At the University of Cincinnati, an adjunct instructor found herself under the scrutiny of the university administration after penalizing a student for using the term “biological woman” in her project. This case provides yet another vivid example of the tense struggle between academic freedom, free speech, and the new norms of language shaped by the evolving discussion on gender.
Melanie Nipper, the 29-year-old professor, was reprimanded by the university following her decision to give Olivia Krolczyk, a sophomore chemistry major, a zero on her final project proposal. Krolczyk’s research topic, focusing on women’s rights in athletics, included a discussion of biological women and trans-identifying men in women’s sports. But Nipper deemed the term “biological women” to be exclusionary and a reinforcement of heteronormativity, thereby unacceptable in her course.
A Cincinnati professor has been reprimanded and ordered to take free speech training after she failed a student for using the term 'biological women,' when discussing trans-athletes competing in sports. https://t.co/GV7GTLpNYr
— OutKick (@Outkick) July 1, 2023
Nipper’s verdict on Krolczyk’s project spurred nationwide attention when the latter took to TikTok to voice her frustrations. “How am I supposed to do my project if I can’t use the term ‘biological women?’” Krolczyk questioned in her video. Her query is apt, signaling an underlying concern: Are academic discussions being constrained by a new culture of sensitivity, particularly around gender terminology?
The reprimand by Ashley Currier, the head of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Cincinnati, threatened Nipper with termination and required her to undertake training on the Campus Free Speech Policy. Her syllabi must now be submitted for approval at least two weeks before classes start. An impactful disciplinary action, no doubt, but one that safeguards the spirit of free speech.
In defense, Nipper filed an appeal, arguing that her “restriction on harmful speech” was crucial for maintaining a safe learning environment. She contended that Krolczyk’s topic was inappropriate as it allegedly targeted trans women as a source of oppression for cis women in sports.
The University’s Gender Equality Office intervened, having another professor grade Krolczyk’s assignment. She finished Nipper’s class with an A, a well-earned triumph in light of her ordeal. This event resonates amid a broader discord between LGBT activists and free speech advocates. Oxford College recently warned students of expulsion for misusing gender pronouns. At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court underscored free speech protections just last week in the 303 Creative v. Elenis case protecting a website designer’s right to refuse to participate in speech she finds objectionable.
Academic freedom and free speech must be protected in accommodating modern diversity and inclusion goals. This case reinforces the need for educators to navigate these waters with fairness and open-mindedness, especially when students express viewpoints that might not align with their own.