Bias reporting threatens free speech in colleges
Why does our university matter? Here, we ignite our inner fire for knowledge and seek, as free thinkers, “truth even unto its innermost parts.” We desire to exchange, question and argue among ourselves, search and find, contradict each other and move together. This free speech we enjoy within our community fuels every day. Would our enthusiasm not somehow vanish, if we stopped speaking our minds and exchanged fire for fear?
Is the classroom not the most precious place where we can light our inner fire daily? As a member of the faculty, I feel that joy the moment I enter the classroom and salute each student. I love to teach and watch students learn. I enjoy my job above all, when students persevere in their being, and increase their power to become more than who they believed they were. Looking at the students’ smiles in class or hearing their laughter is the supreme reward from a learning space that no evaluation can ever account for. As Bergson grasped, “Nature … warns us by a precise sign that our destination is reached. This sign is joy.”
How does joy come from the classroom fire? It consecrates an open space for dialogue, where ideas, whether adequate or not, are fully torn apart and discussed with a passion for reason. We are all learning, students and professors alike. We seek challenges and overcome them, sometimes. Since immemorial times, this academic space has been a gift of democracy to pursue truth together and find it surreptitiously. The moments of truth remain fugacious, but are fulfilling. Because of this very possibility, we happily reconvene, try again and again, from one class to another, from one cohort or generation to the next. It helps the members of our university strive, both as individuals and as a collective. Together, we build a fortress that we deem impregnable.
But what if we unintentionally undermined the very foundation of our edifice? What if we started relinquishing free speech? What if, consequently, we insidiously made the whole edifice fragile? What if, then, students and teachers started entering the classroom with less fire and more fear in the belly?
Do our students seriously hold they should not challenge professors in class any longer? Some invoke a power asymmetry, where students would be afraid of speaking up, for fear of retaliation, for example.
As an undergrad in Brussels over 30 years ago, I was appalled by a teacher justifying the deal the Nazis and the Soviets struck before the Second World War — the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact. I did not hesitate to speak my mind in class and publicly contradicted my professor. When I met him a few weeks later, he confessed his argument was weak and that my sense of outrage made him reconsider his thinking. My contradiction did in no way impact my grade negatively. Quite the contrary!
Similarly, as a Harvard Law School graduate student, I remember challenging a professor about a legal brief he assigned to us. In the next session, he did not retaliate at all, but urged me to fully develop my argument in front of all the students. I received an excellent grade.
So could grade retaliation be partially groundless? Deep down, do pertinent ideas from professors or students not speak for themselves? Years later, when I reflect back on the episodes above, my fears, if any, look absurd and petty. As a student, would someone pretending they fear to develop an argument in class convince you? If students do not rise up right here, when will they ever?
What about professors? If you deserve that title, do not pretend you fear students who challenge you. For sure you enjoy a fair fight, where everyone, in turn, has a chance of prevailing. Students have challenged professors for as long as education has existed. Teachers enjoy an arena where everybody exchanges their viewpoints. They aspire to groom students who outsmart them. Nietzsche once said: “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.” So, as students, go on and fire at your teachers in class, courageously. They love it.
So where could the professors’ new fears originate from? A new tool, called “bias report,” has been established in the university system. Its underlying intention is to mitigate faculty bias. Instead of questioning the professor in class and discussing unpleasant ideas on the spot, students are invited to identify a professor’s isolated sentence and secretively report an alleged bias to the authorities, who become judges of professors’ adequate wording or not. Students, alone or in group, can become “serial reporters.” Instead of focusing on learning, they can dissect a few seconds of speech, take a few words out of context, and put professors and their reputation on trial. A dignified practice, no doubt...
Anonymous reporting in the wrong hands can lead to the worst horrors in history, where authorities, through secret agents, policed the thought. Without tracing it back to the Spanish inquisition or revisiting Arthur Miller’s "Why I Wrote The Crucible" (1996), let us recall the sinister young Red Guards’ abuses during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or Soviet practice to prevent dissent.
As Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote in “,” "denunciation was part of the fabric of life in Russian society for most of the 74 years of the existence of the Soviet Union, and the same was true of Eastern Europe and East Germany under their postwar Communist regimes."
Though we trust our university authorities to never use anonymous reporting for the wrong ends, our confidence in the zealots who enjoy their new power toy is less obvious. Strongly resisting its abuse has now become indispensable as a faculty or student. Fighting McCarthyism in her , United States Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) stood up for the “basic principles of Americanism: the right to criticize, the right to hold unpopular beliefs, the right to protest and the right of independent thought.” Today we have to fight a reversed McCarthyism at full speed, before it is too late and asphyxiates productive and meaningful learning.
Except in the worst-case scenarios where whistleblowing is required— such as sexual harassment or discrimination cases, or the use of fighting words— the institutional encouragement of broad anonymous denunciations must stop. It illegally curtails freedom of speech for frivolous reasons and nurtures the worst human instincts in stool pigeons. Anonymous denunciations without safeguards are incompatible with what a democracy and a university stand for, and lead to harassment and bullying.
“Free speech” is everything but “anonymous denunciation.” The former is transparent; it supposes a dialogue among fearless citizens and allows democracies, including in the classroom, to flourish; it involves a confrontation of ideas and makes everyone responsible for what they say. The latter is kept secret; it creates suspicion within a society and becomes the favorite instrument for authoritarian and totalitarian regimes to suppress liberties, instigate fear, let some people get away with irresponsible mischiefs, eliminate unwanted people and prohibit dissenting ideas the powerful want to eradicate.
Free speech is the best conduit at our disposal for education, knowledge, philosophies and sciences. It is what universities need most to carry on their mission. A “safe space” requires free speech, and amounts to a “brave space,” where all the protagonists share their reasoning, in full light, where our students raise their hands and express their views with faculty, engage in open conversations, rather than in secretive procedures. Let us continue to enjoy a classroom where freedom of speech is exercised by all, and where the fire in the belly eases the fear.