The Baffling ‘Bull’ Behind Title IX

Editor’s Note: The essay below is a revised and edited version specifically tailored for Minding the Campus. It has been updated from its original publication on The Berea Torch.


At a liberal arts college dedicated to the unfettered pursuit of truth, it is “baffling” that tribalism and ambiguity accompanied by a lack of concern for truth and due process would be tolerated, let alone normalized, by the administrative powers that be.

“Bull” is a rebuke to a claim perceived to be deceptive, misleading, disingenuous, unfair, or false. In his classic work, On Bullshit (2005), Harry Frankfurt pointed out that, unlike liars who blatantly lie, bulls******s convey impressions about themselves and others while simply ignoring the truth. Unlike liars, bulls******s maintain plausible deniability: “Who knew?”

Frankfurt built on themes introduced by Postman and Weingartner’s (1971) classic, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, that suggested the purpose of higher education was to help students become effective crap-detectors. More recently, John Petrocelli’s (2021), The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit, extends Frankfurt’s ideas and integrates them with behavioral sciences’ methods of acquiring and analyzing evidence. Unfortunately, an absence of evidence characterizes many of the current arguments about Title IX.

Title IX extended the 1964 Civil Rights Act (CRA) to higher education in 1972. A critical portion of the 1964 CRA is Title VII, which prohibits hostile environment discrimination. Title IX exemplifies what Lukianoff and Haidt (2018) argue are good intentions and bad ideas creating calamitous consequences. These bad ideas were derived from “lived experiences” and strong feelings with little regard for evidence or rationale.

Most colleges borrow the government’s bureaucratic and vague language to create their sexual harassment prevention programs. My college defines hostile environment discrimination as any “activity or conduct involving sexual harassment that is sufficiently serious that it interferes with or limits a person’s ability to participate in or benefit from the College’s program.”

Sexual Harassment definitions often conclude with a catch-all phrase, “or such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work or academic performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working, academic, or campus environment.” The two words, “or effect, provide potential grievants and administrators latitude in prosecuting those they believe to be behaving or speaking inappropriately without considering their intentions. The uncertainty created by harassment’s vague description and subjective criteria is exacerbated by the administration’s reluctance to specify the particular words or behaviors they will punish. This ambiguity creates a ubiquitous chilling effect – many members of the campus community conclude it is best to “shut up and color.”

To some administrators, inappropriate behavior might be expressing a different viewpoint, referencing contrary evidence, or just asking a critical question; the effect is demonstrated by a grievant’s testimony about their injured feelings or experienced fear.

Here’s the bottom line: if I say or do something you feel is offensive, you can file a Title IX grievance against me and persecute me unmercifully while simultaneously signaling your bravery and virtue to other members of your tribe—a perverse wokian win-win.

Most liberal arts colleges also promise academic freedom. Who would attend or teach at a college that did not promise academic freedom?

My college’s Faculty Manual asserts: “Academic freedom is essential to quality education … [t]he faculty member is entitled to freedom in the classroom and should be supported by the College administration and colleagues … this freedom is fundamental in the advancement of truth … full freedom in… presenting a variety of perspectives and in research and its publication … (individuals) enjoy the Constitutional rights which belong equally to all citizens.”

A thoughtful person might sense the tension between the College’s commitment to prohibit subjective hostile environments and its commitment to protecting the academic freedom of those seeking to discover and disseminate factual information—i.e., the truth. My college’s Harassment Policy (p. 66) acknowledges this tension but then claims that “in prohibiting harassment… Berea seeks to preserve and enhance academic freedom for all… (not) to inhibit scholarly, scientific, or artistic treatment of subject matter appropriate to… higher education.

Thus, the conflict is resolved by administrative fiat: protection from hostile environments enhances academic freedom. In my opinion, this is bullshit. As George Orwell observed, speech that offends no one needs no protection. Academic freedom is needed most when someone is offended and offers an emotional account of the harm they suffered due to someone else’s ignorance or insensitivity.

All of the foregoing is a matter of opinion.

I taught several sections of a first-year course entitled “Questioning Authority: Skepticism and Science as Antidotes for Oppression.” This was directly relevant to my Industrial/Organizational Psychology classes, where students enthusiastically examined the apparent tension between the College’s promise of academic freedom and its obligation to provide hostile environment protection. Developing a survey to collect data about students’ perceptions and judgments from campus community members seemed permissible and obligatory.

The survey my class and I developed contained about 80 questions and was attached to the report of the results; it can be found here. Some items were borrowed from other surveys addressing academic freedom and Title IX, but most of the survey used brief descriptions of realistic scenarios to solicit individuals’ perceptions of hostile environments and judgments about academic freedom. The chair of the college’s Institutional Review Board provided substantial support in converting our survey into a Qualtrics format. A representative sample of 120 members of the campus community submitted nearly complete responses within hours of its posting.

When asked explicitly about their support for freedom of speech and hostile environment protection, most respondents claimed to support both.

In fact, expressed support for freedom of speech was slightly greater than support for hostile environment protection. It was also noteworthy that, just as the Faculty Manual claimed, those who supported freedom of speech also expressed more support for Title IX protections—r120 = .21, p<.02. Nonetheless, much of my career as a behavioral scientist has focused on distinguishing between individuals’ explicit claims and the implicit knowledge revealed by their behaviors.

Despite the college president’s efforts to suppress our study by prohibiting me from using or sharing it, it has now been presented more widely than any study I’ve ever done.

A student research poster at the 2019 MidAmerica Undergraduate Psychology Research Convention received over a dozen “thumbs up” ratings, and two presentations to the Social Sciences Division of the Kentucky Academy of Sciences Annual Conference received laudatory comments.

