College grapples with meaning of 'bias'

by Jenn Buck | 3/5/04 6:00am

As Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" continues to stir up debate in the national media, Dartmouth has been dealt its own taste of controversial religiosity on campus.

An alumnus from the Class of 1985 was recently apprehended by Safety and Security while putting up posters directing readers to the website "vox-com.com." Upon further investigation, officers found the website to contain incendiary messages about Jesus Christ, abortion, homosexuality and obscure Biblical references.

Following protocol, Safety and Security informed Associate Dean of Student Life for Pluralism and Leadership Tommy Lee Woon, whose job is to assess whether the affair could be called a "bias incident."

Just what a bias incident is, however, and how the College responds to one, remain somewhat unclear. Woon was slow to respond to requests for interviews, but later explained to The Dartmouth how he characterized the incident.

"When I opened the website I found this one statement that I consider could be alienating, that 'hell is where I send homosexuals,'" said Woon. "So as part of our response, we just want people to know that these posters are up, and that they're disturbing."

Woon uses a specific set of guidelines conceived by the Community Action Network, a pilot sub-committee of the Campus Diversity Committee, to determine whether a bias incident has taken place.

Generally, an action which "expresses hatred or bias because of someone's actual or perceived race, gender, sexual orientation, class or other identity, and therefore affects an entire class of people," is deemed a bias incident, Woon said.

Once he has made such an assessment, Woon e-mails a report to other administrators within the Dean of the College area and four student groups: Palaeopitus, undergraduate advisors, Student Assembly and diversity peers.

Then, some say, after a select few members of campus have been informed that someone is putting up posters condemning gays and abortionists to hell, relatively little else happens.

"If we need to do more then we might convene a group of people. [But] we haven't had to do that yet, because [in] most of these incidents so far ... it's been difficult to identify the perpetrator," Woon said.

Woon was careful not to take a political position when asked whether his position as the so-called "Dean of Diversity" could be viewed by some as an imposition of liberal values in an institutional setting.

"As a proponent of diversity I value free speech and diversity of opinion as much as I value the diversity of social identities. So I actually believe that we do need conservative opinions," Woon said.

He said that he drew the "bias" line not based on the content of the opinion, but rather on how it were expressed.

For example, in response to Father Brendan Buckley's recent comment that a campus SexEd event was "hedonist and anti-Christian," Woon said, "I think it's unfortunate that he chose to express his opinions in that manner. I would like to know what his point is."