Over the last decade, higher education has experienced a proliferation of bias response teams (BRTs). While some institutions have had teams responsible for responding to bias-related incidents for decades, others recently created teams in the wake of high-profile campus flashpoint incidents, which brought the entities into public consciousness.
This proliferation prompted EAB in 2017 to create the Campus Bias Response briefing, which outlines the various responsibilities, supporter expectations, and detractor concerns of bias response teams. Five or so years after the briefing’s publication, however, we have new insights into how bias response teams are working, prompting us to reflect and reevaluate their mission, goals and intended outcomes.
The following insights encourage institutions—even those with long-standing BRTs—to review the team’s policies and procedures to ensure they are working as effectively as possible.
Bias incidents include conduct, speech, or expression driven by prejudice that do not involve a criminal act and may not rise to the level of a law or policy violation. These incidents do impact campus climate, however, and can include micro-aggressions, protests, and events which negatively impact certain groups (Miller, Ryan., et al. “A Balancing Act”). When a bias-related incident involves a criminal component, it is usually determined as a hate crime and shared with the appropriate authorities.
Bias response teams are campus committees established to receive and respond to reports of bias. There are a range of expectations or key functions for these entities beyond report response, which commonly include:
- Supporting individuals or groups targeted by bias incidents
- Referring those impacted to appropriate campus resources, support services, and other units on and off campus as necessary
- Tracking trends of bias incidents on campus and in the surrounding community
- Educating the campus community on impacts of bias incidents and trends
- Creating and promoting educational initiatives to foster an inclusive campus climate
Three common pain points for BRTs
With these wide-ranging responsibilities in mind, bias and response teams have and continue to face three common pain points.
Pain point 1: Highly charged and political climates
With the increased use of social media and a highly politicized campus environment, bias incidents on campus are receiving an unprecedented amount of attention. Bias response teams often bear the brunt of the criticism.
Some critics view the teams as “thought police,” an entity established to monitor and restrict free speech. Others demand BRTs take punitive action against those accused of perpetrating a bias incident, even if the incident falls short of a policy violation. The teams are thus pressured to draw a nebulous line between free speech protected under the first amendment and actions that require a swift response, even as they recognize all bias-related incidents negatively impact campus climate.
Pain point 2: Competing goals and differing expectations from stakeholders
Relatedly, bias response teams are often caught between competing expectations. They are pulled between those who demand action in response to incidents and those who have a stake in maintaining and promoting a positive institutional reputation. In practice, BRTs are often tasked with both responding to individual incidents and helping the institution address larger systemic challenges.
Pain point 3: Reactive responses to systemic issues
Given the limited resources and staff dedicated to bias response work and the growing number of incidents, most teams operate reactively to individual acts. This conflicts with the original charge of most bias response teams, which includes both responses to incidents and scalable educational efforts to help prevent them. Additionally, it leaves those working on the teams with a sense they are treating symptoms rather than the disease—they are helping those affected navigate the system in place, rather than taking the steps necessary to positively impact and change the culture (Miller, 2018).
EAB research highlights how the pain points above create a misalignment between BRT goals in theory and tasks completed in practice. Most teams are unable to simultaneously determine the necessary response and support for singular incidents, communicate the response to the wider campus community, and carry out educational efforts aimed at creating a safe, inclusive environment.
Considerations to enhance BRT impact
The following are considerations in amending or creating bias response teams with the above pain points in mind.
Reassess your bias response team's processes, resources, and staff makeup, and enhance your bias response team's efficacy
Create or amend the charge, goals, and resources for bias response teams
Re-evaluate whether the bias response team is expected to respond to incidents as they occur, create educational programs based on identified bias trends, or both. If the team is already established, track how they spend their time and identify any misalignments between expectation and reality.
For example, you might find a team is expected to both respond to individual efforts and create educational programming but spends 90% of their time on the latter. If this is the case, institutional stakeholders should revisit the scope of work expected and the team’s primary charge.
Avoid positioning the BRT as a punitive entity
Because acts of bias are not policy violations or criminal acts, the BRT is not responsible for handing down punishments. If an incident does rise to the level of a policy violation or a criminal act, it is sent to the appropriate authorities. Despite this, many BRT processes rely on a criminal justice model, using terms like investigation and perpetrator, and some go so far to conclude an incident inconclusive if a perpetrator cannot be identified (Miller, 2018). This approach doesn’t fit because, in many instances, it is difficult or impossible to know who conducted a bias act, like in cases of graffiti. Additionally, a BRT is not a punitive arm.
Appropriate processes for BRTs include bystander support, promoting student well-being, trend identification, restorative justice, and mediation. Review BRT descriptions and process language to ensure the goals and responsibilities of BRTs are clear.
Invest resources to enhance educational, proactive initiatives in support of an inclusive culture, either with the bias response team or some other campus unit
Consistent educational initiatives around bias help avoid implicating individual incidents as isolated from the overall campus climate. Additionally, they help shift bias response work from reactive to proactive.
Common educational initiatives include town halls, mediation, and restorative justice services. Engaging in these activities may mean increasing resources for the BRT team, formalizing campus partnerships, or identifying the appropriate unit to take on such initiatives.
Expand bias response team partnerships to enhance scaled educational initiatives
If the team charge is to focus solely on responding to bias-incident reports, institutions must also invest in creating partnerships between the BRT and other entities on campus, such as DEIJ taskforces, student organizations, or residence life. These units can work together to develop scalable educational initiatives to promote an inclusive culture on campus.
Expand bias response team staff
If resources are available and the BRT has an expansive charge, assign a mental health professional to increase student support as well as legal counsel versed in first amendment law to help determine if an incident rises to the level of a hate crime.
Increase transparency of bias-response work
When the functions of the BRT are codified, make these responsibilities clear to the campus community. A bias and harassment report and support webpage should clearly define relevant terms, include easily accessible links to the institution’s various policies, and identify teams and clear points of contact who support various reporter needs.
Publish annual reports—at a minimum—to update the campus on trends of bias incidents, education initiatives, team members, and funding
Avoid listing every incident in the body of a report or webpage which can perpetuate the idea that each incident is isolated from the campus climate. Instead, call out commonalities or trends, highlight responses and resources, feature new initiatives to reduce bias and harassment, and include an appendix of individual incidents if necessary.
Get bias response team's input on university flashpoint response communications but don't make it their primary function
Campus-wide responses to bias incidents are imperative, but the BRT should not be solely responsible for creating these plans and responses. While the BRT can be a helpful input in developing the institution’s response, it is critical that multiple stakeholders including cabinet leaders are actively involved in crafting a consistent message and response.
- Miller, Ryan A., et al. “A Balancing Act: Whose Interests Do Bias Response Teams Serve?” The Review of Higher Education, vol. 42 no. 1, 2018, p. 313-337. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/rhe.2018.0031.