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Federal order forces some US colleges to cut diversity programming

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Some colleges and universities are cutting back diversity training programs in response to an executive order from the Trump administration.

The Trump administration issued an executive order on Sept. 22 banning federally-funded organizations from offering diversity training that promotes “race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating.” The executive order does not specifically mention diversity training, but some colleges have cut diversity programming out of fear that the order could impact their federal funding. Others have spoken out against the order.

SU, which receives federal funding for certain programs and research, has not publicly done either.

Gladys McCormick, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion at SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said there is some confusion in higher education circles about how colleges and universities should interpret the order. In some cases, it could give universities that already wanted to cut diversity and inclusion initiatives and training an excuse to do so, McCormick said.

“For those institutions that do use the executive order to curtail diversity, equity and inclusion, then it would appear that the executive order was an excuse of sorts to do what they were already planning on doing,” McCormick said.

Administrators at the University of Iowa condemned the order after pausing diversity and inclusion training on campus over fears it would lose federal funding. At the University of Michigan, school officials responded to the order by doubling down on previous commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Texas State University has also frozen its diversity training programs in response to the order.

While some colleges and universities may choose to adopt the executive order’s parameters to curtail inclusion efforts, many are waiting for the courts to weigh in and push the White House to specify the implications of the order, McCormick said.

“For others with stronger commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion and a robust diversity, equity and inclusion infrastructure, it would have less of an effect in the short term, though questions remain of what would happen in the longer term,” McCormick said.

The government’s efforts to control how universities talk about diversity are concerning, said Jonathan Friedman, program director of campus free speech at PEN America, a nonprofit organization that works to defend free expression in the United States and worldwide. The executive order infringes upon civil liberties, he said.

“It’s also a cardinal human right to express ideas and opinions and to share information openly,” Friedman said. “If anything, we should be redoubling our effort to have these conversations, not trying to shut them down.”

Discussions about discrimination in the United States — especially surrounding the ideas of systemic racism and sexism the executive order targets — will move the country forward, Friedman said. It is valuable for students to hear about each others’ experiences and undergo training to better understand how race and gender factor into them, he said.

Hasan Jeffries, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University who teaches courses on the Civil Rights Movement, said the order could have a dramatic effect on college students.

Many colleges have been proactive in facilitating conversations about race, and for students of color, those discussions have become a powerful outlet of expression, he said. For white students, those conversations have become opportunities to grow, he said.

Learning about others students and colleagues’ lived experiences surrounding race and gender is a crucial part of higher education, Jeffries said. Colleges and universities need to weave these conversations into standard curricula and training, he said.

Jeffries said colleges and universities should find ways to continue with diversity initiatives despite the executive order. Though the order presents risks for financially unstable schools –– especially those hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic –– schools that are well-off have a responsibility to make learning about diversity and inequity a priority, he said.

“Some things are more important than money,” Jeffries said.

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