BHERT remains less than visible on campus

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The Bias-Hate Educational Response Team, a subcommittee of the Faculty Diversity Committee and one of a number of the University’s initiatives to address issues regarding diversity, was formed so that a specific entity would be responsible for reviewing data on incidents of bias and hate, and subsequently promoting conversation among the campus community.  Despite this specific aim, the role and purpose of BHERT remains somewhat vague and controversial.

According to the university website: “While there are formal channels to address complaints of bias or hate, our campus community at large is not aware of the extent to which these kinds of incidents may occur. The Bias-Hate Education Response Team aims to create a greater awareness of how these incidents may be shaping our community. BHERT creates a space for proactive dialogue related to emerging trends of bias or hate incidents.”

BHERT’s role, as identified in this statement, is to address significant issues by creating awareness.  However, there is not much awareness of the committee itself.

“I can imagine that it’s not a hugely visible group, so there may not be much awareness to begin with,” Dean of Students Mike Segawa explained.

Although BHERT was formed in 2005, the committee may be considered new in that it is still developing.  There are a number of considerations for BHERT that take priority over spreading information and generating awareness as a group.

According to Carolyn Weisz, a member of BHERT and the Faculty Diversity Committee, “Since there has not previously been a practice of providing reports of bias and hate incidents over multiple years, BHERT is looking for ways to share information back to all areas of the University.”

And prior to looking at disseminating the reports, BHERT’s concern was the data that has been collected.  “We’re just beginning to get to the place where we’re ready to share information.  First, we have to make sure that we have good information,” Weisz said.

BHERT’s collection of data entails not only compiling the details of all reported incidents of bias or hate, but also segmenting and synthesizing this data to reveal patterns.

In regard to BHERT’s role, the university website notes: “Hate and bias behaviors may seem isolated, but when aggregated these incidents tell us a story about what is happening in our community.”

It is the story uncovered by patterns in bias and hate incidents that will allow BHERT to forward its aims of increasing awareness and educating the campus community. BHERT’s role in effectively creating awareness rests on good information.  “We can’t educate unless we have good information to educate with,” Weisz noted.

There are certain steps that come before BHERT’s pursuit of generating awareness of bias and hate incidents, and of the committee itself.  In addition, there are other factors that impede the group’s visibility.  Confidentiality is one of the most prominent among these other factors.

Weisz explained that confidentiality serves as a restraining factor in raising awareness of BHERT’s response to incidents of bias and hate.  “Again, the response may not be visible to students all the time, but there’s a lot around incidents that are confidential.”

Further, the nature of BHERT’s response makes it’s contribution to issues around diversity and discrimination less visible.  BHERT is not among the immediate responders to incidents of bias and hate, and reports of such incidents do not always go directly to BHERT.  Rather, BHERT compiles information from the various groups to which individuals report incidents of bias and hate, and reviews the responses that have happened.  BHERT then serves as a second level of response to bias and hate incidents.  Based on the patterns found in this compiled information, BHERT aims to target their educational impact to prevent incidents of bias and hate in the future.

Though with time this educational effect will likely make the campus community more aware of BHERT, the committee remains less visible now because its educational response is still developing, and this response is not an immediate and involved response to individual incidents.

“BHERT is unique in collecting information and identifying patterns.  That role provides a sort of institutional accountability.  It is important to the university to collect information over time in order to use educationally,” Weisz said.

BHERT’s undertakings to identify patterns and enforce institutional accountability fit not only into the university’s efforts to address discrimination and improve diversity, but also into the pursuit of a larger understanding of the University.

According to Amy Ryken, the Chair of the Committee on Diversity, “BHERT’s efforts are one part of an institutional effort to understand the climate on campus and to document how different members of the campus community experience life on campus.”

The Campus Climate Survey, which was produced by the Diversity Advisory Council, is an example of the efforts to understand the campus community and individuals’ experiences within it.

