Some made uneasy by UD diversity training

By November 1, 2007

Brooke Aldrich considers herself open-minded and accepting of all kinds of people.

But the University of Delaware freshman said statements made in a recent diversity training session on her floor of Russell Hall tried to make her believe she was a racist.

“I personally have no problem with anyone of any background, race, sexual identity, or any religion,” said the 18-year-old Hockessin resident, who is majoring in animal science. “I accept people for who they are as people. But coming out of the group sessions makes you feel as if I was in some way a racist, just by the color of my skin. It was like, ‘Because you’ve never been oppressed, you’re part of the problem.’”

UD’s residence-hall educational program came under fire this week from the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a civil-liberties advocacy group that monitors freedom of speech issues on campuses nationally. Some parents and Jan Blits, a professor in UD’s freshman honors program and president of the Delaware Association of Scholars, brought the program to FIRE’s attention. Blits called for the university to abandon its “illegal attempt to change the attitudes, beliefs, and actions of students.”

The program, which is about 4 years old, includes one-on-one meetings between students and resident assistants as well as group sessions, where a wide range of topics including race relations and sexual identity are discussed.

The training is important to help students understand those who are different from them, said Justin Blair, an 18-year-old sophomore from New Castle.

“I think it helped people to open their minds to new ideas and experiences,” said Blair, who is on the board of HAVEN, a group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

Greg Lukianoff, an attorney and president of FIRE, says the programs are an unconstitutional attempt to change student beliefs and actions with psychological “treatment.”

“The University of Delaware’s residence life education program is a grave intrusion into students’ private beliefs,” Lukianoff said. “The university has decided that it is not enough to expose its students to the values it considers important. Instead, it must coerce its students into accepting those values as their own.”

Lukianoff and others objected to mandatory attendance at the sessions, to the way students felt coerced to agree with certain viewpoints, and to the rejection of debate on the issues.

Some ‘missteps’

In a letter to FIRE posted on UD’s Web site, Michael Gilbert, vice president for student life, said the program was misrepresented by FIRE and that some objections were based on statements taken out of context from an August training session for resident assistants. But Gilbert also acknowledged that some approaches used by staff members were “missteps” and some language—including references to student response to “treatment”—could be misunderstood.

The sessions are not mandatory, Gilbert said, but students are encouraged to attend them, to explore their goals as leaders and citizens, and to examine how their behavior and beliefs affect others in a diverse community as well as the environment.

“The program is designed to encourage students to think about and to consider a number of issues, but all make their own decisions about the outcome of this reflection,” Gilbert wrote. “… We believe that students learn and grow in part by engaging in significant discussions on both sides of the classroom door.”

Blair believes the training should go farther. He said the sessions he attended addressed issues related to “visible” minorities—such as various ethnic groups—but barely touched matters of sexual identity.

Students were applauded whenever they identified with a certain group, Blair said, progressing from having everyone who was an American stand to acknowledging a wide range of other kinds of people.

Blair said he already had made his sexual orientation known publicly, and didn’t hesitate to stand when that question was raised. But, he said, at least one student made his first public expression at that meeting.

“They also said if you’re gay, lesbian or bisexual and you’re not comfortable standing up, you can remain seated and we’ll clap for you, too.”

Feeling uncomfortable

Aldrich said other exercises made many students feel uncomfortable. In one, she said, students were asked if they approved of such things as affirmative action or gay marriage. If they did, they would join students on one side of the room. If they didn’t, they would join students on the other side of the room. They were not permitted to explain their reasons or to answer “I don’t know,” she said.

“We had a strong urge to debate back and forth, tell each other why we chose this and sort out each other’s views,” she said. “But at the end, we were told the exercise was designed so that we could not have debate, that a lot of times in life you don’t have the opportunity to express your opinion. There was a lot of pent-up tension from that.”

Blair and Aldrich said they were told the meetings were mandatory.

But, Blair said, there was no penalty for missing them.

The university has more than 200 resident assistants—undergraduate students who supervise life in residents halls and act as mentors to residents—who receive training before classes start. This year’s “Whole New World” training was conducted by Shakti Butler, executive director of World Trust Educational Services.

Lukianoff and Blits pointed to written materials for the staff training session, including a definition of “racist” as applying to “all white people … living in the United States.”

Gilbert, who has been at UD for three months, said the university constantly examines its training sessions, considers feedback, and makes revisions as warranted.

“We want students to draw their own conclusions,” he said, “and we are not surprised nor averse to students disagreeing with us. The free exchange of ideas on the college campus is really what we’re all about.”

Blits disagrees.

“This is not exploring ideas,” he said. “Discussion is, in fact, thwarted. … This is not conservatives going after the bad liberals. I’m an old civil-rights worker and my views on that have not changed. I know leftists who are outraged and I know conservatives who are outraged.&rdqu

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Schools: University of Delaware