In my four years at the University of Tulsa, I’ve seen four new buildings, a host of renovations and new academic programs. I’ve also seen the school respond to student sentiment and make changes due to SA recommendations. I’ve seen that TU administrators are willing to change TU for the better.
We don’t want to think that TU would suspend a student for speech that wasn’t his or her own. We don’t want to think TU would do so without a hearing. We don’t want to think that it would try to intimidate its student journalists. We don’t want to think our administration would prioritize its image above the best interests of its students. Yet the administration’s handling of the Trey Barnett case really made me question both TU’s policies and the administration’s judgment.
If the University of Tulsa wants to reaffirm its commitment to freedom of speech and expression, it should reform its harassment policy so that all students are explicitly granted a hearing in all harassment cases. It should also alter the language so that it is less ambiguous, encouraging and promoting expression and criticism.
The Policy on Harassment prohibits “any form of inappropriate conduct which… places an individual in fear of harm to his or her person or reputation on or off campus” and includes what a “reasonable person” would consider to be “insulting,” “vulgar” or “inappropriate” speech.
According to a FIRE article, this definition is not consistent with the legal definition of harassment unless the damage to one’s reputation “is severe and pervasive enough to actually create a hostile environment.”
It is also concerning that “the authority to grant exception to one or more of these policies and procedures is vested with the President of The University of Tulsa or his/her delegated representative(s)” is included in the policy.
There is a distinct difference between language and engagement that is rude or makes an individual uncomfortable and harassment that stunts learning or creates an unsafe environment.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gave TU’s speech-related policies a red light rating because TU “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. A ‘clear’ restriction is one that unambiguously infringes on what is or should be protected expression.” The harassment policy prompted this ranking.
It is particularly concerning that the definition of harassment includes conduct that may harm an individual’s reputation on campus.
This definition is so vague that it could be applied to almost anything. For example, it could apply to a Facebook post critical of a professor, criticism of how a football player fumbled an important play during a big game or your snapstory about how you’re mad at your roommate.
Under the current policy, it is acceptable to say almost anything about an institution, such as the university itself, an academic department or its current policies. However, as soon as someone’s name is attached to anything deemed “harassment,” you could be violating the harassment policy.
Criticism is important. It keeps people honest. It’s a way to fight corruption. While sometimes criticism makes people uncomfortable, it is vital for accountability and often spurs innovation and change.
First of all, TU should require hearings in all harassment cases. While it does appear that the Student Code of Conduct would require hearings under the harassment policy, it should be explicitly stated in the harassment policy.
Second, the university should reform the language of the harassment policy, eliminating the fear of harm to one’s reputation from the definition.
It should also limit the definition of harassment to the legal definition so that behavior must be severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile environment, rather than simply offend someone.
I’ve seen TU change its policies before. Last year, President Upham added sexual orientation and gender identity to the Equal Employment Opportunity Policy, after SA passed legislation requesting the change.
That same year, TU created a non-discrimination statement that included those groups, amongst others, that applied to other university activities, such as academics, housing and admissions.
I know the administration can do the right thing by improving the Policy on Harassment.