To the Editor:
A Department of Education "Dear Colleague" letter last fall provides guidance on ensuring educational environments appropriate for members of underrepresented groups. The letter gives examples of bullying, clarifies its characteristics, and advises how to avoid it proactively. This information will help shape appropriate behaviors in schools and empower and guide them to be proactive.
Similar bullying can also happen in universities. It can be student-to-student bullying, professor-to-student, or professor-to-professor, among others. Universities also need to be aware of the department's guidance, as department officials recognized by saying: "Although this letter focuses on the elementary and secondary school context, the legal principles also apply to postsecondary institutions covered by the laws and regulations enforced by [the Office for Civil Rights]."
However, some members of the academic community are unaware of this information. For two reasons, we want to draw attention to the letter's suggestions for dealing with bullying proactively, regardless of whether or not the victim is a member of a protected group. The first is that universities and colleges are influenced or governed by the legal opinions and interpretations in the letter. The second is that sometimes addressing an issue can be hindered by not knowing a variety of possible solutions, such as those the letter provides.
Academic freedom insures a person's right to make "a statement" of opinion, and it should not be infringed by policies against bullying. In order to avoid the appearance of conflict between the two, the Department of Education clarified its relationship in a previous "Dear Colleague" letter. It says the right to make a statement of opinion must be preserved, but cannot deny or limit another person's ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program.
Donna J. Nelson
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of Oklahoma
Department of Physics
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Department of Biology
Chestnut Hill, Mass.
Elizabeth Ann Nalley
Department of Physical Sciences