Diversity requirement begins for new students, but is subject to change

Professor Joan Hermsen: “We want to see students engaging with the material and bringing their personal life experiences to the kinds of questions that are raised in courses.”
Interim Vice Chancellor for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Chuck Henson is honored with other colleagues during the halftime of the Missouri basketball game against Mississippi State University on Jan. 30 in Mizzou Arena.

Obstacles still stand in the way of a permanent diversity course requirement at MU, but the university has held diversity training sessions for new students and implemented required trainings for administrators.

Former Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced last semester that diversity and inclusion training would become mandatory for students, faculty and staff in January 2016. All admitted students would have to go through a diversity training session before they register for classes. However, since Loftin’s resignation in November, there has been little news concerning these proposed diversity requirements.

These all-encompassing diversity initiatives made headway at the beginning of this semester. Black studies professor Stephanie Shonekan and women’s and gender studies professor Joan Hermsen led three Diversity@Mizzou sessions in mid-January. All incoming undergraduate students for this spring semester, including transfer students, had to attend at least one two-hour session.

Last semester, multiple student organizations, including Concerned Student 1950 and the Legion of Black Collegians, voiced concerns about the lack of diversity education and training at the university. These concerns led to campuswide protests over institutional racism in the UM System and the resignation of system President Tim Wolfe.

Shonekan and Hermsen were approached late last semester by Cathy Scroggs, vice chancellor for student affairs, and Chuck Henson, interim vice chancellor for diversity, inclusion and equity, to attempt to draft a plan for some kind of diversity training for new students that would be starting at MU in the spring 2016 semester.

“Stephanie and I were of this perspective that we should try and focus on what it is that students come to school for, and that’s an education and to focus, then, on what are the ways that diversity issues might come up in a classroom,” Hermsen said.

They settled on three sessions that would introduce the types of diverse courses at the university. Different faculty members showcased how diversity is interconnected between all fields of studies while encouraging conversation between students and with faculty.

“We want to see students engaging with the material and bringing their personal life experiences to the kinds of questions that are raised in courses,” Hermsen said. “When we talk about diversity … we’re not just talking about race, so we’re doing the whole spectrum to encourage students to think more broadly about the student body at MU and the diverse kinds of background that people have.”

A first step

Before the sessions began, Shonekan and Hermsen met with various student organizations on campus to discuss the events that happened last semester. The professors went over what concepts they wanted to discuss for these first three sessions to make sure the content and approach was not problematic for students.

“We wanted to help … our campus move in a positive direction, so we decided that it was important for us to put the concept in front of a number of people,” Shonekan said.

The sessions might change in following semesters as the kinks are worked out of the program, Shonekan and Hermsen said. Henson and Scroggs could even decide to go in a completely different direction depending on what they think is best for incoming students. Shonekan and Hermsen presented their sessions for a couple hundred students this semester, but there are thousands of incoming freshman that will have to complete the training this fall.

The decisions on how to move forward will be made when final evaluations submitted by students in attendance are reviewed. However, early evaluations suggest that students appreciated the experience, Shonekan and Hermsen said.

“I hope we can give a way for new students to converse on new ideas so that they go away curious and inquisitive about what is possible in the intellectual space that is the University of Missouri,” Shonekan said.

The university is also attempting to implement a diversity course requirement, which would be different from diversity training for incoming students.

The MU Faculty Council Diversity Enhancement Committee released an update on the diversity course requirement Nov. 20, 2015. The committee is looking to enforce a three-credit-hour course requirement that would count toward the 45 hours of general education credit hours for undergraduate students.

The courses that would fall under this diversity course requirement would come from all departments and colleges. If it is needed, the university would consider establishing more courses to fit this description.

“To be accepted into the list of cultural competency courses, courses must address one dimension of marginalization deeply, with a clearly specified approach as well as how the deeply studied perspective intersects with other marginalized groups,” according to the MU Transparency website.

A standing committee made up of faculty from across the university is set to be formed to decide which existing courses already meet the requirements and what courses need to be implemented.

Training for administrators

The UM System Board of Curators has also proposed diversity and education training for administration that will be required for the board, system president and administrative leadership. UM System spokesman John Fougere said in an email this initiative is close to being finalized, but it is dependent on two factors the board is still working on.

The first component is the appointment of a Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer for the UM System. The search has been narrowed down to three finalists, who will be speaking in public forums during the next week.

“The person that fills this role will be responsible for helping develop and leading the system training, while campus diversity, equity and inclusion officers will customize their own training program for leadership on their respective UM System campus,” Fougere said.

The training initiative is set to be announced when the funding for the program, the second factor, is finalized as well. Fougere said the numbers will be confirmed soon.

Through the new requirements for faculty and students, MU hopes to bring different perspectives concerning diversity to light.

“I don’t think you can expect someone who comes in with a preconception about a certain group of people to change in three hours, but I do think somebody with a certain preconception can start thinking about the fact that he or she has a preconception and maybe that there are other preconceptions out there,” Shonekan said.

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