On the Ithaca College campus, Kyle James has a pretty sweet office. James is vice president of the college's Student Government Association. His view overlooks the quad, where he can see students crossing back and forth between classes. James says lately, there have been some disruptions to life on campus.
“This actually started in 2011 with an exploratory committee about bias on the Ithaca College campus,” he says. “From that they found that microaggressions were a big problem.”
Microaggressions: small, hurtful words or actions that aren’t big enough to be labeled harassment but are usually tied to some kind of prejudice like racism, sexism or homophobia.
James says it’s students and professors making the comments. “I had a professor, for example, who made a joke about Jewish people,” he says. “It was a very off-color joke, and kind of got a lot of nervous laughs.”
James and the Student Government Association say this has to stop. Their plan: make an online system where students can report microaggressions. They introduced a bill to that effect in student government last month.
The new system would be anonymous, but SGA would look for patterns in the offenses. No punishments are attached to the system. But if one professor, for example, had a lot of reported microaggressions, James says SGA might approach the professor to talk about it.
“It would just be emailing the professor,” he says, “and saying, ‘The microaggressions committee has noticed that there have been students who feel that you have committed a microaggression. We just want to make you aware of this.’”
That friendliness is hard to reconcile with the controversy that’s come down on this bill. A flurry of online articles slammed it as a free speech violation days after it was introduced.
Will Creeley wrote one of those articles. He’s with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He says students shouldn’t report microaggressions online, they should talk about them.
“I would counsel the best thing to do is say, ‘Hey, I find that offensive, and here’s why,’” he says. “Instead of retreating back to your dorm room and logging on to your anonymous online reporting system.”
At nearby Binghamton University, another student group says it’s not so easy to speak up against discrimination. The group is called Students for Change, and they say their campus has a problem with racism and sexism.
“In one of the instances that we’re talking about,” says group member Maria Chaves. “A student was told in a class by a peer, ‘You shouldn’t have kids, as a black woman, because your kids are just going to get shot. You’re going to have black children, so what’s the point of having kids?’”
Chaves says incidents like this have been going on for years at Binghamton. Students for Change has a wide range of demands – they’re not just about microaggressions. They include changing campus forms to recognize transgender people and improving diversity training.
A few months ago, the group had a big protest that shut down major campus roads. Last month they had a public meeting with college President Harvey Stenger. But Chaves says they haven’t seen action from the college yet.
“What we want is a timeline,” she says. “What we want is concrete plans into instituting some of these changes, and we have yet to hear any of it.”
Stenger said in a statement that work on campus inclusivity is ongoing. At Ithaca College, the administration hasn’t taken a stance on the bill yet. Kyle James says there’s “a lot of talking” ahead before it could reach a vote.