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OU students fought for diversity education after a string of racist campus incidents, but a new state law makes it optional

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The University of Oklahoma is dropping a requirement for students to take a class on diversity in response to a new state law that seeks to limit what Oklahoma schools teach about race.

Angered by a series of racist incidents on campus, more than 100 students occupied an administration building at OU’s Norman campus for three days in February 2020. One of their demands was the creation of a mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion class for all students.

The students camped out in the hallways and watched movies. Some even declared a hunger strike.

Jamelia Reed, co-director of the campus group Black Emergency Response Team, was one of the leaders of the sit-in. The group initiated the protest to push for measures increasing cultural competency on campus after university students appeared in blackface on social media, among other incidents.

“We see time and time again, with these acts of racism and bigotry, that these events are caused by a lack of education,” Reed said. “If you were to look at every single apology letter, you’d find that it was a miscalculation or misguidance.”

Administrators eventually gave in to most of the students’ demands and developed a class called Gateway to Belonging that was set to launch in Fall 2021. The course includes lessons on understanding diverse perspectives, building an intercultural awareness and learning the sources of prejudice and discrimination, according to the OU website.

But the contents of the class have been challenged by House Bill 1775, a new state law that bans required diversity training at state schools. The law also forbids Oklahoma schools from teaching that one race is superior to another, or teaching that anyone is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive” because of their race.

The University of Oklahoma has moved to make the diversity class optional for students in response to the new law. Of the state’s public colleges and universities, The Frontier was only able to confirm that OU and Oklahoma State University had mandatory student diversity training that has now been made optional in response to HB 1775. Several other state schools said they will evaluate courses and orientation materials to gauge the bill’s effect on them.

Critics of the new law say it will have a chilling effect on public discourse at Oklahoma schools and universities and stamp out efforts to make campuses more welcoming for marginalized groups.

 Gateway to Belonging was originally slated as a required course, but OU officials will now allow students to choose among Gateway to Belonging and two other classes after the state adopted HB 1775. In a May 7 email, University of Oklahoma President Joseph Harroz Jr. wrote two additional courses — called Global Perspectives and Engagement, and Ethical Leadership Development — will be offered in addition to the Gateway to Belonging course to fulfill course requirements.

Reed said by limiting discussion of race and gender, the new law will make OU’s campus even more hostile toward minority students.

Gateway to Belonging will be offered in the fall 2021 semester as a pilot, and the other two courses will be offered in later semesters, OU spokesperson Kesha Keith said in an email.

Together, the three courses focus on critical thinking, cultural fluency, civil discourse, citizenship and community engagement, the email said.

A few weeks after the protest, history professor Kathleen Brosnan was the subject of campus backlash after she repeatedly used a racial slur in class while reading aloud from a historical document. Gaylord professor Peter Gade compared the same racial slur to the phrase “OK, boomer,” causing BERT members to call for a mandatory equity training for faculty and staff. The faculty training hasn’t been affected by the new law.

OU students have been required to complete a similar diversity training since 2015, the year members of the university’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter were recorded singing a racist chant on a date party bus. That training also has been made optional as a result of HB 1775.

Harroz wrote in the May 7 email to students and faculty that though the training is no longer a requirement for students, they’re still encouraged to take it. He also wrote that all university employees, including student employees, are required to complete the training, as well as other “necessary and essential” trainings, like sexual harassment and workplace safety training.

“Our students’ success in making a difference in the lives of others depends upon their ability to engage with the broader world in a way that is understanding of all people and perspectives,” Harroz wrote in the email. “With our available diversity, equity and inclusion training and the First-Year Experience – coupled with the unparalleled OU experience – it’s our belief that our students will be better prepared for a life of meaning and positive impact.”

OU’s diversity training had its share of controversy even before HB 1775 was introduced.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a conservative nonprofit that advocates for freedom of speech on college campuses, claims OU’s mandatory diversity training breached students’ First Amendment rights by requiring them to express agreement with the university’s views on transgender issues. 

FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh said that while the group took issue with how the training was structured, it does not support laws like HB 1775. The group believes the law and similar legislation that other states have adopted or advanced will have a “chilling” effect on academic freedom on college campuses.

Some institutions will be overly cautious in their interpretation of the bill’s definition of “training,” pushing them to evaluate classes to ensure they comply with the law. This is problematic because it will limit discussions on race, ethnicity and other diversity issues, he said.

Reed said that although activists at OU were frustrated by HB 1775, they weren’t surprised it passed in Oklahoma. They and other BERT members didn’t do much advocacy against it, because they believed efforts to stop it from being signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt were hopeless.

“I don’t think it’s surprising,” Reed said. “I think it’s honestly disappointing when you say you want to progress, you want to see change, but the only change you want to see is the progression of oppression against people who need it. And … I think it’s going to cause further divide when you’re not allowing people to understand the true history.”

Nicole McAfee, ACLU of Oklahoma director of policy and advocacy, said there has historically been much to be desired in diversity education across the state.

She believes many lawmakers— including former educators and administrators — support the bill out of a lack of understanding of critical race theory.

The ACLU believes the law threatens free speech in Oklahoma classrooms as well as makes marginalized groups feel less welcome.

Because of the bill’s vague wording, its impact still isn’t completely clear, McAfee said. While the bill doesn’t explicitly identify an impact to higher education curriculum, she said some institutions are already questioning what is or isn’t relevant to the bill and erring on the side of limited race, gender and sexuality education. She said the legislation could also affect sexual misconduct training, like OU’s Step In, Speak Out, on college campuses — which are often hotspots for sexual violence.

“I think we do a disservice to our student bodies, to our classrooms, but also to the students as they go out into the world, when we create scenarios where they’re unable to participate in these trainings and have these conversations,” McAfee said.

This content was originally published here.

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