Excelsior College makes bias-free language official school policy... then denies it

Officials at Excelsior College profess to be mystified by the existence of an official policy calling for the use of “bias-free language” in all written and oral communications from faculty.

A policy statement on the school’s website, which was promptly removed in response to inquiries from Campus Reform but has been saved in archived form, makes clear that faculty are expected to “integrate the concept of diversity into all aspects of the life of the college,” and specifically references a guide intended to assist them in ensuring that all their communications adhere to the principles of diversity and inclusivity.

“Excelsior College endorses the principles incorporated in the Guide to Bias-Free Language Usage and requests that all staff employ these principles in the preparation of all examinations, study guides, content guides, catalogs, print-based publications, electronic publications and communications,” the policy statement declares, adding that “the College encourages staff to consider the alternatives listed in the Guide's thesaurus to avoid the use of potentially biased language.”

The page explains that “Excelsior College exists to increase access to a quality education with excellence and economy, particularly for those historically underserved by higher education,” adding that “it is through written publications and oral presentations that students learn of the articulated Diversity Values and Policy of the College.”

There follows an excerpt of that policy, which reads: “We acknowledge that diversity involves a recognition and respect of the richness of ethnic and cultural traditions, and of different perspectives related to gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion, family status, and more ... [the] College will integrate the concept of diversity into all aspects of the life of the College, ... [and] encourage practices that contribute to the support of diversity in the workplace.”

The actual Guide to Bias-Free Language Usage, however, is not available on Excelsior’s website, and when Campus Reform contacted the school about procuring a copy, they denied the existence of any such policy as the one found on their website.

“I made some calls and that particular guide is used by our Center for Educational Measurement (CEM) … [which] is home to our credit by examination programs, offered at thousands of test centers across the globe,” Chief Communications Officer Mike Lesczinski told Campus Reform initially. “Because of [the] nature of these exams, they must be standardized for all test takers, regardless of race, ethnicity, citizenship, gender, etc.”

Lesczinski then concluded the email by claiming that “The guide is not intended for use by any other college department or unit.”

When Campus Reform pointed out that his assertion appeared to conflict with the information contained in the policy statement, Lesczinski implied that the page in question must have been included on the site erroneously, and would be updated.

“I have no knowledge on the background of that page, or its development, but I've placed a request to update it,” he told Campus Reform in an email. “Before your inquiry, neither I nor our marketing team was aware of a guide.”

He also reiterated that the Guide was, indeed, intended solely for use by CEM, adding that this is the reason a link to the Guide was not included on the policy statement page.

Yet Lesczinski’s claim that the policy statement page was a mere oversight would seem to be further contradicted by a reference to the Guide in the policies and procedures section of its Faculty Handbook, complete with a link to the policy statement page, and even bearing the designation of Policy #204.

“The elimination of potentially biased language in College written and oral communications is an essential component of this commitment to access, excellence, and diversity,” the handbook informs faculty members. “The use of bias-free language is in accordance with these values and policy. Excelsior College is committed to the goal of using inclusive, sensitive, and affirming language in all forms of communications.”

Campus Reform brought the Guide’s inclusion in the Faculty Handbook to Lesczinski’s attention, along with a proposal to discuss the issue further by phone. Lesczinski did not answer calls from Campus Reform Friday morning, but did respond with an email restating his original contention that CEM is “the only unit at the College that uses this guide,” and that the website would be updated to reflect that.

“I have nothing else to add,” he concluded.

It is worth noting that the “UExcel” exams that CEM produces are used not only by Excelsior, but also by employers, high school students, and other colleges and universities around the country.

A separate page provides additional details about the use of UExcel at other institutions, asserting for instance that “hundreds of other colleges and universities recognize the value of UExcel.” The page also includes a list of every college from which a student has requested UExcel exams—including many large public and private institutions—though it does not specify which of the schools have actually recognized the exams.

Although many schools have published versions of an inclusive language guide, Excelsior stands out for elevating its guide to the level of actual policy, as indicated by the Faculty Handbook.

Much more commonly, such documents are presented as mere guidelines, usually issued by a school’s diversity office, and in the case of the University of New Hampshire, the bias-free language guide was even promulgated without the president’s knowledge.

[RELATED: Bias-Free Language Guide claims the word ‘American’ is ‘problematic’]

[RELATED: UPDATE: UNH pulls ‘Bias-Free Language Guide’]

At Excelsior, conversely, the commitment to diversity and inclusivity comes straight from the top, in the form of the President’s Committee on Inclusion, the mission of which is to “promote diversity and assist the President in creating and maintaining an inclusive environment for the EC community at large.”

Indeed, the “Diversity and Inclusion Statement” makes clear that the matter is a top priority for the school, pledging that “Excelsior College will integrate the concepts of diversity and inclusion into all aspects the College,” including curriculum development, promotion of volunteerism, and cultural events/awareness activities.

“At Excelsior College, positive outcomes are the result of diverse individuals working in cooperation with one another as responsible citizens in building a learning community,” the page asserts. “We acknowledge that diversity involves recognition and respect of the richness of ethnic and cultural traditions, and different perspectives related to gender, age, disability, sexual orientation religion, family status, employee tenure, and more.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete