J. KARL MILLER: Diversity course is not the answer to intolerance at MU

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:41 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In the disciplines of government and academia, there is no scarcity of people who so aspire to do good by ridding the world of their particular brand of perceived evil that they often invent solutions to problems either imaginary or inconsequential. Such is the "killing a gnat with a sledgehammer" proposal to require "diversity-intensive" courses — an overreaction to isolated racially offensive incidents.

I admit I was both surprised and pleased with the faculty vote, albeit a narrow one, to defeat the MU Faculty Council's proposal to proceed with the programming requirement. However, I am disappointed in the council's apparent reluctance to take no for an answer, instead alleging it is merely a communications problem.

Although MU Faculty Chairwoman Leona Rubin  indicated that the classes were being considered before the two recent incidents of racially motivated intolerance occurred, one must be dense indeed not to concede they are the primary catalyst for this movement. The February 2010 strewing of cotton balls at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center and this year's spray painting of a racial slur, both during Black History Month, were acts of incredibly crass and stupid behavior — embarrassments to the university.

The reaction condemning the gross misconduct of the three drunken students was swift and all-inclusive — nearly everyone was offended. The immediate calls to severe punishment for social justice were understandable. However, when one views these incidents in context, i.e., of the more than 30,000 students on campus, do three students involved in two incidents constitute a racially hostile environment?

There is of course neither an excuse nor justification for racial,  sexual, ethnic, religious, ageist or any intolerance. It is sad that no amount of legislation, ordinances, condemnations or well-intentioned programs will divest society of ignorance, bigotry or pure wickedness — they are firmly ingrained in a few highly vocal and visible nitwits.

Before embarking on a program designed to influence student behavior, MU must first determine if it is really necessary. The next step is to determine the venue or vehicle to best accomplish this mission. Finally, there must be a medium through which success or failure may be measured with some accuracy.

While it is natural to sympathize with the aggrieved parties in the incidents previously mentioned, the knee-jerk, feel-good social engineering contemplated by the council is simply not warranted. Not only is it overkill, it is also a bit insulting and unfair as a mass indictment of an entire student body for the drunken transgressions of three of their number.

I am not without experience in this arena. In the 1970s, the Department of Defense established a syllabus for "sensitivity training," a program similar to that proposed here. It was designed as a sort of rap session for 12 to 15 participants, with the individual's ranks or ratings left out.

Created with best intentions, it was implemented by monitor leaders whose sole qualifications seemed to be that they could be spared from other duties. By any measurement, it was not only a failure but also an embarrassment — the subject of ridicule. Having been a student here and still sufficiently young at heart to identify with the attitude toward charades, I can well imagine the pet names the undergrads will create for the diversity course.

Should the council prevail through yet another vote and establish the requirement for the "diversity-intensive course," what will be the criteria for these studies? To be sure, there are a number of social studies — i.e., history, geography, sociology, psychology, health, language and perhaps recreation and physical education — that could be so designated. But what is the de facto benefit of subjective, after-the-fact credit for a subject already part of the students' curriculum?

Finally and most importantly, how will this diversity training be measured? Should there be but one, or perhaps no, publicized incidents of racial, sexual or religious insensitivity during the next year, will it be celebrated as a success? Or, if there are three or more, shall it be deemed a failure and send the council back to the drawing board?

For what it is worth, this MU alumnus of seasoned citizen status and experience does not see prima facie evidence of festering or dangerous issues of divisiveness on this campus — the faculty vote rejecting diversity classes got it right the first time. Among the most difficult issues confronting any executive, board or council is the ability to realize there is often no reason for action.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is good advice.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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Ellis Smith May 25, 2011 | 5:50 a.m.

Some academics have never encountered a program they didn't want to initiate. We can't possibly have too many programs!

The combined student enrollments of UMKC, UMSL and MS&T now exceed the student enrollment at MU, and have for several years. [Source: "Facts & Figures," University of Missouri System web site.] How many racially motivated incidents have taken place on any or all those campuses during during past two years?

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop May 25, 2011 | 1:22 p.m.

If they want to have a class that helps, it should be called "Commonality". Diversity makes us interesting. But it's what we have in common as a people that binds us together. Unfortunately these days, I have almost nothing in common with liberals.

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger May 25, 2011 | 2:34 p.m.

One could argue that a well-taught liberal arts curriculum provides ample diversity training and/or sensitivity than simply one targeted course on the issue.

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush June 11, 2011 | 9:34 a.m.

"The February 2010 strewing of cotton balls at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center and this year's spray painting of a racial slur, both during Black History Month, were acts of incredibly crass and stupid behavior — embarrassments to the university."

You're missing a crucial descriptor of these events; they were crimes. In fact, all of them could have been charged with a class D felony according to Missouri statute - the same as a DUI or check fraud.

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