Implicit Bias in the Conduct Process
By Magnolia Justice
Student conduct administrators are responsible for the growth and development of hundreds of thousands of students each academic year, and in managing and prioritizing our cases, we sometimes get lost in the quantity over the quality of cases managed. Meeting with a student allegedly responsible for a policy violation comes with challenges in terms of ensuring student learning and conduct officer ability. One challenge is how we interact with students within the context of our office role, our institution, and corresponding demographics. In the time of a global pandemic, outspoken president, international protesting and social and political unrest, we find how we interact with students to be paramount; we can disagree with students about our beliefs and still serve them effectively in a difficult and traumatic time.
Student conduct administration is responsible for the growth and development of a multitude of students each academic year, and, in managing and prioritizing our cases, we sometimes get lost in the quantity over the quality of cases managed. Meeting with a student allegedly responsible for a policy violation comes with challenges regarding student learning and conduct officer ability. One primary challenge is how we interact with our students to ensure fairness and equity in case management and student learning within the context of our office role, our institution, and in recognition of corresponding demographics. In the time of a global pandemic, an outspoken president, a recession, international protesting and social and political unrest, and an academic year to survive together, student conduct practitioners find how we interact with students to be paramount; we can disagree with students about beliefs and still serve them effectively in a difficult time. This blog highlights debiasing techniques and other strategies to ensure equitable practice in a challenging and socially-divisive year.
What is implicit bias and how does it impact my professional work?
The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity of the Ohio State University defines implicit bias as, “involving all the subconscious feelings, perceptions, attitudes, and stereotypes that have developed as a result of prior influences and imprints“ (2020). Our implicit biases are derived from a culmination of our experiences and can differ and develop person-to-person. In student conduct, implicit bias can sometimes show up in unexpected ways (subconsciously), including how we approach a student's name that we aren't sure how to pronounce, addressing biased incident reports, and students' ability to access us and our services during normal semesters and, more recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic academic term.
We know implicit bias influences our ability to foster an equitable process, but bias impacts student conduct mainly through its student conduct practitioners; we as capital are not always as effective as we want to be. How can we increase our impact? By ensuring every student knows they are seen, valued, supported through outreach, resources, coaching, and academic assistance. ACPA conducted a survey of why people chose to pursue the field of student affairs: one common answer was that they all wanted to help students like they had needed help when the practitioners themselves were students (Paul Gordon Brown, 2014). For me, that says we care about individuals in our universities, so our actions and policies should reflect that. When students come to our office, we are bound to give them the most respectful, developmental, and most resourceful care we can provide, and stereotyping, assumptions, and expressing feelings instead of facts are not productive to that quality and culture of care we value.
When student conduct practitioners demonstrate bias toward students, the impact is thoroughly unproductive to growth and development, does not provide a resolution, does not follow University or office mission or objectives, and, ultimately, is not conducive to a student's well-being because they do not feel valued or respected. We follow creeds and mission statements, but what do those mean, and how do we (if we) assess how much we've made actionable? Isn't ensuring student rights just as important as holding them accountable? It can be hard to do when you share little or no common social identities or beliefs. Regardless, one of the primary responsibilities of student conduct administration is ensuring a just process: fostering fairness, equity, and impartial treatment toward students with alleged policy and law violations. Debiasing, however, is a way to embed positive and equitable habits that can help empower you to grow in your practice by helping students develop in a safe and responsible environment.
What can I do about implicit bias in my work?
Student conduct administration has a time-sensitive, confidential, and complicated nature, and mistakes can be easier to make in managing a high-volume caseload. Since implicit bias is not something we are aware of, in the moment, it can be difficult to manage effectively. Because we work in a contextual environment, how we manage implicit bias may take different forms in our work within our office, our institution, and our philosophy of equitable treatment toward students and their cases.
Like with most concerns, it is important to recognize and respond to the situation at hand in a timely manner. By result of self-education through literature or media that can deepen your understanding of how bias looks in student conduct, you'll be more aware of the role and impact of bias and your corresponding biased behaviors in your work and therefore be more able to recognize and respond to them. Debiasing is a process that has been supported in research to reduce implicit biases through active mental reflection and corresponding behavioral change.
Debiasing and strategies for debiasing
Debiasing was conceptualized in the late 1980s by Dr. Patricia Devine, a sociological researcher who runs the Prejudice and Intergroup Relations Lab at the University of Wisconsin – Madison: “Debiasing is not a simple task as it involves the construction of new mental associations. Intention, attention, and time are needed so that new responses are learned well enough to compete with the formerly automatically activated responses” (1989, p. 16). Though Devine's research on implicit bias is not recent, it is seminal, and still commonly cited as the foundation for recent inquests about the impact of implicit bias in higher education.
By debiasing, you are reprogramming your brain to create new associations socially, which are encouraged through repetitive practice. Goal-setting and attainment demand active effort, and debiasing is a process, not a product. Six strategies have been identified to help reduce bias and debias, according to Devine (1989):
Stereotype Replacement: Recognition of stereotype-based responses and consciously modifying that response (IHI, 2017)
Counter-stereotypical exemplars: Conceptualizing others as different or reverse from common stereotype (i.e., male nurses)
Stereotype negation training (Individuation): People are viewed as individuals rather than as a social stereotype - disengaging from stereotypes
Perspective taking: Trying to understand others' viewpoints and recognize others' thoughts, perspectives, and mental patterns
Increasing opportunities for contact: Finding more opportunities for exposure to and engagement with others' different social identities that do not match your own
Individuating V. Generalizing (Partnership-building): Preparing for collaborative and joint practices and relationship-building rather than abiding by hierarchical standards (IHI, 2017)
Ask yourself the following questions to reflect on debiasing strategies you may be able to adopt: “What stereotypes do I hold? Why? Are those biases? Do those stereotypes have negative effects on others or myself? How can I reprogram my brain to shift stereotyping behaviors? How would I feel if I were in this person's shoes? What would I want to happen if I were them?” Ask yourself how you can realistically and routinely find time to reflect, like adding it as a priority to your professional development plan.
