When Diversity Training Goes Awry

Jamal Watson, Diverse Issues in Education, January 24, 2008

Initially, Courtney Halligan, a first-year student at the University of Delaware, was not opposed to attending a diversity training session that was required of all incoming freshmen. In fact, the 18-year-old New Jersey native assumed that the experience would be an opportunity for her to learn more about students from different backgrounds.

It didn’t take long for Halligan to change her mind.

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In one-on-one and group sessions conducted in the dormitories by resident assistants, Halligan and dozens of other White students complained that they were made to feel like racists. She adds that they were blamed for the legacy of racism that Blacks and other minority groups have endured through the years.

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“I was personally offended,” says Halligan, who is majoring in communications. “I was angered when a document was used in the training that stated that ‘all people of European descent are racist.’ When I attempted to express my opinion against such statements, I was silenced.”

In response to complaints by students like Halligan, and pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based civil liberties advocacy group that monitors freedom of speech issues on campuses across the country, the university decided last semester to suspend the controversial program.

“Our concern was not the substance of the program but the way that it was administered,” says Samantha Harris, director of legal and public advocacy for FIRE. “It crossed the line from education to indoctrination.”

In a message to the community that was posted on the school’s Web site last November, University of Delaware President Patrick T. Harker explained his rationale for suspending the program. “There are questions about [the program’s] practices that must be addressed, and there are reasons for concern that the actual purpose is not being fulfilled,” Harker wrote.

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The debacle at UD is the latest embarrassing incident in which diversity training has backfired, possibly causing more harm than good and alienating students in the process. Diversity experts point to these examples as cause for college officials across the nation to re-examine and reform their own campus diversity training programs.

The major problem, experts agree, is that there is no uniformity in training, and some individuals who call themselves diversity trainers have received little or no instruction at all in facilitating discussions on sensitive issues such as race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Additionally, no independent agency exists that has the authority to certify or sanction trainers, leaving the task to colleges and universities to weed through résumés to figure out if those applying to conduct the trainings are indeed qualified.

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Some trainers facilitate around diversity issues with the goal of raising social justice issues, while others may use diversity training to focus on behavior modification or ensuring that a college or university is in compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations.

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And even when some colleges contract to bring in a professional trainer, the tactics used by the individual have sometimes caused great concern on campus. For example, in 2006, Wilkes University, located in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., fired the school’s multicultural affairs coordinator after a diversity consultant hired to conduct a training session called one student of Indian descent a terrorist. Other students were allegedly made to hurl derogatory slurs at each other in an effort to take away the negative sting of the words.

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“Diversity training needs to be ongoing. You can’t do it one time,” says Jane Elliott, a diversity trainer who is sometimes referred to as the “foremother” of diversity training, in part because of the “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise that she conducted on a group of third-grade students in the 1960s. This now-famous exercise labeled participants as inferior or superior based solely upon the color of their eyes and exposed them to the experience of being a minority.

“What happens is that so many colleges do diversity training once a year and they figure that it’s taken care of and that they’ve done their job,” says Elliott. “But we don’t teach American literature for one hour and expect students to know it for the rest of their lives. It has to be an ongoing process.”

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Elliott and others argue that colleges should implement a year-long class where students regularly challenge their own biases in a safe environment that is facilitated by expert trainers and reinforced with readings and lectures.

While some form of diversity training has become common on most college campuses over the last decade, it is often implemented in response to a polarizing incident on campus, like the discovery of a noose, a swastika or anti-gay epithets scribbled across a bathroom stall.

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