The Corner

The one and only.

Bias Reporting and The Wren Cross


Continuing discussion of the newly created anonymous bias reporting system at William and Mary, let me note that since my last post, Eugene Volokh has updated his thoughts. After looking at William and Mary’s definition of bias, Volokh is more worried about the new system than he was at first. Let me also remind folks that we’re not talking about William and Mary alone (see “And That’s Why I’m Turning You In“).

In a moment, I’ll make some comments and put up some additional links about the Wren Cross episode, which I think stands as critical context for making sense of this issue. But first let me address Volokh’s larger point. I agree that we have to give due regard to the substance of the policy itself. Yet it’s equally true, as Volokh himself notes, that even a carefully constructed and narrowly construed anonymous bias reporting policy is liable to abuse. In my view, the larger context supplied by today’s campus culture argues that if we err, it ought to be on the side of protecting against the abuses that could easily be fostered by an anonymous bias reporting system.

As it happens, William and Mary’s Wren cross dispute provides us with some evidence for concern, even if this example does not directly involve the new bias reporting system. Over and above the substantive issues in the Wren Cross dispute, there was widespread agreement that, in attempting to remove the historic cross from the Wren chapel, President Nichol short-circuited appropriate channels of information and consultation.

The cross’s removal came to light only after an internal e-mail was leaked to the student newspaper. President Nichol, who provided extensive justification to alumni for his decision not to appeal the NCAA decision against the school athletic team’s Indian insignia, for a long time failed to notify alumni about his decision regarding the Wren Cross. A list-serve used by William and Mary students to contact alumni about the Wren Cross controversy “was mysteriously deleted from the college system” a few hours after it was put into use. All this was widely known and widely condemned by the William and Mary community. And although Nichols himself has since admitted that his own missteps contributed to the deteriorating climate at William and Mary, it’s obvious to all that these admissions only came under intense public pressure. (See here and here.)

Given this history of administrative conduct (or misconduct) those who do not share President Nichols’ views on what constitutes bias in the matter of the Wren Cross episode–and beyond–seem to me to have a very real basis for fearing abuse of the new bias reporting system.

It has also been suggested that President Nichols may be sympathetic to the, shall we say, unusual view that campus religious groups must allow membership, voting, and office-holding privileges to students who oppose a group’s declared religious views. (See here and here.) If true, this would also seem to constitute a very real basis to fear ideological abuse of the new anonymous bias reporting system.

These background concerns may or may not exist at the University of Virginia or the University of New Hampshire. Assuming for the moment, for the sake of argument, that no such analogous instances exist at those universities, it’s worth bearing in mind that, prior to the accession of President Nichol, William and Mary itself was not notable for abusive political correctness. One appointment is all it took. Now it would be unfair to over-generalize from an isolated case. Yet given the current nationwide university climate, I don’t think the Nichols case is at all isolated. Given that, it seems to me that the risks of these anonymous bias reporting systems outweigh any benefits. I’m still open to argument, and I do agree that Volokh has raised legitimate and important points. On balance, however, I am still quite concerned.

For more on the Wren Cross episode, go here, here, here and here.