Road to diversity course requirement has bumps, hurdles

Wednesday, March 3, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 8:09 a.m. CST, Wednesday, March 3, 2010

COLUMBIA — Discussions at a town hall meeting held in light of a racist incident at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center revealed frustrations with a system that has yet to incorporate an undergraduate diversity course requirement at MU.

Audience members cheered as Yantezia Patrick, co-chairwoman of Four Front Minority Presidents Council, criticized administrators for slow progress on the diversity course requirement, which the Legion of Black Collegians requested five years ago in a letter to Chancellor Brady Deaton. (Deaton's response is here.)

Excerpts from diversity requirement proposals

The following are excerpts of proposals for a diversity course requirement that were submitted to an MU Faculty Council's task force.

From the Campus Climate and Training Task Force proposal

Students will:

  • Identify and analyze how people make important distinctions and judgments about their own and others’ backgrounds, points of view and cultures
  • Describe and explain complex public situations, policies and issues from multiple perspectives
  • Identify and analyze the intersections of multiple identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation, political ideology, social class)
  •  Articulate ways in which narrow definitions of diversity based on singular demographic characteristics have the potential to perpetuate stereotypes and discrimination
  • Connect what they learn to contemporary diversity challenges on campus, in the workplace, within organizations and throughout the national and global society

From a presentation to the Faculty Council by Four Front and the Legion of Black Collegians

Why require a diversity course for students?

  • Improving intercultural controversy that occurs in predominantly white institutions of higher learning
  • Increase the visibility of marginalized groups at MU as is reflected in the world at large
  • To lessen the hurt that minority students feel on a campus of predominantly white peers, including women
  • Minority includes ethnic, religious, racial, gender, sex, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status

From a draft proposal for the General Education Program by the Faculty Council task force

  • Is there a need to incorporate a requirement for a course exploring diversity in the General Education curriculum? If so, what would be the parameters of courses which would meet this requirement? The ability of existing courses and faculty to handle the increased demand for these courses should be assessed. In addition, the impact of additional course requirements on students should be evaluated.

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But although administrators agreed that a diversity course requirement is needed at MU and could be enacted as early as next year, recommending new curriculum is not a simple process. Such a requirement would not be one course but any of a number of existing courses that meet certain standards, including incorporating discussions on stereotypes and different points of view into the classroom.

Finding ways to incorporate requirement

The need for a diversity course requirement is No. 1 on a list of issues being evaluated by a Faculty Council task force formed last semester to review MU’s general education policy, said Leona Rubin, chairwoman of the MU Faculty Council. The task force will evaluate, among other things, how a diversity course requirement would fit into MU’s curriculum.

“The diversity requirement is not something you can evaluate in isolation,” Rubin said.

Another task force on campus has been working toward incorporating diversity-intensive classes. Roger Worthington, chief diversity officer, was selected in December 2005 to lead a Campus Climate and Training Task Force, which, among other things, aims to address shortcomings in diversity at MU.

The campus climate task force submitted a diversity course requirement proposal last spring. The Faculty Council, which was planning a general education program review this year, decided to incorporate the diversity course requirement issue into its Task Force's agenda. Four Front, together with the Legion of Black Collegians, submitted a proposal to the Faculty Council task force as well three weeks ago.

Worthington said a diversity requirement is not the same thing as taking a diversity course. Both the chancellor’s task force and Four Front’s proposals involve examining what existing MU classes would possibly meet a diversity learning objective. With this system, students could simultaneously fulfill requirements — taking classes that count for both diversity and behavioral or social sciences. No new classes, curriculum or teacher would be added, but curriculum would be tweaked to accommodate diversity learning objectives.

Worthington said diversity can be broadly defined. “There are additional dimensions to diversity that we know are very important to acknowledge,” he said.

The Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative defines diversity as a community of people of differing genders, racial-ethnic backgrounds, languages, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, abilities and disabilities, national and geographical origins, socio-economic class, veteran status and political views.

Patrick, a senior studying journalism, said it is important students take classes that take them outside of their comfort zones and force them to learn about cultures not necessarily their own. She said these classes could have provided the perfect opportunity to engage in discussions about the incident on Friday, when cotton balls were scattered in front of the Black Culture Center.

“It’s very easy to go through MU and not have to take those classes,” Patrick said. “It’s very easy to take classes without having these discussions.”

Lots of hurdles

This spring, the Faculty Council task force could recommend to the full council how to fit the diversity requirement into current curriculum. After this, the Faculty Council would discuss the proposal with colleges and schools on campus to determine how much of a burden the changes will put on their current curriculum

Although the diversity requirement is a positive thing, Rubin said, the council does not want to hurt any college. Potential problems need to be examined, she said.

For example, if enrollment in a small culture class shoots up because the class suddenly meets a diversity requirement, the school might have to hire or train more teachers, or a tight-knit discussion environment might be sacrificed for a lecture hall environment.

Rubin said that the Faculty Council will not rush into a decision but that if the recommendation is approved, changes could occur as early as next fall. A collaboration among teachers, curriculum chairs and the vice provost of undergraduate studies would determine how to incorporate diversity learning objectives into their classrooms, Rubin said.

MU has partial requirement

Of the 39 public institutions in the Association of American Universities, 27 have some kind of diversity requirement, according to the group's Web site. MU falls under the partial requirement category. Some colleges, such as the College of Education, have a multicultural requirement, but others don't.

A Multicultural Certificate, offered by the College of Arts and Sciences, is a program similar to the requirement proposed by the campus climate task force; it allows students to receive a certificate in diverse and multicultural issues by taking classes. More than 400 classes count toward the certificate, Worthington said.

An MU campus climate study conducted in spring 2009 by the Chancellor's Diversity Initiative indicated that the campus would support diversity course requirement, Worthington said.

Although plans for a diversity course requirement will likely move forward, Patrick said she is frustrated with the amount of time it has taken for this issue to gain momentum.

Rubin speculated that turnover in Faculty Council leaders has slowed down the progress of the diversity course requirement. The council also wanted to wait and incorporate the issue into the general requirement review because it can affect all undergraduate curriculum.

Worthington said he thought the frustrations expressed by students at administrators at the Monday meeting were positive contributions.

“The emotions people were expressing last night were important because it was a step forward in managing what has happened to us, in an act that I have described as hostile to the MU community,” Worthington said. The comments were necessary for people to hear, he said, so that the issue can move forward.

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