A good portion of the data from the Campus Climate Survey concerns incidences of discrimination, harassment and exclusion.  While for some this data points to the need for committees like BHERT to work toward improving the campus climate, the data also informs the opinions of critics of BHERT.

Within the survey, the data on discrimination includes not only incidences of discrimination, but also “feeling excluded, silenced, ignored, discriminated against or harassed, even subtly.”  The results of the 2012 survey show that within each of the various group affiliations for which one might be discriminated against (gender, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.), around 15 percent of students reported feeling excluded or discriminated against.

For Richard Anderson-Connolly, chair of the department of Comparative Sociology and one of BHERT’s critics, the numbers in the Campus Climate Survey identify the existence of BHERT as a disproportionate response.  “I don’t know whether the magnitude of the problem deserves this big of an organizational response.  We have a small problem, perhaps we need a small organizational response,” Anderson-Connolly said.

That incidents of bias and hate on campus may be considered a small problem convinces some that BHERT’s impact might be minimal.  “Will BHERT even bring these numbers down to zero?” Anderson-Connolly questioned, and then asserted, “I doubt BHERT will do much to alter these numbers.”

While the numbers may be small, proponents of BHERT identify that the individual experiences must also be considered. “The number of incidents we have are relatively small, but if you’re one of the individuals involved in one of those incidents, that doesn’t feel small,” Segawa explained.

The Campus Climate Survey comprises primarily quantitative data, but is supplemented with qualitative data—that is, comments that individuals included in their survey responses.

“In all of the comments we collected, many of them reflected very hurtful, painful experiences for individuals,” Segawa said.  For many, that these individual incidents occur justifies the existence and work of BHERT, as well as many other groups on campus that address discrimination and diversity.

Another criticism of BHERT is the potential risk of the committee’s work.  For Anderson-Connolly, BHERT undermines its own endeavors.  In aiming to direct the conversation around discrimination, BHERT might in turn serve as a threat to free speech.

“There is a danger of labeling too much speech as hate speech,” Anderson-Connolly said.  Individuals might feel silenced or uncomfortable in putting forth ideas if BHERT—in efforts to promote awareness and educate—controls the discourse around diversity and discrimination.

For incidents of bias and hate on a small scale, an authority such as BHERT may not be necessary.  “The best way to combat an idea—be it racist, sexist or homophobic—is to answer with more speech,” Anderson-Connolly said.  “Better ideas drive out bad ideas.  And we have enough people who believe in equality and oppose discrimination that we don’t need the heavy-handedness of BHERT.  Our ideas are enough.”

Conversely, Czarina Ramsay, the Chair of BHERT and Director of Multicultural Student Services, sees BHERT as essential in maintaining a positive environment on campus.  “I do think BHERT is a necessary authority because it reminds us of all voices both positive and negative when it comes to navigating a safe learning environment and our accountability to construct that space for faculty, staff and students,” Ramsay said.

BHERT helps to maintain a positive campus community, but also enables an understanding of aspects of the university community that might not otherwise be reached.  “BHERT helps to provide a better understanding of marginalization and exclusion on campus through a closer analysis of the cases that have been presented,” Ramsay said.

For a variety of reasons, BHERT holds a relatively controversial and uncertain position on campus.  A number of individuals involved in BHERT noted that much of the committee’s development and direction rests on the new Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer, Michael Benitez Jr., who will begin his position in June.

As Segawa noted, “The roles of groups could change, we’ll just have to see where it goes.”

There are a number of avenues on campus to report incidents of bias or hate, harassment, or assault.  The best resources to contact are Director of Multicultural Student Services Czarina Ramsay (cramsay@pugetsound.edu), Director of Security Services Todd Badham (security@pugetsound.edu), Conduct Coordinator Krystle Cobian (kcobian@pugetsound.edu), The Bias and Hate Educational Response Team (bhert@pugetsound.edu) and beginning in Fall 2013, Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Michael Benitez Jr. (mbenitez@pugetsound.edu).

 

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