Friday, April 9, 2021

Diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) and radical empathy

The myriad dynamics of campus inclusion have been a common theme in my posts for months. One post that has pulled numerous articles together charts the ramifications of the Black Lives Matter movement and its impact on higher education. Another post summarizes the emerging saga of the University of Richmond, beginning with commentary on its President's (Dr. Ron Crutcher) views on how to engage in discourse across difference. The story of the University remains deeply contentious for students and faculty.

At the core of Black Lives Matter and the University of Richmond controversy is the question of purpose. What is higher education attempting to achieve? A growing number of programs are titled and publications use the language of "diversity, equity, and inclusion," abbreviating this to DEI. The author of "Antinomies in the concepts of equity, diversity, and inclusion" differentiate the terms in ways to allow educators to be more clear about their goal. Agreeing to definitions isn't easy and the author goes on to say that, "we need to go beyond slogans and head nodding that suggests agreement when people are actually holding very different, and sometimes conflicting, ideas in their heads. Opening up those conversations, as many places have started to do, will surface some of these conflicting values. The resulting conversations will be difficult but necessary." The most critical part of moving ahead with DEI is purposeful action rather than rhetoric, which involves "disrupting and dismantling inequities."

In addition to more clearly defining the purpose of DEI programs, some assert needing to distinguish the difference between training and education. The authors write, "Given the urgency and the newfound will to reckon with past and present racial discrimination, it is unfortunate that colleges and universities have resorted to trainings. Often proven to be superficial and ineffective, diversity training should not be the default response for institutions. Instead, colleges and universities should invest in the most powerful tool of all to combat racial injustice: education," by taking  approaches such as "implicit bias" training to deeper levels by examining systemic issues and even broader diverse perspectives. Some scholars are driving deeper into the rhetoric of racism, focusing on the power of southern universities, and others advocate going to alumni to foster an understanding of racism and how to eliminate it in higher education settings. Pointers on teaching reimagined history provide guidance to correct the narrative of history that ignored or minimized injustice and the City University of New York (CUNY) has turned to its own faculty to examine and restructure teaching pedagogies that are more effective with diverse students. Systematically and systemically acting on research that is done in higher education about what can be done to improve the climate for inclusion is the bottom line.

Diversity training gone wrong resulted in an EEOC complaint at Stanford by mental health professionals who were Jewish. The complainants assert that their identity was ignored in diversity training, placing them in a "white majority" category that denied their unique experience.

"Critical Race Theory" had become a central point of contention between those advocating DEI and those who oppose it. The Hannah-Jones 1619 Project and counter by the Trump administration in the 1776 Commission sets up the question - will history be taught recognizing the centrality of slavery and racial discrimination in the U.S.A. or will the reified notion of the U.S.A. being a noble state and defender of all citizens be the story that is perpetuated in classrooms at all levels of education? Legislation opposing the use of critical race theory has been proposed in 16 states, with Florida implementing not only a ban on DEI content but also allowing students to record and report professors if they teach material to which students object. Debra Humphreys of the Lumina Foundation urged academics to stay the course. In the face of a resolution to be considered by the Board of Trustees of the University of Nebraska (which was voted down), the President issued a statement defending academic freedom while the resolution prohibiting the use of critical race theory at the state level was advocated by Nebraska's governor.

The attacks on critical race theory have demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of what CRT is. Begun as a legal theory utilized throughout legal education, it is nothing more than looking back at the histories that have been taught, correcting for error and political narrative, and writing/teaching a more accurate view of history. Correcting the history is essential in order to correct current social/political crises. Reinforcing the importance of critical race theory in legal education, the Association of American Law Schools issued a statement condemning state attempts to ban it. Others warn of the dangers to democracy represented by the onslaught of CRT condemnations. However, opinion varies widely on how to address the U.S.'s history of slavery and racism, as demonstrated in a Brookings Institution report.

Advancing whatever perspective one might have of DEI may require at least an element of what Terri Givens refers to as radical empathy, a commitment to "not only walking in someone else's shoes but also taking actions that will, in fact, help that person and improve society." Givens says that radical empathy includes; being willing to be vulnerable, becoming grounded in who you are, opening yourself to the experiences of others, practicing empathy, taking action, and creating change and building trust. I'm convinced that knowing oneself, being open to others, and being an agent for change are primary ways forward if we are to have inclusive communities in higher education and elsewhere. And I'm also convinced that embracing radical empathy has repercussions, especially related to disrupting the present by creating change; this should be understood from the beginning.

The espoused support for DEI has justifiably been increasing. Part of the DEI commitment is diversifying the demographics, expanding access and increasing retention, of faculty, staff, and students. Carson Byrd, author of Behind the Diversity Numbers, encourages carefully looking at how institutions interpret the data available to them. Cases such as IUPUI, which recognizes DEI contributions in promotion and tenure summaries, are rare in the face of many faculty from marginalized groups resigning after facing resistance or worse on their campuses. Twelve female scholars in history issued a statement about inequity in citations for women and scholars of diverse backgrounds. Ohio State University has turned to growing its own faculty of more diverse scholars through the implementation of fellowships that include cohort support. Budget constraints resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have also resulted in some colleges and universities are making cuts to staffing that is likely to undermine the progress that is being made. The cuts are sometimes of faculty/staff from diverse backgrounds and sometimes directly in the organization units charged with advancing DEI outcomes.

The bottom line is that DEI has to move from rhetoric to institutional change. Striving for substantive change requires not only setting up an administrative or program focus on DEI but also engaging broad constituencies including the campus, executives, and the board. Engaging the broader public in ways that antagonize can have very negative outcomes, as the former President of Lyon College (Arkansas) can confirm after he resigned following remarks published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. If DEI efforts are to be successful, educators call for systemic change, including modification of merit and metrics of excellence as well as tenure and promotion.

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