Campus Free Speech

Columbia Student: I Was Reported to Gender-Based Misconduct Office for Calling Myself Handsome

When universities give this much power to the always-offended, they make it impossible to have a dialogue about anything.


Katarzyna Bialasiewicz

You would think students instructed to report to the Gender-Based Misconduct Office had committed serious transgressions. Its name conjures images of creepy guys harassing and violating women.

Columbia University graduate Benjamin Sweetwood claims he did nothing of the sort. He got in trouble for doing something completely inoffensive: he referred to himself as handsome in a class.

"Now I've graduated from Columbia University, I am finally ready to reveal a dark and shameful secret I have kept buried for almost two years," writes Sweetwood in a recent article about his experience. "I, Ben Sweetwood, committed 'gender misconduct' while a student at the above mentioned institution of higher learning."

According to Sweetwood, the incident happened in his Chinese class. He was supposed to say something in Chinese, and that's what he picked. The professor later told him she thought it was a funny remark, but one student had complained. That was just the beginning:

Later that day, my advising dean emailed me to say, "The University's Gender-Based Misconduct Office contacted us because they received a complaint about your behavior towards your Elementary Chinese II professor. It is important we meet to discuss this as soon as possible." I responded in a defiant tone, denying any wrongdoing, though I agreed to meet the next day.

Sweetwood's dean made him promise never to make any upsetting remarks. When the student refused, he was sent to the Gender-Based Misconduct Office, where an administrator attempted to persuade him to abandon his micro-aggressive ways.

Sweetwood's account of the ordeal is a bit on the hyperbolic side, and oozes contempt for the people who chided him. But it's hard to blame him: how would you feel if you were accused of gender-based misconduct for making a stupid but completely harmless remark about yourself?

It's little occurrences like this that inspire concern about the state of free speech on college campuses. This wasn't an example of one student saying something offensive and another student calling him out for it—in this case, Student A said something objectively inoffensive, Student B complained to the administrative authority, and the authority intervened.

Columbia, you may recall, is the university where classical mythology was deemed too triggering to be taught. When universities give this much power to the always-offended, they make it impossible to have a dialogue about anything.