Counterpoint: diversity programs have value

November 12, 2007

“Everyone’s a little bit racist,” according to a song from the Broadway musical Avenue Q. The recently terminated Whole New World diversity training program at the University of Delaware told 7,000 dorm residents otherwise.The program came under scrutiny after students complained that they were pressured into accepting politically slanted views on sensitive topics including race.

Patrick Harker, president of Delaware and former dean of Wharton, promptly halted the program in response to a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group, calling the program a “threat to freedom of conscience” that should be terminated. Whole New World, diversity training in principle, became mass indoctrination in practice.

But despite the blatant errors in the planning and implementation of the program, well-designed mandatory residential hall activities are an ideal forum for promoting cultural awareness. All institutions of higher education have a duty to foster cultural sensitivity in order to prepare their students for an increasingly diverse working world.

The Delaware program failed because it attempted to alter student attitudes by force-feeding information. Biased program material aside, students are likely to resist any program that merely states counter-arguments to their beliefs. Instead of conceptualizing the issue of stereotypes, programs should attempt to humanize them.

With this in mind, there is no better opportunity to meet people who are commonly the victims of stereotypes than in residential halls. Living and interacting amicably with members of a stereotyped group allows us to view them as individuals—more than just a collection of commonly perceived traits.

Perhaps, students could be required to attend one of several residence-hall social events per semester, possibly as a prerequisite for class registration.

Each of these events coud focus on enlightening the hall as to one student’s hometown, religion or ethnicity, thereby associating a cultural identity with an individual’s set of experiences.

Such events do not have to be long, tedious or instructive in nature. RAs can be creative when incorporating student culture into hall activities—food, drink and music are elements of a social gathering that can adopt a cultural dimension without overwhelming the casual nature of an event.

The events, or the initiative, do not even require the label of “diversity training.” They would merely be opportunities for hall members to learn about their peers’ cultural backgrounds.

Residence halls throughout the country already have periodic social events, so adding a diversity component to make strides toward awareness wouldn’t be an excessive burden.

Attending one such event per semester shouldn’t be overly straining, even to the busiest of students.

Meeting and getting to know members of a stereotyped group are far more effective measures than discussions with an RA, training sessions or even mandatory classes such as the new U.S. Cultural Diversity Requirement for the Class of 2012.

The College should be commended for its approval of the requirement, but one course out of 30 or more will not dispel stereotypes.

Residential programs and non-classroom activities can reach students on a regular basis throughout their undergraduate education and have a longer-lasting effect on student attitudes.

Additionally, while professors are the best source of current and historical cultural knowledge, class requirements are subject to student selection bias. A student who believes in racial stereotypes toward African Americans will not jump at the opportunity to take HIST 353: Slavery, Race and Revolution.

Courses also focus on only one or a few cultures, religions or ethnicities, failing to recognize that bigotry and racism are rooted in a lack of tolerance. Learning about a few isolated targets of cultural insensitivity will not do much to change underlying attitudes.

Promotion of casual social interaction, however, addresses the root cause of prejudice. A face, a name and a friend can overcome a stereotype far more effectively than a history course.

With many companies adopting diversity training in the workplace, it seems appropriate for colleges and universities to prepare their students accordingly.

Cultural sensitivity and tolerance will affect the way students interact with others in all areas of their lives, so these are topics best learned outside the academic bubble of the classroom.

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Schools: University of Delaware Cases: University of Delaware: Students Required to Undergo Ideological Reeducation