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Treading on egg shells: Consensus that UCPH zero-tolerance needs to be amended

Debate meeting — Giving offence should not lead directly to a disciplinary meeting. UCPH should amend its guidelines for offensive behaviour in the new year. Most participants agreed with this at an internal debate on the UCPH zero-tolerance policy.

It was the season of good cheer, but the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) was still at the centre of a heated debate on giving offence, values and zero-tolerance. So Rector Henrik C. Wegener and the university’s staff collaboration committee held an internal debate about the guidelines for the handling of offensive behaviour that had set off a Danish media storm that started back in September and that has not abated since.

Even though it is the 20th December, the auditorium at the Faculty of Social Sciences is jam-packed. Students, staff and a handful of journalists squeeze themselves in, and are all ears. Everyone wants to be a part of the great giving-offence-debate.

Henrik C. Wegener is allowed to start and present the guidelines that he has attempted to defend for the last four months. He knows exactly what is at stake:

“We need to succeed in having clear, well-known and up-to-date guidelines – but we also need to ensure academic freedom. The big question today is whether we have succeeded in achieving both.”

The right to object

The panel consists of some of the media’s favourite combatants in the offence debate: Chairman of the Student Council Amanda Büchert, Professor Flemming Dela, Associate Professor Thomas Brudholm, student Anders Mortensen, Chairman of the staff policy committee and Dean of the Faculty of Theology Kirsten Busch Nielsen and the academic staff representative Thomas Vils Pedersen. In front of them are three hundred of the university’s top pundits ready to impale them on a flawed argument.

We need to succeed in having clear, well-known and up-to-date guidelines – but we also need to ensure academic freedom. The big question today is whether we have succeeded in achieving both.

Rector Henrik C. Wegener

So the words are chosen carefully by the panel members, who for once are not addressing each other from the debate sections in the country’s newspapers. They agree on one thing at least: The guidelines against offensive behaviour need to be revised. The only question is how.

Several of the participants in the panel helped work out the guideline in the first place. None of them could have imagined that one sentence in particular would set off the Danish debate on identity politics. It stated that “it is the employee’s or the student’s experience of having been subjected to offensive behaviour that is the starting point”.

This is what Kirsten Busch Nielsen says:

“The debate in the media has shown that you can read the guideline in a particular way. Namely that the right to object is the same thing as the right to restrict the freedom of expression and research. That you can read the guideline like this is something that we need to take into consideration. In my opinion, it is more a question of formulation than content,” says the dean.

I agree that non-criminal offences should never lead directly to disciplinary meetings. But it is important that we have a dialogue on the non-criminal offences and create a space to deal with them
Thomas Vils Pedersen, representative for academic staff

Professor Flemming Dela was one of the three employee representatives from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, who criticised the guideline on the Berlingske news site. He is far from satisfied with the wording, and believes that it should be limited as much as possible.

“Criticism is the DNA of the university – to, and from, researchers and students. It is the core of everything we do. You must be able to accept criticism, including harsh criticism. Of course, there are limits. We always go for the ball, not the man. And if we move into what someone perceives as offensive, then we’re way out,” says the professor.

Dialogue rather than disciplinary meetings

The University of Copenhagen’s own constitution states it plainly: Staff policy should safeguard freedom of expression and the freedom of research. Rector Henrik C. Wegener emphasised this several times and pointed to ten staff policies that are prior to, and above, any guideline.

Criticism is the DNA of the university – to, and from, researchers and students. It is the core of everything we do.

Professor Flemming Dela

At the debate meeting, it became clear that it is this, academic freedom, that was the biggest concern among students and staff. As how can UCPH ensure that researchers can teach and research without being the target of an offended student?

For academic staff representative and associate professor Thomas Vils Pedersen it is all about getting the freedom of teaching and research written into the guideline. And he will in the future emphasise that any case process never starts with a disciplinary meeting:

“I agree that non-criminal offences should never lead directly to disciplinary meetings. But it is important that we have a dialogue on non-criminal offences and create a space to deal with them,” he says.

Things have moved too fast

Associate professor at the Department for Cross-cultural and Regional Studies (ToRS) Thomas Brudholm teaches the subject of racism and hate crime. He is basically enthusiastic about the initiative to improve the university’s handling of offensive behaviour. But he also believes that the guideline has far-reaching consequences:

“I showed the guideline to a law professor from London, and for him it was a bit more than a guideline. It is presented as a very soft document. But in reality it provides the foundation for going further. It establishes an opportunity to convene a disciplinary meeting, and puts pressure on management to do so.”

