From the Daily: A new approach to diversity on campus

Wednesday, October 19, 2016 - 9:39pm

Earlier this month, the University of Michigan launched its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion plan, committing $85 million over the next five years to “a vibrant, diverse and inclusive campus.” Though the University makes significant strides with the plan, the loudest voice in it is that of bureaucracy. While there are several important aspects to the DEI initiative, we feel that the number one strategy to creating a better campus climate, which the DEI plan largely falls short of, starts with the foundation of the curriculum we learn in our classrooms. The ideal curriculum doesn’t dilute the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion to a singular course requirement, skit or event at the beginning of one’s freshman year, but rather infuses it into curricula of all courses and course structures campuswide, over the span of students’ time at the University.

 

The central weakness in the administration’s DEI initiative is that rather than taking this opportunity to innovate and incorporate student perspectives on what has and has not been working and rethink its approach to diversity, it doubles down on tired strategies that sound good on paper but fail to achieve real change. While the construction of a new Trotter Multicultural Center, an expansion of the Wolverine Pathways program to engage with K-12 students in Detroit and devoting financial support to departments conducting research on diversity are all good steps the plan outlines, these are not the steps that will contribute to tangibly changing the campus climate.

 

Perhaps the chief example of the failure of the DEI to make substantive changes lies in its plan to implement a cultural sensitivity training initiative. Through this program, incoming freshman classes will be required to fill out an assessment of their cultural sensitivity, complete a unique training program based on their results and receive a certificate for completion. An online test at the beginning of freshman year will not be sophisticated enough to accurately indicate whether or not a student is sufficiently culturally sensitive to be a respectful member of our University community.

 

By opting for this method, the University is assuming that the best strategy in promoting diversity is to concentrate this education in the first few weeks a student is on campus. In reality, this period of time is far from ideal in terms of communicating a message — students are worried about making friends, starting classes and getting acquainted with Ann Arbor. What’s more, many students may know how to go through the online motions and provide the “right answer” when prompted, simply to get the test over with.

 

Discussing diversity is an obvious important step in introducing students to campus, but the first few weeks of freshman year should not be the first and last time students are required to reflect on and learn about cultural sensitivity. Someone won’t learn about implicit biases, harmful stereotypes or discrimination through a quiz. That shift will only happen through a more comprehensive redesign of how professors teach and what ideas and perspectives are incorporated into each course’s curriculum.

 

The University should mandate that all curriculums in all classes across all schools and colleges are reevaluated by professors to include material that provides other narratives besides the dominant one typically taught in the discipline. Many classes do this already, but a significant number do not, and many of the ones that do fail to do it as thoroughly as they should. When reading lists and syllabi are made, teachers must include voices of scholars and authors from varying minority backgrounds in their field. When lecture topics are picked, professors should make an explicit effort to cover the works and thoughts of minority groups who may have been ignored or underrepresented in previous curricula.

 

That said, incorporating themes and content that include diverse perspectives into an LSA syllabus is easier than incorporating them into a syllabus in the College of Engineering or Ross School of Business, because course content in these schools is less likely to relate to issues surrounding diversity directly. However, by shining a light on diversity, professors and GSIs — regardless of their discipline — can transform what would otherwise be a one-time push at the beginning of a student’s freshman year into the starting point for themes that span across every year. And it is imperative that each faculty member and GSI in every school on campus work toward goals of including diverse perspectives into not only their syllabi, but also in the way that the classroom environment is structured.

 

The LSA DEI plan, like many at universities across the country, requires the development of trainings and DEI sessions for professors and GSIs to better facilitate issues of identity and representation in classrooms. Changes like these should be applauded. In the classroom, faculty members play the most vital role in how students participate in class, and in turn, how they learn in class. Teachers must be cognizant of how their teaching styles affect students differently and then must also be good facilitators of discussions that include all voices. Only when all students are comfortable enough to share their perspective is everyone in the classroom benefiting fully from the educational experience.

 

As well, more thought should be put into the methods that promote continued self-reflection on one’s identity, such as a program for sophomore year, one that reinforces and builds on what is learned in the first few weeks of school. The Race and Ethnicity requirement should continue to be re-evaluated, and should be expanded beyond LSA, because themes about how to relate to others, be respectful and take advantage of the diversity this University community has to offer are equally relevant to those studying engineering or business or kinesiology. These ideas must be infused into each course curriculum campuswide in order to start to witness the kind of change to campus climate for which the DEI plan is calling.

 

Promoting diversity at a large, public university is a daunting task, and the DEI initiative takes steps toward progress. Unfortunately, this progress is overshadowed by an administration that seems more willing to rebrand existing initiatives, rather than do the work of stepping back, reassessing its approach and implementing a more progressive strategy to accomplish diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. This would require substantial changes to the ways issues and discussions of diversity are integrated into curriculum and new training for faculty about structural and atmospheric changes to classes that will highlight diverse groups of people and different perspectives.