostile learning environment," which UC—and the federal government—views as legally actionable. This is stuff you could get disciplined or fired for, especially if you aren't a tenured faculty member.
But of course this concept is now being used to suppress not just, say, personal insults or discrimination in hiring or grading, but also ideas that the UC wants to exclude from university classrooms. Here, from the UC Office of the President, Academic and Personnel Programs department's site (promoted, for instance, here, here, and here), are some of what the UC wants to see stamped out, in classrooms and presumably elsewhere as well:
Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send
Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (from Diversity in the Classroom, UCLA Diversity & Faculty Development, 2014). The first step in addressing microaggressions is to recognize when a microaggression has occurred and what message it may be sending. The context of the relationship and situation is critical. Below are common themes to which microaggressions attach….
[Theme:] Color Blindness[:] Statements that indicate that a White person does not want to or need to acknowledge race.
[Microaggression Examples:] "There is only one race, the human race."
"America is a melting pot."
"I don't believe in race." …
[Theme:] Denial of Individual Racism/Sexism/Heterosexism[:] A statement made when bias is denied….
[Microaggression Examples:] … To a person of color: "Are you sure you were being followed in the store? I can't believe it." …
[Theme:] Myth of Meritocracy[:] Statements which assert that race or gender does not play a role in life successes, for example in issues like faculty demographics.
[Microaggression Examples:] "I believe the most qualified person should get the job."
"Of course he'll get tenure, even though he hasn't published much—he's Black!"
"Men and women have equal opportunities for achievement."
"Gender plays no part in who we hire."
"America is the land of opportunity."
"Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough."
"Affirmative action is racist."
Well, I'm happy to say that I'm just going to keep on microaggressing. I like to think that I'm generally polite, so I won't express these views rudely. And I try not to inject my own irrelevant opinions into classes I teach, so there are many situations in which I won't bring up these views simply because it's not my job to express my views in those contexts. But the document that I quote isn't about keeping classes on-topic or preventing presonal insults—it's about suppressing particular viewpoints. And what's tenure for, if not to resist these attempts to stop the expression of unpopular views?
But I'm afraid that many faculty members who aren't yet tenured, many adjuncts and lecturers who aren't on the tenure ladder, many staff members, and likely even many students—and perhaps even quite a few tenured faculty members as well—will get the message that certain viewpoints are best not expressed when you're working for UC, whether in the classroom, in casual discussions, in scholarship, in op-eds, on blogs, or elsewhere. (Remember that when talk turns to speech that supposedly creates a "hostile learning environment," speech off campus or among supposed friends can easily be condemned as creating such an environment, once others on campus learn about it.) A serious blow to academic freedom and to freedom of discourse more generally, courtesy of the University of California administration.
UPDATE: Fox News reports this response by a UC Office of the President spokeswoman:
"Given the diverse backgrounds of our students, faculty and staff, UC offered these seminars to make people aware of how their words or actions may be interpreted when used in certain contexts. Deans and department heads were invited, but not required, to attend the seminars," University of California Office of the President spokeswoman Shelly Meron told FoxNews.com.
She added that the university had not banned the words when it labeled them as examples of micro-aggressions and insisted that the university system is "committed to upholding, encouraging and preserving academic freedom and the free flow of ideas."
So let's see if I understand it. "Microaggressions" are defined as "send[ing] denigrating messages" based (in relevant part) on race. Unsurprisingly, they are labeled as potentially leading to "hostile learning environments," which the university and the federal government views as legally actionable. The university as an employer is telling its employees, including many employees who don't have tenure, that expressing certain views is a "microaggression."
But then the university insists that it's "preserving academic freedom and the free flow of ideas." Because, you know, lecturers, adjuncts, not-yet-tenured faculty members, and so on, will read this and say, "sure, I can express my ideas condemning affirmative action, and be labeled by UC as engaging in 'microaggressions'—of course UC isn't going to retaliate against me for that." Doesn't seem to reflect how actual employees behave in the face of such statements from the employer's Office of the President, Academic and Personnel Programs department.
FURTHER UPDATE: Here is a more recent statement from the UC Office of the President media relations people:
To suggest that the University of California is censoring classroom discussions on our campuses is wrong and irresponsible. No such censorship exists. UC is committed to upholding, encouraging, and preserving academic freedom and the free flow of ideas throughout the University. As such, the media characterization of voluntary seminars for UC deans and department heads about campus climate issues—similar to seminars at university campuses throughout the country—is inaccurate.
Contrary to what has been reported, no one at the University of California is prohibited from making statements such as "America is a melting pot," "America is the land of opportunity," or any other such statement. Given the diverse backgrounds of our students, faculty and staff, UC offered these seminars to make people aware of how their words or actions may be interpreted when used in certain contexts. Deans and department heads were invited, but not required, to attend the seminars.
Let's just say that I'm unpersuaded. Note that another paper endorsed by the UC Office of the President defines microaggressions as "one form of systemic everyday racism." So the UC says microaggressions are a form of racism; communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership; and can help create a hostile environment. And it says that expressing certain views is a form of racial microaggression. (By the way, UC Berkeley says this not just to administrators but also to "faculty or graduate student instructor[s].") UC also often talks about how important campus climate is and how important diversity is, and indeed makes "contributions to diversity and equal opportunity," such as "research … that highlights inequalities," a factor "in the evaluation of the candidate's qualifications" when it comes to hiring, promotion, and appraisal.
But apparently instructors—including untenured ones—are somehow expected to feel uncensored, and free to express their ideas, including ones UC has labeled racist, aggressive, and hostile. Really?