Art by Madeline Duvall
Beginning with President Jim Gash’s May 30 Instagram statement, the University has continued to revise its official commitment to diversity and inclusion. While several actionable items have been identified by the Presidential Action Advisory Team, the administration is only beginning to explore the idea of a bias reporting system.
Amid promises from Gash and other faculty and staff members, students have witnessed the implementation of the proposed Presidential Speaker Series, received updates on the hiring of a Chief Diversity Officer and anticipated the revival of the Civil Rights Spring Break Trip. While all these initiatives somewhat address Pepperdine’s historic dearth of intentionality in its relationship with its underrepresented students, they fail to advocate for these same students in an effective way when bias occurs.
While its exact purpose can vary across institutions, a bias reporting system, in general terms, is an organized algorithm by which students can report instances of prejudice. Punishment of the perpetrator can be included in the process, but, as in the case of the University of Chicago’s Bias Education and Support Team, support of the targeted student is of paramount importance.
Pepperdine does not have such a system, but this reality might soon change.
The Current Reality
The University’s Community website hosts a page educating readers on bias that highlights University of Arizona’s Step Up! Program rhetoric, focusing on empowering the targeted individual and bystanders to stand up against acts of hatred.
The site also provides contact information to “confidential reporting options,” such as University Chaplin Sara Barton and the Counseling Center, as well as vaguely directing “students who have been subjected to discrimination, harassment, and/or retaliation, to contact the dean of their school.”
To an outsider, this may present itself as a host of viable options for students to report bias — in reality, it is a little bit more complicated. The outlined reporting procedures are specifically related to discrimination, harassment and retaliation, said Seaver Dean Michael Feltner, which is a matter the University policy is “very clear on.”
This implies that any kind of bias not confined to these three categories doesn’t have a formal reporting mechanism as of yet. Arguably, this is a significant problem on a campus known across different social media accounts for its numerous instances of bias. What’s more, upper administration seems to agree.
“We all agree (me, President Gash, Dean Davis, and many others) that the process needs a fresh look and a VERY CLEAR reporting mechanism and that the whole community is very informed about this,” Vice President for Student Affairs Connie Horton wrote in a Feb. 9 email to the Graphic.
The creation of a Seaver bias response system, however, is much in its infancy. Dean of Students Mark Davis will be guiding the University in its first steps toward a new future for reporting, Horton wrote.
Davis wrote in a Feb. 10 email to the Graphic that he is in charge of initial research regarding the endeavor and is planning to present the final draft of a proposed bias response system to the newly hired Chief Diversity Officer.
“This research includes benchmarking our peer schools, researching best practices, reviewing model policies, and creating a draft bias incident response plan for Pepperdine,” Davis wrote.
Good intentions are a great starting point, but Pepperdine administration must see them all the way through.
The Letter of the Law
Whenever the topic of bias gets brought up, some of the first responses revolve around the First Amendment. This is also true of bias reporting systems.
Pepperdine’s own Discrimination and Harassment Policy protects students under the California Leonard Law, an educational code that states “no private postsecondary educational institution shall make or enforce a rule subjecting a student to disciplinary sanctions” in response to speech the First Amendment or California’s Constitution outlines and protects.
The Leonard Law on its own, however, is not a bad thing — it exists to protect a student’s right to expression. It’s the very law that protects writers’ freedom to publish the stories they are passionate about for the Graphic. Problems begin to arise when administrators from private universities hide behind this law to avoid instituting proper reporting channels.
These pieces put together seemingly take the teeth out of any proposed Pepperdine bias response system, as students would be free from punishment by the Leonard Law if they choose to exercise their First Amendment right. Lawyer Brandi Aguillon agreed.
But what does the law not protect?
The First Amendment’s intention is to protect citizens from punishment by their government, but not from the punishment of private institutions with set and agreed upon behavior guidelines, Aguillon said.
“You do not have the right to say anything you want, anytime,” Aguillon said.
Thus, even if the Leonard Law establishes protection for Seaver students from the administration, it only extends that far — to students, specifically regarding their speech.
Leonard Law does not inhibit the punishment of speech of any professors, faculty or staff on private campuses, Aguillon said. This means while other members of the Pepperdine community are free to say what they like, they are not free from the consequences the University deems fit.
The Way Forward
The University’s Christian mission and the trust they have yet to gain from their marginalized students requires administrators to root out bias in all its forms. The most clear and obvious way to do this is by instituting a bias reporting system that follows the law while also leading with an approach focused on supporting the accosted individual.
While the University has begun the process, there is still a long way to go.
Firstly, Pepperdine should make a more clear pathway from report to actionable item. Other universities, such as the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Policy, delegate different types of bias to the departments that are best suited to carry out advocacy for the parties involved.
This sort of administrative program creation falls directly in-line with the long-awaited Chief Diversity Officer’s responsibility to “plan, initiate, facilitate, and assess processes of institutional and organizational change to increase institutional capacity related to diversity and community belonging,” according to the position profile.
Secondly, accountability, where legally possible, should be exhausted at all costs. This includes acting upon reports regarding actions that are punishable notwithstanding the Leonard Law.
Only when perpetrators are shown the consequences of their actions can the University truly uphold its commitment to providing a place of belonging to the fullest extent.
Next, those who submit reports should be provided with a wealth of readily available resources. It should not be the responsibility of the harassed, the oppressed or the marginalized student to have to wade through page after page on various websites to find the support they need. Ideally, this looks like a personalized response from a delegated team member with suggestions specific to the situation at hand.
Lastly, Pepperdine needs to put more emphasis on the education of bias and discrimination as a part of this new initiative. It should not have to be the job of any one student to explain to their harasser why their actions are wrong. This could look like Student Affairs hosting community workshops or more course offerings that teach students the historic implications of bias and the tools to combat it.
True change in culture can only come from an educated community and that is, after all, the point of a university in the first place — to educate.
It’s time for the attitude surrounding bias to change, and that starts with the successful implementation of a bias response system.
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Email Tiffany Hall: email@example.com