August 18th was the deadline for all first-year and graduate students at Virginia Tech to complete the school’s new mandatory DiversityEdu training module. Students who do not complete the online course, along with two others, on sexual assault and alcohol, will be locked out of registration for their fall courses.
The content of the courses is not public, but Virginia Tech describes the DiversityEdu one as teaching “skills for engaging successfully with diversity and mitigating the influence of unconscious biases and stereotypical thinking on personal choices and professional decisions.” In other words, it is supposed to help students avoid racial profiling and saying insensitive things (intentionally or not) to people belonging to protected identity groups.
While such diversity programs are, at least superficially, motivated by a good intention to guide students to live and study harmoniously with one another, they usually overcompensate. Students come away with the sense that their peers are easily angered and that it’s best to avoid close contact with members of other races. Diversity programs reinforce the idea that “microaggressions” (tiny acts of often unconscious bias such as asking, “What country are you from?”) are worth taking offense over. These programs also fail to offer other perspectives, such as the idea that race, gender, and sexuality aren’t the main or most important characteristics that define people.
DiversityEdu, the for-profit company that produces this particular program, lists seven multiculturalist activists as its “contributing scholars.” They include Columbia University’s Derald Wing Sue, whose book Microaggressions inspired the now-infamous University of California training materials delivered by Janet Napolitano to faculty members in 2015.
Alison Akant, the former attorney and diversity consultant who wrote DiversityEdu, emphasized in a phone conversation that the online courses her company provides are intended to dispel “diversity resistance.” She said it’s easy for most people either to feel affronted by a course like this or to feel that such a course isn’t relevant to them. But Akant insisted, “We’re not telling people what to do.”
She said that DiversityEdu’s courses are based on “a very long bibliography of research,” and that “we have scores—hundreds of studies” to back up the material. She declined, however, to provide that bibliography.
She also declined to share the DiversityEdu content, but did provide a link to a promotional video that includes the following sample questions:
- “Describe a time when someone made a false assumption about you. Can you identify the stereotype behind the false assumption?”
- “Iceberg model”: “Please add things about yourself that are above, at, or below the waterline” [i.e. your attributes that are observable and unobservable by strangers].
- A multiple choice question asking what the “T” in LGBT stands for.
- “Ladder of inference” explaining that after we encounter data, we run it through a personal filter, then attribute meaning, draw conclusions, and form beliefs.
Akant said that none of students’ responses to questions are stored once the module is submitted, but that students can print out their answers for their own reference if they choose.
A 2012 white paper by Akant sketches out a “guide to pricing” that gives the flat fee of $36,750 for 1,000 users or more (Virginia Tech has over 6,000 students in its freshman class).
Virginia Tech isn’t the only school using DiversityEdu. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and San Diego State University provided client testimonials. Oregon State University is also requiring a “social justice learning module” for entering students this fall. “Social justice” is a euphemism for progressive political sensibilities. In its current form popular on campuses it derives from John Rawls’ ideas about a central state redistributing wealth and power.
Oregon State University’s program is paired with a system already in place for submitting “bias incident reports,” complete with a 20-page protocol manual. Essentially, it is a way for students to report their peers for hurting someone’s feelings.
Both the DiversityEdu module at Virginia Tech and the “social justice” one at Oregon State are mandatory for all new students but are not credit-bearing courses. The rise of such requirements is especially ironic given the excuse that many large universities make for assigning easy books: they can’t enforce the reading with a test (see pages 29, 50, and 51 of Beach Books 2013-2014: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?). Common reading program coordinators say a test is logistically infeasible and would take the joy out of reading.
The beginning of the fall semester is a time for colleges to tell students the values they want them to embrace. We at the National Association of Scholars wish this part of the welcoming included an effort to show students what college is really for. Ideally students would start their college careers knowing that here is where they can master core subjects, read excellent books, and share an intellectual community with professors who will introduce them to great ideas they haven’t yet explored.
Some colleges do direct students’ sights to these prospects. Many, however, get stuck covering their bases. Identity groups and ideologies demand attention, and colleges tend to spend much time indulging these demands. In doing so they drift away from their basic purposes into the realm of politeness regulation and behavior modification.
Courses such as DiversityEdu are at best expensive fluff and infantilize students and faculty members. At worst, they are one-sided propaganda that can actually exacerbate racial tensions on campus. Even though the university claims that this course will not tell students what to believe or do, the power of suggestion is strong. Colleges’ use of “nudge” psychology to influence students’ ideological beliefs, values, and habits, is a now established practice.
Virginia Tech has already made conformity to “diversity” and “inclusion” a litmus test for faculty promotion and tenure. By requiring every new student to take this course, it has, in effect, made such conformity a litmus test for students as well.
Ashley Thorne is executive director of the National Association of Scholars. She received her master’s degree in linguistics from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2014, and her undergraduate degree in politics, philosophy, and economics from The King’s College in 2007.