University will work with staff to clarify and modify course policies, and ensures students they will not be failed 'merely as a result of using terms that may be deemed offensive to some'

The president of an American university has been forced to wade into a national row after professors threatened to fail students who used “inappropriate” terms such as ‘illegal aliens’, ‘tranny’, and ‘coloured people’.

Interim president of Washington State University, Daniel J. Bernardo, released a public statement saying the institution deeply values the tenets of freedom of expression and that professors are banned from placing blanket restrictions on the use of certain terms.

He said: “We are asking all faculty members to take a moment to review their course policies to ensure that students’ right to freedom of expression is protected along with a safe and productive learning environment.”

The full statement from President Bernardo:

PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University deeply values the tenets of freedom of expression for every member of our community, including all students, faculty and staff. Those First Amendment rights are reinforced in our policies, procedures and practices. Open dialogue, vigorous debate and the free exchange of ideas, as well as the language used to convey these ideas, are at the core of who we are as a higher education institution.

Over the weekend, we became aware that some faculty members, in the interest of fostering a constructive climate for discussion, included language in class syllabi that has been interpreted as abridging students’ free speech rights. We are working with these faculty members to clarify, and in some cases modify, course policies to ensure that students’ free speech rights are recognised and protected. No student will have points docked merely as a result of using terms that may be deemed offensive to some. Blanket restriction of the use of certain terms is not consistent with the values upon which this university is founded.

Free speech and a constructive climate for learning are not incompatible. We aim to cultivate diversity of expression while protecting individual rights and safety.

To this end, we are asking all faculty members to take a moment to review their course policies to ensure that students’ right to freedom of expression is protected along with a safe and productive learning environment.

In the syllabus for her Women and Popular Culture Class, Professor Selena Lester Breikss described how gross generalisations, stereotypes, and derogatory/oppressive language were not acceptable.

She added: “Use of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, classist, or generally offensive language in class, or submission of such material, will not be tolerated – including ‘The Man,’ ‘Coloured People,’ ‘Illegals/Illegal Aliens,’ ‘Tranny’ and so on – or referring to women/men as ‘females’ or ‘males’.”

She said she would correct such language in class, but added how repeated use of oppressive and hateful language would result in removal from class without attendance or participation points, failure of the assignment, and – in extreme cases – failure for the semester.

Professor Rebecca Fowler also added a note on “inappropriate terminology” into her syllabus for the Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies course, telling students: “Don’t use it.”

She then went on to highlight a list of the banned terms and suggested alternatives:

  • Not “coloured” person/s/people but “people of colour.”

  • Not “the white man” but “white men,” “white males,” or “white society”

  • Not “illegal alien” or “illegals” but “undocumented” migrants/immigrants/persons. Note that the Associated Press (AP) has determined not to use it:
    ‘The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.’

  • If you use the above terms in your writing, your grade will suffer a deduction of one point per incident.

According to CampusReform – a watchdog to the American higher education system – Ms Fowler complained in an email that ‘illegal alien’ has infiltrated dominant discourses that circulate within the media.

She added: “Our society has come to associate ALL unauthorized border crossings with those immigrants originating from countries south of our border,” which, she said, was systematically dehumanising such people and exploiting them for their labour.

After the release of President Bernardo’s statement, however, professor emeritus of history at California State University told Inside Higher Ed in an email that, although professors have the right to make their own syllabus rules as they see fit, such blanket bans on specific words or expressions “actually contradict the true spirit of open and free discussion.”

Comments