A combination of strategies will best benefit more equitable practices and habits you can maintain for your career trajectory. For example, if a student appears in your office with different social identities than yourself, you may want to reduce bias by engaging them through acknowledgement that you do not know how to pronounce their name; this is a better practice than telling the student you will use only their surname or calling them the first letter of their name. By using these debiasing strategies, you acknowledge that you are willing to learn about, recognize, address, resolve, and reflect on your implicit biases that function in your daily work life.
Recent challenges in achieving equitable student conduct practice
2020 may forever be lovingly known as the “year of the apocalypse,” considering the range of social, political, historical, and organizational discord we have observed this year. With everything going on outside the classroom, focusing on daily work can be difficult for student affairs employees, especially relative to the consequent caseload COVID-19 has afforded most institutions of higher education. The pandemic has had global residents in turmoil and college students, faculty, and staff have died, as well as their friends and families. In addition to socioeconomic and family concerns, mental wellness, and a year of international social and political protesting and unrest, the election did nothing to abate either college student or employee stress as the academic year has drawn closer to an end.
It is easy to assume, especially with repeat students, that students are not facing hardships or experiencing changes to their daily routines when you are still receiving incident reports about off-campus weekend parties every Monday. Likewise, it is easy to assume that a student who is resistant to questioning and who does not make eye contact has more information they are withholding than they have shared regarding the incident. However, in reviewing the debiasing strategies above, how would you think about and address the following situations?
A student with the same social identities as yours wears a shirt with social-issue-related text and a graphic that opposes your own beliefs - you are meeting with them due to a Facebook status that was reported to your office regarding social issue-protesting hate speech concerns
A student with different social identities than yours is meeting with you due to their theft of dining hall items and explains that the COVID-19 pandemic has been really hard on them and their family financially
Important factors to consider may include whether a student identifies with a particular gender and/or ethnicity, whether the student is international or out-of-state, whether the student is undergraduate, whether the student was treated fairly in the incident report submitted, whether the student was physically able or well enough to meet with you, and the demeanor of the student. The demeanor matters because the student may be either resistant or forthcoming as they respond to questioning verbally, but note that nonverbal behaviors are not always the best indicators of integrity as they vary personally and culturally. Additionally, students may not always be responsive to unknown number texts/calls, or may have emails going to spam unintentionally, etcetera. Ultimately, as we look into 2021 with higher hopes for relief in personal and professional challenges, we can afford our students the due diligence of taking care with case management and receiving students into our Zoom meetings and offices to ensure they are comfortable enough to engage appropriately with us. A case is not well managed unless student demographics and needs are acknowledged so that we are prepared to provide both education AND support.
No matter what challenges our college students have survived so far, there will be more, both more varied and more complex, and they must be prepared to manage those challenges. Having educational conversations is just as important as conduct meetings during this time, and as 2020 concludes, student conduct practitioners can still find ways to support students through those challenges, by equitable and educational policies and personal and professional practices.
The most well-known resource for checking your implicit biases is the Implicit Bias Association Test developed in 1998 by researchers at Harvard University (Project Implicit, 2020). Below are schools with relevant websites that present more information on implicit bias, equitable practice, and that provide further learning materials:
- Cornell University
- The Ohio State University
- University of California at San Francisco
- University of California at Davis
Despite the challenges, demands, and surplus of personal suffering to go around, student conduct practitioners have endured many challenges presented by students, legislation, and other agencies, and in turn have risen to the occasion by finding and enacting high-impact educational practices, even practices aimed toward our internal processes that influence our work behavior, like debiasing strategies. Though implicit bias is an intangible, encompassing, and intense topic in a challenging environment, the stress of living in today's world can erode well-being quickly. Despite the compassion fatigue and emotional labor that goes into our daily work, student conduct practitioners have found many methods to be useful to manage the unique challenges in our field, including the work being done to recognize and diminish the presence of negative biases in our field. Reflection on how you interact as a student conduct practitioner with students should be a part of professional development planning and common practice to ensure you are being your best self at work, and, just as importantly, to ensure your students walk away feeling you respected their needs and narrative through an equitable process.
Devine, P. (1989). Stereotypes and Prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(1), 5-18. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi =10.1037%2F0022-35188.8.131.52
Harvard University. (2020). About Us. Project Implicit. Retrieved from https://implicit.harvard.edu/imp licit/aboutus.html
IHI Multimedia team. (2017, September 28). How to Reduce Bias. Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Retrieved from http://www.ihi.org/communities/blogs/how-to-reduce-implicit-bias/
Brown, Paul Gordon. (2014, October 14). 100 Professionals Answer “Why They Choose Student Affairs” As A Career #CSAM15. Paul Gordon Brown. Retrieved from https://paulgordonbrown.com/2014/10/14/100-professionals-answer-why-they-choose-studentaffairs-as-a-career/
The Ohio State University. (2020). Understanding Implicit Bias. Kirwan Institute. Retrieved from http:// kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/