In one of the most bizarre campus stories in recent memory, a medical student at the University of Virginia posed mildly skeptical questions about microaggressions to a university panel. Afterward, his school claimed he was hostile, implied he was disrespectful to authority and a threat to future patients, and began investigating him. As anyone in this situation would, the student was confused and frustrated by the school’s actions. The school then used that confusion and frustration to further claim the student was unstable.
Impossible to believe? Well, Reason’s Robby Soave has the facts.
Kieran Bhattacharya, a student attending UVA’s School of Medicine, attended a panel discussion on October 25, 2018, regarding microaggressions, a term used to claim unintentionally rude comments are actually bigotry. During that panel, Bhattacharya asked some pointed questions to presenter Beverly Cowell Adams, an assistant dean at UVA, about the definition of microaggressions. Here’s a description of the exchange, from Bhattacharya’s lawsuit against UVA:
Bhattacharya: Hello. Thank you for your presentation. I had a few questions just to clarify your definition of microaggressions. Is it a requirement, to be a victim of microaggression, that you are a member of a marginalized group?
Adams: Very good question. And no. And no—
Bhattacharya: But in the definition, it just said you have to be a member of a marginalized group—in the definition you just provided in the last slide. So that’s contradictory.
Adams: What I had there is kind of the generalized definition. In fact, I extend it beyond that. As you see, I extend it to any marginalized group, and sometimes it’s not a marginalized group. There are examples that you would think maybe not fit, such as body size, height, [or] weight. And if that is how you would like to see me expand it, yes, indeed, that’s how I do.
Bhattacharya: Yeah, follow-up question. Exactly how do you define marginalized and who is a marginalized group? Where does that go? I mean, it seems extremely nonspecific.
Adams: And—that’s intentional. That’s intentional to make it more nonspecific … .
After the initial exchange, Bhattacharya challenged Adams’s definition of microaggression. He argued against the notion that “the person who is receiving the microaggressions somehow knows the intention of the person who made it,” and he expressed concern that “a microaggression is entirely dependent on how the person who’s receiving it is reacting.” Id. He continued his critique of Adams’s work, saying, “The evidence that you provided—and you said you’ve studied this for years—which is just one anecdotal case—I mean do you have, did you study anything else about microaggressions that you know in the last few years?” Id. After Adams responded to Bhattacharya’s third question, he asked an additional series of questions: “So, again, what is the basis for which you’re going to tell someone that they’ve committed a microaggression? … Where are you getting this basis from? How are you studying this, and collecting evidence on this, and making presentations on it?”
As Soave reported, Nora Kern, an assistant professor who helped organize the panel, considered Bhattacharya’s questions to be inappropriate, and filed a “professionalism concern card” against him, which Soave described as “a kind of record of a student’s violations of university policy.”
In her complaint, Kern wrote that Bhattacharya “asked a series of questions that were quite antagonistic toward the panel.”
“He pressed on and stated one faculty member was being contradictory. His level of frustration/anger seemed to escalate until another faculty member defused the situation by calling on another student for questions. I am shocked that a med student would show so little respect toward faculty members. It worries me how he will do on wards,” she added.
This concern card, according to Bhattacharya’s lawsuit, caused other administrators to be concerned about his behavior. An assistant dean from the medical school emailed the student asking to meet, assuring him “I simply want to help you understand and be able to cope with unintended consequences of conversations.”
Bhattacharya informed the dean that he had not shown hostility toward the panel.
“Your observed discomfort of me from wherever you sat was not at all how I felt. I was quite happy that the panel gave me so much time to engage with them about the semantics regarding the comparison of microaggressions and barbs. I have no problems with anyone on the panel; I simply wanted to give them some basic challenges regarding the topic. And I understand that there is a wide range of acceptable interpretations on this. I would be happy to meet with you at your convenience to discuss this further,” Bhattacharya wrote.
During their meeting, according to Bhattacharya’s lawsuit, the dean asked him about his “views on various social and political issues—including sexual assault, affirmative action, and the election of President Trump.”
After this exchange, the dean of student affairs asked for a meeting with Bhattacharya. At the same time, UVA’s Academic Standards and Achievement Committee discussed Kern’s concern card, voting to instruct Bhattacharya to “show mutual respect” to faculty members and to “express yourself appropriately.” The committee also suggested Bhattacharya seek counseling.
A month after the panel, Bhattacharya was informed that he was banned from classes until he was evaluated by a psychologist.
“Bhattacharya repeatedly asked university officials to clarify what exactly he was accused of, under whose authority his counseling had been mandated, and why his enrollment status was suddenly in doubt, according to the lawsuit. These queries only appear to have made UVA officials more determined to punish him: Bhattacharya’s mounting frustration with these baseless accusations of unspecified wrongdoings was essentially treated as evidence that he was guilty. At his hearing, he was accused of being ‘extremely defensive’ and ordered to change his ‘aggressive, threatening behavior,’” Soave wrote.
Bhattacharya was suspended for allegedly “aggressive and inappropriate interactions in multiple situations.” By the end of 2018, UVA police told him to leave campus.
Soave argued that UVA essentially engaged in “gaslighting” Bhattacharya:
UVA’s administration engaged in behavior that can be described as “gaslighting.” Administrators asserted that Bhattacharya had behaved aggressively when he hadn’t, and then cited his increasing confusion, frustration, and hostility toward the disciplinary process as evidence that he was aggressive. And all of this because Bhattacharya asked an entirely fair question about microaggressions, a fraught subject.
Bhattacharya sued, alleging UVA violated his First Amendment rights when it retaliated against him for asking unfavorable questions. UVA attempted to have the case dismissed, arguing in its motion to dismiss that “Offensive student speech does not enjoy First Amendment protection,” author and history professor K.C. Johnson reported on Twitter.
U.S. District Court Judge Norman K. Moon – a President Bill Clinton appointee – dismissed UVA’s claims and ruled that Bhattacharya’s lawsuit can move forward.
“Bhattacharya sufficiently alleges that Defendants retaliated against him,” Moon wrote. “Indeed, they issued a Professionalism Concern Card against him, suspended him from UVA Medical School, required him to undergo counseling and obtain ‘medical clearance’ as a prerequisite for remaining enrolled, and prevented him from appealing his suspension or applying for readmission.”
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