UMD’s diversity education requirements may be revamped soon

The administration building. (Joe Ryan/The Diamondback)

The University of Maryland’s diversity education requirements may soon undergo significant changes.

For two years, a task force at the university has been investigating ways the school could better equip undergraduate students to understand and reflect upon their own identities, as well as the societal forces that differentially confer power and privilege among certain demographics and cultural groups.

Last week, the group — which was charged by university Provost Mary Ann Rankin and includes both faculty and students — presented its findings to the University Senate and recommended ways the university could improve diversity general education requirements and promote civic engagement among students outside the classroom.

“We have to think about broader issues such as oppression and institutional structures and how they produce some of the outcomes that we’re concerned about,” said African American studies professor Oscar Barbarin, who co-chairs the task force.

The university currently requires students to take two courses meant to enhance their understanding of diversity and culture — either two that fall under the course catalog’s designation of “Understanding Plural Societies,” or one from that category and another under the “Cultural Competency” designation.

But William Cohen, associate provost and dean for undergraduate studies, says these requirements were created a decade ago. Though Cohen says the courses were designed to help students “be well informed about the diversity of thought and expression,” he says they weren’t created with the intention of equipping students to understand the interactions they have with others both on and off the campus.

Moving forward, the task force recommends the university retain its two-course diversity education structure, but require students take one course from each category. It is also recommended the associated category labels are changed to “Understanding Structures of Racism and Inequality” and “Navigating Diverse Social Environments,” according to the report it published this month.

Courses falling under the first category would aim to help students “analyze racism as a form of historical and systemic discrimination that intersects with other forms of power and oppression,” among other goals. In courses that fall under the second category, students would learn to “communicate effectively … with others from different social backgrounds” and empathize with the experiences of marginalized individuals.

Students would be required to take one course in each category. Courses would be allowed, but not required, to qualify for both categories, and empathy would be promoted as a learning outcome in both diversity categories.

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When students arrive on the campus, Cohen said they may not be well-equipped for the conversations they will have inside and outside of the classroom.

“Giving them some help with navigating that, and understanding it, and really opening their eyes to just the incredible range of experiences that people have, I think, can be intellectually exciting, and also help broaden them in terms of their understanding of other people,” he said.

The task force convened during the summer of 2018 to supplement the work of the Joint President/Senate Inclusion and Respect Task Force, which was formed in response to student demands following the 2016 election and the murder of 1st Lt. Richard Collins, a Black Bowie State University senior who was killed by a white former student from this university.

Over the course of the last two years, the task force interviewed campus community members and identified possible changes to general education requirements. By February and March of this year, task force members had begun to draft their final report. But since then, the context under which they have been working has shifted drastically.

For one, the university’s transition to an online learning environment in the face of the coronavirus pandemic pushed faculty to learn new styles of teaching. The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police also ignited global demonstrations against systemic racism and prompted campus community members to “spotlight racism and anti-Black bias within the broader framework of diversity,” according to the task force’s report.

In light of the reckoning Floyd’s killing inspired, Cohen said the task force decided to switch the focus of its recommendations to more specifically center around informing students about the racist structures that exist throughout society.

Alysa Conway, a senior at this university on the task force, emphasized the need for members to consider the Black Lives Matter movement in drafting their recommendations — as well as the murder of Collins and the swastikas and anti-LGBTQ slurs that have been found drawn inside of campus buildings and dorms. 

A 2018 survey about the climate on campus also found that Black and Latino students, staff and faculty members reported feeling less safe than their white and Asian American counterparts.

“We hope that through our transparency, within knowing the dark paths that we have unfortunately had to embrace,” Conway said, “[we’ll] be able to use that as fuel with then getting students to really do better.”

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Beyond the group’s recommendations for the two diversity course categories, the task force is also suggesting that diversity education components vary from major to major, according to its report.

That’s because the group wants to make course materials specific to the workplace environments that students studying different majors may encounter, said Cynthia Stevens, a member of the task force and the associate dean in the undergraduate studies office. 

“The kind of diversity education that might be important and relevant to computer science majors might be different than you would find in the College of Education,” she said.

The diversity education recommendations also touch upon enhancements to UNIV100, an introductory course most students take in their first semester at the university. That class could feature a new interactive board game called “My Maryland Odyssey,” which would simulate a “four-year college experience in which students gain and lose academic, health, leisure, and character resources en route to graduation,” according to the group’s report.

A new online training module may be required for incoming students under the group’s recommendations, as well. The training would work in conjunction with university President Darryll Pines’ new Terrapin Strong program, which he announced in his first email as president in July. The new program is planned to introduce students to their majors’ cultures and educate them on how to have productive interactions with people from different backgrounds, Cohen said.

In its report, the task force also notes the university’s academic affairs and student affairs units already offer an array of programs meant to broaden student understanding and sensitivity to diversity, inclusion and civic engagement issues — from training provided by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for teaching assistants to mentor programs offered by the University Health Center.

Though these programs may offer students valuable learning experiences, the task force indicated they are often not broadly publicized. The group recommends that these programs be catalogued and codified so that students may interact with them to earn microcredentials, which they could then include on their resumes.

By way of improving the campus climate overall, the task force hopes that implementing its recommendations could help the school better attract faculty members of color — a goal that Cohen says is about making these faculty feel valued, connected and supported by the institution.

Before the new general education requirements are implemented, the University Senate’s Educational Affairs Committee and the senate as a whole will have to approve them.

But despite the long road ahead, Stevens is optimistic about the group’s report.

“I hope it transforms the entire university,” Stevens said.

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