Many faculty, staff and students have reached out to Heterodox Academy with concerns about the new training requirements being rolled out at their schools, given their dubious empirical or practical merit, and the problematic theoretical frameworks they often uncritically draw from. In a previous article, I provided readers with a literature review on the (in)effectiveness of diversity-related training programs, which can inform discussions with colleagues, administrators or university leadership on the value of these programs (or lack thereof). Here, I will offer some brief guidance on how to effectively engage university leadership and administration on these topics.
First, be sympathetic to the purported goals of the training: creating a more positive and welcoming environment for people from historically marginalized and underrepresented groups. The realm of dispute should be on whether or not the programs are actually achieving that goal, and how these goals can be better pursued. A conversation which does not begin by creating this common ground will generally be a non-starter.
In a similar vein, try to speak in the language of the people you are trying to reach, for instance, emphasize the importance of evidence-based interventions, and of avoiding harm (including inadvertent harm caused by the intervention itself). A constructive and positive tone will generally be more effective than a condescending screed. That is, if the goal is to persuade (rather than denounce), try to build bridges.
Second, recognize that, in this moment, university leadership and administrators are committed to ‘doing something’ to demonstrate their commitment to combatting bias and discrimination, and supporting students, faculty and staff from historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups. Granted, doing nothing is often better than doing ‘something’ that is unlikely to actually advance one’s goals (or may even act against them). However, the reality of the situation is that ‘do nothing’ is not going to be a winning argument with university leadership or administrators right now. They are under significant pressure from faculty, staff, students and external stakeholders to show that they are ‘with it’ – and many of them also feel a deep personal need to take some kind of action. If your response is simply, ‘don’t,’ then your advice will be ignored.
A more effective approach is to highlight some things universities can do to signal their commitment to these goals in more meaningful and productive ways. In a recent article for The Conversation, Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Snyder provide several excellent suggestions: universities could provide more support for students from historically marginalized and underrepresented groups, perhaps naming new scholarships and fellowships in honor of George Floyd; universities could highlight scholarship from faculty within their academic community on topics like racism, discrimination, police violence and social movements; they could assign readings that help provide a window into the realities of race and racism, including excellent literary texts from minority authors — instead of trendy-yet-vacuous books like ‘White Fragility.’ They can issue new faculty lines for minority scholars, and new research grants to empirically study police violence, inequality and related topics. All of these maneuvers would allow universities to send the same signal, for the same resource investment (or less), while more plausibly enhancing diversity and inclusion goals.
If, for whatever reason, your university is resistant to alternative strategies, and committed to diversity-related training instead, they can at least be encouraged to ensure that the training is designed around the empirical literature on what works better, or at least has fewer adverse consequences – see here, here, here, here for suggestions on this front.
Finally, if you are someone who has a conscientious objection to your school’s announced diversity-related training requirements, it is ill-advised to unilaterally go rogue and individually refuse to comply. Instead, identify others who have similar concerns, or make the case to colleagues first. Build allies, and then launch a stochastic campaign to underline to administrators, university leadership, and external stakeholders that there are a number of faculty, staff and students at your university who have significant and legitimate concerns about the use of these programs (given their lack of efficacy, their capacity to actually make things worse, and the costs involved, etc.).
University leaders and administrators can be persuaded. However, it is important to engage in a constructive way, to bring strong evidence and arguments, to recognize the concerns and problems university leaders and administrators are trying to address (and the various stakeholders they are trying to please), and to help them think through alternative – and more productive – ways they can accomplish their objectives.