The problem here – something that has also been the case at other universities – is that things have moved a bit too fast. The process must be able to keep up

Associate professor Thomas Brudholm

There is broad consensus in the panel that the university needs to look for dialogue in cases of offensive behaviour. Both the dean Kirsten Busch Nielsen and the Student Council chairman Amanda Büchert emphasise that this was also the intention of the guideline.

But associate professor Thomas Brudholm says there is not enough clarity in this. He points out that the process of producing the guideline probably went too fast:

“Of course, the process should start by listening to the person who has taken offence, and by starting a dialogue. But then we need to know when sanctions should kick in. The problem here – something that has also been the case at other universities – is that things have moved a bit too fast. The process must be able to keep up.”

He proposes that when they revise the guidelines in the new year they look at initiatives at other universities like the University of Chicago and the University of Sussex. At these universities you can find more precise definitions of the types of behaviour that the university will confront.

Can you use gender as an example?

So when should sanctions kick in? This is a well known question in an identity policy debate with many shades of grey. One question from the audience refers to a very specific situation.

This is a lecturer in biology who uses the distinction between man/woman in an example in statistics teaching. Some students have criticised this as being offensive to students who do not fit in to a binary gender perception. No students have complained, but it has been the object of discussion at a staff meeting.

A colleague calls it the Voldemort effect. You think of a word, as a kind of violence that maintains structural racism regardless of its intention or context
Associate professor Thomas Brudholm

The question from the audience is on whether it does not jeopardise freedom of research, when otherwise non-political biology students acquire such a degree of everyday sensitivity. Dean Kirsten Busch Nielsen does not believe that this is the case:

“The term non-political everyday sensitivity is very good. Standards can shift without us even noticing. You need to then take stock of a possible new situation. We welcomed the example, but I could not see how it would lead to changing the guidelines. It is also an example of finding a specific way out. You talked about it and everyone was wiser after the meeting. Your warning actually works in the other direction.”

Professor Flemming Dela calls the situation a scary example of the threat to academic freedom. He is asked whether there are no situations that are so inappropriate that management needs to take action.

“Yes, but there is hardly a three-hour class which should not be evaluated today. If a lecturer is repeatedly criticised, it is to be handled by a department head or someone else. We cannot have someone lecturing nonsense in classrooms. But this should lead to dialogue and not a disciplinary meeting,” the professor says. He believes that the current evaluation system is well equipped to handle offensive behaviour.

The Voldemort effect

The fear of an explosion in disciplinary meetings is not something that has been plucked out of thin air. It refers to a recent story from the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen about an associate professor at the Faculty of Humanities who was subject to an inquiry after anonymous allegations of racism, sexism and eurocentrism in the teaching. Even though UCPH did not support the accusations, it had major consequences for the associate professor.

In teaching situations, you must be allowed to say things that may seem offensive at the University of Copenhagen. But I do not believe that we can make out a list in advance about what you can and cannot do

Thomas Vils Pedersen, academic staff representative

One of the words that the associate professor allegedly said started with an ‘n’. And the debate about certain words has been animated by segments of theory that do not believe that it should be permitted to state the words, regardless of context.

“A colleague calls it the Voldemort effect. You think of a word as a kind of violence that maintains structural racism regardless of its intention or context. For someone teaching racism and hate crimes, this creates a strange situation. There are some theoretical schools of thought that extend the concept of trauma and violence, and level out the difference between the offence which may be given in a threatening, insulting or demeaning utterance, and the enlightenment and care of exploring the very same utterance.”

This is Thomas Brudholm’s response to a question of why we now have a different attitude to freedom of expression than during the time of the Danish Muhammed cartoon controversy. A question which, incidentally, was asked by emeritus professor Eva Smith. For the associate professor, it is essential that students and teachers do not, in their common objective examination of, say, hate speech, do the teaching as if treading on egg shells.

Staff representative Thomas Vils Pedersen mentions the possibility that you have to be able to prove that a word is used in a derogatory way. The solution is certainly not a checklist with the statements that are permitted and prohibited in the classroom, the associate professor points out:

“In teaching situations, you must be allowed to say things that can be offensive at the University of Copenhagen. I do not believe that we can make out a list in advance on what you can and cannot do.”

The staff collaboration committee (HSU) and the staff policy committee (PPU) will discuss the guidelines in the new year based on input from the debate meeting on the 20th December.

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