The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is conducting a compliance review of the University stemming from an incident in which an instructor singled out a student for criticism for comments the student made in class about homosexuality.
The review, initiated by a congressman from North Carolina, will determine if the instructor’s actions constituted harassment based on race or sex and whether the University responded appropriately. Chancellor James Moeser announced the investigation in a Faculty Council meeting on March 26.
The February incident involved a student’s comment in the class about his objection to homosexuality. After class was over, the instructor, English lecturer Elyse Crystall, criticized him in an e-mail message sent to all members of the class. Crystall referred to the student as a “privileged, white, heterosexist Christian male” and said his comments constituted “hate speech.”
U.S. Rep. Walter Jones of Farmville contacted Moeser to express his displeasure and requested an investigation of the University to see if the student’s civil rights had been violated.
“Had Ms. Crystall substituted the word ‘black’ for ‘white,’ ‘homosexual’ for ‘heterosexual’ or ‘Muslim’ for ‘Christian,’ she would have been suspended or fired immediately. Instead the student in question was forced to go on an online message board to defend himself to his classmates, his academic future left in the hands of the likes of Ms. Crystall,” Jones wrote to Moeser.
Jones said that, besides the Office of Civil Rights review, he had asked the state attorney general to look into the matter.
A group of students sent a letter to Moeser and Provost Robert Shelton saying the federal investigation was uncalled for and complaining that gay and lesbian students on campus often feel harassed and intimidated. “We feel that the Administration’s response stands out as a clear example of a large-scale lack of commitment to providing all students with a safe and supportive environment in which to learn,” the letter read.
James Thompson, chair of the English department, met with Crystall, the student and the class to discuss the incident. Crystall apologized for her actions, and an observer has been assigned to monitor the class for the rest of the semester. Moeser praised the department and the University’s response as “timely and appropriate, tempered and measured.”
The student was contacted and declined to comment.
Crystall wrote a statement regarding her comments, which was read by a student at a March 31 news conference that she did not attend.
“I believed then and continue to believe that it is a teacher’s right and responsibility to guide, support and, when necessary for the greater good of the classroom community, limit student comments,” The Daily Tar Heel reported from her statement.
Crystall also expressed concern over the legal implications of the compliance investigation.
“If it is found that referring to a student as having racial and gender privilege constitutes a violation of laws designed to protect the historically disenfranchised populations of women and people of color, then these laws will be rendered as meaningless,” read her statement.
“This would constitute a setback of civil rights of historic proportion.”
Crystall declined to provide the Carolina Alumni Review with a copy of the letter. She also declined comment, saying she was unable to speak until the investigation concluded and that she hoped the issue would “die down” with the end of the semester.
Of the investigation, Moeser told the Faculty Council, “We should not suppress any viewpoint, but we should require intellectual vigor. We will not treat any member of our community unfairly, and we will affirm the value of all members of our community. We will cooperate fully with the Office of Civil Rights.”
Partly in response to the incident, the Faculty Council unanimously approved a resolution on intellectual integrity and independence. The resolution reaffirms the University’s commitment to principles of nondiscrimination and free speech and expression. Moeser supported the resolution.
“Our charge is to maintain an open atmosphere, one in which unpopular or controversial ideas may be expressed, heard, but also challenged without any fear of retribution,” Moeser said. “The primary role of a university is not to espouse a point of view but rather to provide a platform for the expression of all points of view.”
Carlin Hertz in the Office for Civil Rights said he could not disclose who initiated the complaints to prompt the compliance review or the number or nature of the complaints. He said that multiple requests from various sources led his office to conduct a compliance review, which is currently under way.
The office requested copies of the University’s harassment policies and procedures as well as any notes or e-mail messages regarding how the incident with the student was handled. The University also will send a list of all students in the class, with races and sexes included, a copy of the course description and syllabus, copies of all messages posted to the class online discussion forum, and a list of any similar complaints brought to the University’s attention.