In September 2015, I launched a UROP-supported project with four undergraduates and a graduate research assistant to explore and make public the history of LSA’s Race and Ethnicity requirement.

The first question we set out to ask and answer was: What conditions on campus led to the creation of the Race and Ethnicity requirement? The second question has to do with the process that led to the vote of the LSA faculty on Oct. 8, 1990, established the requirement. Leading up to the decision were what then-Dean Edie Goldenberg called “several years of soul-searching and intellectually challenging dialogue” in the Spring 1991 issue of LSA Magazine.

“Faculty of all ranks and disciplines questioned the rationale of a ‘diversity requirement’ and asked how it could fit within the traditional understanding of a liberal arts education. Some expressed skepticism that a requirement would lead to the desired outcome, however worthy the intent. They were answered by others who argued that the College would be derelict if it failed to attempt to prepare students to face one of the most pressing social problems of the late 20th century,” Goldberg said.

While Dean Goldberg uses the phrase “diversity requirement” in her carefully worded letter to LSA alumni, the real impetus behind the requirement was about racism. The first proposal for a “racism requirement” was generated by a student activist group, the United Coalition Against Racism, in tandem with two faculty groups: Concerned Faculty, and Faculty Against Institutional Racism. Motivated by a string of racist incidents on campus in 1987, they worked for over a year to get the proposal on the agenda of an LSA faculty meeting.

Though this first proposal — sometimes called the “radical alternative” — was defeated, authorization was given to establish UC 299 as a pilot course dealing with issues of racism and intolerance. This was not what UCAR envisioned; the organization sought a committee consisting of seven faculty members from various ethnic and gender studies departments and two students from the Baker-Mandela Center to work together over the development of the course. They feared the course’s supervisory board would consist of people who had little understanding of race, racism and discrimination.

In the meantime, the LSA faculty continued to consider and debate several alternatives. All of this unfolded against the backdrop of continued student protest by UCAR and within the broader Black Action Movement, dubbed BAM III. As was the case with BAM I and BAM II issues of campus climate, the diversity of the student body and the faculty, questions of equity in funding and, of course, the nature of the curriculum continued to swirl. Some administrations, like LSA’s Dean Peter Steiner, were denounced as unresponsive and obstructionist.

The debates over what would eventually become LSA’s Race or Ethnicity requirement (the name was changed to Race and Ethnicity in 1995) revealed stresses and fault lines within the faculty and on campus. Some warned of an overly politicized curriculum that would substitute “indoctrination” for “education”; others warned that the proposed requirement would not go far enough in fully addressing the underlying problems of racism; some feared more student activism, while others sought to promote more radical alliances between students and faculty. The tensions over whether the requirement should focus on racism or on diversity was never, we think, fully resolved. Most understood that no single course or degree requirement was sufficient to solve the problems of race and racism, intolerance and discrimination.

The debates — captured in the pages of the local press, including the Daily, in archival materials stored at the Bentley, and in the living memory of participants — offer a historical window into the origins and evolution of the Race and Ethnicity requirement. We also believe they tell us something important about the history of our campus and the ways we have struggled with, and sometimes struggled over, questions of race, identity and education.

The main goal of our project is to use a variety of sources to tell the story of the Race and Ethnicity requirement and to find creative ways of share our findings with the Ann Arbor campus. You can follow us on Twitter (@reumhistory). We’ll also be partnering with the Daily on an oral history project to capture the voices of faculty, students, alumni and administrators who took part in the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s. As LSA continues to review the requirement and to think carefully about the role of the curriculum in its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion plan, we hope that this history will help to inform our contemporary perspectives.

Stay tuned for more.

Angela D. Dillard is LSA’s associate dean for undergraduate education. She is also the Earl Lewis Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican & African Studies and a professor in the Residential College.

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