Change in policies stems from ‘racially hostile’ arena

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – On the heels of a two-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the University of North Dakota is making its discrimination, harassment and grievance policies more explicit.

According to an OCR letter to UND President Charles Kupchella, the investigation found that the university was aware of claims of a racially hostile environment on its campus, but it failed to take “appropriate responsive action.”

“The complainants further alleged the intensity and frequency of the harassment increases during periods of public discussion over the university’s use of its Fighting Sioux nickname and Indian head logos,” stated OCR Associate Director John Nigro in the letter dated July 18.

The investigation led to a resolution agreement between UND and the OCR in which the school has promised to take numerous steps over the next two years to make it clearer to students, staff and faculty that harassment is unacceptable.

The school also will make it easier for people to understand correct procedures for reporting discrimination and harassment.

UND’s general counsel Julie Ann Evans and affirmative action officer Sally Page will monitor the school’s progress in meeting its promises, Kupchella said.

“I think we’re a better institution for this,” Kupchella said.

“It’s not like we’re admitting anything other than we can make some improvements on where our policies are posted, how explicit they are and making it clearer what the procedures are for handling complaints.

“If they had found that we had discrimination going on here that was pervasive and severe, they would have shut off our federal funding; fact is, they didn’t find anything like that here.”

Kupchella said the OCR contended that the school’s policies against harassment didn’t go far enough and did not specifically mention the words “racial harassment.”

“We cleaned up some of the language to address some of those issues that they came here to look at,” Kupchella said. “I think what I interpret them as saying is, `Well, your policies are OK; they’re just not clear to everybody.’

Kupchella added that the OCR also wants UND to provide “harassment training” to all of its faculty and staff members.

A UND student group known as BRIDGES (Building Roads Into Diverse Groups Empowering Students) has been following the investigation from the beginning.

Its Web site is highly critical of the resolution agreement between UND and the OCR, calling it a “plea bargain” that enables UND to avoid a potentially humiliating public censure.

A spokeswoman for the education department in Washington said that although the Web site’s analysis of the agreement is not that far off base, finding guilt and publicizing it is not the OCR’s primary goal.