Brooker bill aims to stop classroom bias

Students and officials said bias in the classroom isn't a problem.
Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, proposed a bill that would make MU track complaints of bias in the classroom. MU already does that and has received one legitimate complaint in the last three years.

A state senator proposed a bill that would make MU do something it already does: track a problem that seemingly doesn't exist.

Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, proposed the Emily Brooker Higher Education Sunshine Act, which would require public higher education institutions to track and report complaints of bias in the classroom. Brooker, the bill's namesake, settled a lawsuit out of court after she said a Missouri State University professor refused to give her a good grade unless she signed a petition supporting gay adoption, which she opposed.

But MU has already been tracking such complaints since fall 2007, when the UM system Board of Curators decided to create websites for students to fill out complaint forms and require professors to include a how-to statement in their syllabi. This decision came after Cunningham proposed the bill for the first time in spring 2007. It failed in the Senate.

After nearly three years of tracking complaints, only one has come through successfully. It’s up for debate whether this is an issue of awareness or a clue this is a non-issue.

"It's great they're doing that, but there's more they could do," Cunningham said of MU. "I think they need to beat the drum a little bit. Some students say they're afraid to complain. Some say it's easier to go along and get a good grade than fight the system."

The only legitimate complaint seen by the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities was when a student was concerned about "offensive" comments a professor made about a presidential candidate in fall 2008 and was given the option to withdraw with a full refund, according to a summary of the complaint.

OSRR Director Michael Prewitt said he receives other requests but can't follow up on them because they're anonymous or about things like grades, not biased statements.

"It could be a non-issue, or it could be this feeling they don't want to get involved to report it," he said. "On the flip side, and we hope this is it, it could be that things are going fairly well."

Prewitt's office makes students aware of the policy during Summer Welcome and has trained faculty on how to avoid bias. The legislation is something most faculty, as well as students, have been opposed to since 2007.

Political science professor Marvin Overby said in his department, where there's a high potential for conflicting ideas, he and his colleagues maintain a balanced method of teaching.

"My colleagues and I understand the difference between our personal perspectives and our duties to be engaging, effective instructors," he said in an e-mail. "We do not indulge ourselves at the expense of our students by turning our classes into soap boxes for our personal political views."

Students interviewed largely said they hadn't experienced problems with bias in the classroom but also weren't aware of the syllabus statement telling them how to file complaints.

Senior Josh Myers, though, said he did witness bias once when his anthropology professor played a video comparing President George W. Bush to a chimpanzee.

"It didn't seem like that big of a deal, but I plan on mentioning it on the evaluation at the end of the semester," Myers said, adding that was an isolated incident.

Cunningham's bill hasn't faced success since its first go-round in 2007, when it passed the House but didn't come to a full vote in the Senate. This year, the bill sits in the Senate education committee and hasn't been scheduled for a public hearing.

"I think such matters are better handled at the lowest possible level," Overby said. "If possible, in the class itself. If not, then at the department, school or university level."

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