Sydney McKinley: Establish mandatory diversity training for GW faculty

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Junior Eric Darnell was raised in Prince George’s County, Md., a place he calls a majority-minority community where the residents, because of that diversity, are more conscious of racial issues than the general population.

For him and many other minority students here, the transition to GW has been harsh and uncomfortable. His freshman year, Darnell was surprised by what he would witness in the classroom.

“I was in a conversation my freshman year in one of my classes, and somebody said something pretty offensive that essentially conflated blackness and ‘ghetto’ behavior, and the worst part was that nobody even noticed it,” Darnell told me. “Not even the the teacher.”

Sydney McKinley

In moments like this – when faculty fail to respond appropriately – there is not only a missed opportunity for learning, but a threat to the classroom environment.

“When your professor doesn’t react to something like that, it affects the way you interact in the classroom,” Darnell, who is black, told me. “You get this feeling of, ‘If you’re not invested in my personal well-being, I’m just here for the grade.’”

Last week, GW released an inclusivity survey in an attempt to better understand our campus climate. And since 2010, the University has named nine black officials to top positions. Both are signs of progress and meaningful demonstrations of the University’s commitment to its diversity goals. Increased minority representation at high levels is important to ensuring that diverse experiences and perspectives are shaping University policy, as well as providing role models to students and staff.

Such an improvement, however, is not enough to impact students’ formative day-to-day experiences. If GW is serious about improving campus culture, it must think carefully about “diversity” among the people we interact with most closely and consistently: professors.

It’s essential that the University continues to try to combat its stagnant faculty diversity rates, as students have much to gain from working in a space where they must respect the intellectual authority of one who has not historically held academic power. These professors can provide underrepresented scholarly and everyday perspectives – an experience that is important to forming well-rounded students.

Still, efforts to support diversity and inclusion must involve more than diversifying by the numbers. GW must go even further and make professors the central actors in that mission by holding mandatory training to teach them how to create and maintain respectful, inclusive environments.

Trainings could go a long way in equipping faculty with the skills and knowledge they need to manage a diverse classroom. They would also set University standards and give professors a better understanding of the significance of their role.

The President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion presented proposals for employee training in 2011, but when asked whether mandatory diversity training for professors exists, University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar told me, “During orientation, new faculty learn about GW’s core values – learning, communication, community, diversity, excellence, respect, service and teamwork.”

She added that new department chairs, program directors and associate deans undergo training every summer that includes “a session dealing with unconscious bias in faculty recruiting and hiring.”

But associate professor of sociology Ivy Ken told me that as far as she knows, “There is no mandatory training on diversity for professors at most universities, including GW.”

Ken is right that there isn’t all that much precedent for this type of program at other schools – in fact, few of GW’s 14 peer schools advertise mandatory faculty training. New York University offers what it calls “Diversity Zone trainings.” Open to students, staff and faculty, these sessions are offered to the entire campus throughout the semester and can be set up for individual groups, too. They aim to leave community members “more culturally aware and competent and better prepared to become an effective ally” when it comes to issues surrounding race, class and ethnicity.

GW has shown through its recent initiatives that it wants to be a leader in diversity, and mandatory training is a logical next step.

Students engage with their professors nearly every day, whether it’s in class, during office hours or at campus events. Faculty have a direct impact on the student experience: They determine our grades, act as mentors and, as Darnell’s anecdote illustrates, shape our learning environment.

“It’s not just thinking if you throw in a couple of people who are non-white, then we have diversity. It’s also about educating white people on diversity and inclusion,” said Darnell, who’s the son of Darrell Darnell – one of the nine black top-level officials appointed in the past five years.

Forming relationships, as well as creating and maintaining a safe and supportive classroom environment, is something that all professors – regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation – can and should do. The University must assume responsibility for preparing our professors for this task.

Professors – who have already been through years of schooling – may be resistant to such a policy change that would require them to undergo more training, or they might think they don’t need it. And, admittedly, brief training will never be able to change a bigoted person’s mind.

But mandatory training would transform the tone of the profession at GW: It would make it so building an inclusive environment is no longer considered “extra,” but rather an essential part of a professor’s job.

Kevin Baltazar, a Latino student and junior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, told me that he always founded it hard to go to office hours because none of his professors seemed to relate to him on a personal level – until last year.

“It’s difficult to connect with a professor if they seem unwilling to understand you. But I went to this one professor’s office hours who started asking me questions about home, and it felt genuine. And this was a professor not of the same race as me,” Baltazar said. “Academically, this relationship helped me to focus a lot more. I was a lot more motivated and driven to do better and improve.”

Every student on this campus, not just those of minority backgrounds, stands to benefit from more inclusive learning environments. It’s crucial to increase the diversity of perspectives expressed in classroom conversations, which improves the classroom experience for all students.

It’s time the University realizes and embraces the vital responsibility that professors have to all of their students. Professors play an integral role in shaping our culture and we must view our faculty as an indispensable tool for fostering the diverse and inclusive environment for which our University strives.

Sydney McKinley, a senior majoring in political science and sociology, is a Hatchet columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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