The Canadian Society for Academic Freedom published a synopsis of results (pgs. 37-43) and hosted a two-hour presentation by my students and me. The study was featured on a psychology podcast, and recently, the Heterodox Academy hosted my presentation on our study for their legal and economics communities.

Our analysis of the survey responses contained several important results: respondents often disagreed about the scenarios. However, the pattern of their ratings revealed their implicit belief that scenarios perceived to be hostile environments should not be protected by academic freedom. This reflects a profound misunderstanding of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

In fact, across the 21 scenarios, the correlation between average hostile environment ratings and academic protection judgments was negative .87; over three-quarters of the variance in subjects’ judgments about academic freedom was predicted by their ratings of the scenario’s environmental hostility. Across the 120 respondents, the correlation between their average ratings of environmental hostility and judgments about academic freedom protection was negative .61, p<.00.

Despite their explicit claims, the perception of an environment as being hostile predicts that most folks, most of the time, will decide academic freedom does not apply. This result renders academic freedom a largely meaningless educational ornament—it is only applicable when it is unnecessary; when no one has been offended.

The scenarios were sorted into three groups. Some scenarios (#s 8, 28, 30, 32, 35, 37, & 39) were seen as hostile environments (m = 4.58/6.00) and judged not to be protected by academic freedom (m = 2.24/6.00). Another seven scenarios (#s 13, 20, 22, 26, 43, 51, & 56) showed the opposite pattern: most respondents saw them as not creating hostile environments (m = 2.49/6.00) and—somewhat gratuitously—being protected by academic freedom (m = 4.09/6.00).

The seven remaining scenarios (#s 6, 16, 18, 24, 41, 47, & 55) had average ratings near neutral for both environmental hostility (m = 3.31/6.00) and academic freedom protection (m = 3.65/6.00). Even more interesting was our discovery that respondents’ perceptions were predicted by their gender, sexual orientation, and political identity and beliefs. Lesbians who identified as being very liberal saw most scenarios as being hostile environments that should not be protected by academic freedom.

In contrast, heterosexual, politically moderate males perceived fewer scenarios as being hostile environments and judged that most scenarios deserved academic freedom protection.

These results could have been used to educate the community about Title IX, academic freedom, and the dynamics underlying relevant perceptions and judgments by members of the campus community. Such an educational program would have been helpful. However, the administration assiduously prevented such conversations by keeping information about Title IX cases “confidential.”

One consequence of this star-chamber strategy has been to terrorize our college community. Many students and faculty members are unclear about what is a punishable offense and fear even asking such questions. During his hearing, a faculty member accused of having created a hostile environment asked a Title IX administrator if “feminism” was a protected category—it isn’t. The administrator did not know, but the hearing committee sanctimoniously cited this question as additional evidence of the defendant’s reprehensible hostility.

One of the survey items asked about individuals’ comfort in expressing opinions or asking critical questions. Nationally, about 50% of undergraduates express discomfort at doing this. At our college, the proportion of community members expressing such discomfort was 80%.

My college is not unique.

A study by FIRE concluded: “[T]he greater the relative size of the DEI bureaucracy at a university, the more discomfort students feel expressing their views on social media and in informal conversations with other students in the campus ‘quad, dining hall, or lounge’ (r=.49, p=.00).”

As an experimental cognitive psychologist, I was interested in how differential processing of the information presented in the scenarios contributed to differences in ratings. Two primary cognitive functions are attention—the selective intake of information—and memory—the storage and recall of information. These critical processes can be impaired in several ways.

Anxiety can lead to hypersensitivity in which lots of information from a small focal area is selected, but essential contextual information may be neglected. Depression inflates negative aspects of remembered events at the expense of equally relevant positive information. Both Traumatic Brain Injury and chemotherapy often increase both anxiety and depression and, as such, can distort perception, experience, memory, and testimony. Jonathan Haidt in his recent book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness (2024), argues that changes in parenting and technology have fostered an increasing number of developmental disasters. He explains why girls are more likely to have suffered from such impairments than boys.

In addition to these potential distortions, a recent study in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology (Lahtinen, 2024, 14 Mar) entitled “Construction and Validation of a Scale for Assessing Social Justice Attitudes” identified particular statements most closely associated with wokeness. Interestingly, our local survey study found that two particular beliefs—along with gender and political identity—predicted individuals’ perceptions of environmental hostility. These explicit beliefs were that it was appropriate to shout down a speaker whose speech was expected to be hurtful to others and endorsement of the need for hostile environment protection. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Scandinavian study was their discovery that the more woke beliefs an individual endorsed, the greater their anxiety and depression. Albert Ellis, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, would have labeled these definitive declarations “stinkin’ thinkin”.

Admittedly, things are bad; polarization, oppression, and restrictions on academic freedom on college campuses are increasing. Worse yet, as this essay suggests, there is reason to believe they may be getting worse.


Photo by lexiconimages — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 309052877

Author

  • David B. Porter

    David B. Porter, DPhil, Col, USAF (Ret), is a professor in exile in Berea, KY. He may be reached at dave.porter.berea@gmail.com.

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2 thoughts on “The Baffling ‘Bull’ Behind Title IX

  1. Thank you for this brilliant and insightful piece.
    “Here’s the bottom line: if I say or do something you feel is offensive, you can file a Title IX grievance against me and persecute me unmercifully while simultaneously signaling your bravery and virtue to other members of your tribe—a perverse wokian win-win.”
    Indeed.

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