5 Lessons From a Race-and-Ethnicity Requirement

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By Whitney Peoples and Angela D. Dillard

Student demands for curricular reform in the service of diversity, equity, and inclusion are nothing new. Such demands tend to resurface most forcefully in moments like this one, when institutions are pressed to confront their complicity with systemic racism.

That was the case in the wave of protests that led to the creation of Black- and ethnic-studies departments in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and again in the significant wave of campus activism that spread across the country between 2013 and 2016 — including the #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan) movement and walkouts and hunger strikes at the University of Missouri. Those protests prompted widespread demands for more required courses on race and ethnicity, for diversity training, and for more diversity in faculty hiring.

This summer — amid a national climate of great political unrest and unprecedented protests against institutionalized racism — these diversity requirements have once again become a heated topic of debate.

Here at Michigan, the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) has had a three-credit course requirement on race and ethnicity in effect since 1990. But it remains a source of some consternation, especially among those on the campus who want designated courses to have a more explicitly anti-racist orientation and who want to know why the hell programs outside of the college don’t have a similar course requirement.

Such developments are by no means limited to Michigan. Colleges judged to have offered too little too late on the diversity front can expect similar attempts to up the ante. As student activism moves from our streets to our (virtual) campuses this fall, we believe other colleges attempting to thoughtfully navigate this heated political terrain can learn a lot from our experience with proposing, debating, and adopting the R&E requirement, as it’s popularly known here, which turns 30 this year.

Lesson 1: There is nothing wrong with being responsive to student voices and demands.

The original Black Action Movement at Michigan (BAM) — a coalition of Black student groups that organized a 12-day campus shutdown in 1970 — called for support for Black studies. But it was not until “BAM III,” in 1987, that campus activists listed an explicit demand for required courses on racism and sexism. As a series of racist incidents roiled the campus that year, a student group known as the United Coalition Against Racism (UCAR) — working with two faculty groups — laid the foundations for what became the R&E degree requirement. Together they fashioned a course — “Race, Racism, and Ethnicity” — that they hoped would become foundational for a future degree requirement in the university’s liberal-arts college.

Earlier protests had centered on the needs of Black students, but by the late 1980s, the need for anti-racist education for the white student population had surfaced as a major concern. Student activists by 1987 realized that education alone could not fully eradicate institutionalized racism, and deemed it unacceptable that students could graduate from Michigan with little or no awareness of what racism is, how it permeates our society, and the implications the topic has for people of color.

Lesson 2: Because faculty own the curriculum, compromise will be necessary.

While the progressive wing of the college’s faculty was uniting around the design and implementation of “Race, Racism, and Ethnicity,” the faculty at large began a debate on the requirement that would take almost three years, start to finish. Critics raised issues on all sides of the multiple proposals: Many outright opposed the notion of a required course, on the grounds that it was an infringement on free speech and the ability of students to make their own choices. Others claimed to see more indoctrination than education. Everyone agreed that this lone requirement would be insufficient for truly dealing with the depths of the problems around racism on the campus and beyond.

The eventual compromise consisted of a series of courses embedded within individual departments and taught from various disciplinary perspectives. The courses, it was determined, would need to focus on:

  • The meaning of race, ethnicity, and racism.
  • Racial and ethnic intolerance, and the resulting inequality as it occurs in the United States or elsewhere.
  • Comparisons of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, social class, or gender. (That wording was amended in 2016 to read: “comparisons of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender and gender identity, ability/disability status, sexual orientation, or national origin.”)

That was not what student activists had in mind — and in 1990, even more compromises watered down the initial proposal. The first specified that, to satisfy the requirement, a course would have to “devote substantial, but not necessarily exclusive, attention to the required content” (emphasis added). The second stipulated that, while “many of these courses will focus on the United States,” it was “not required that they do so.”

The result was a far cry from the original proposal. Yet it is particularly important to note that — despite many compromises — what did not change was the principled emphasis on racism, ethnic intolerance, and inequality. The majority of the college’s faculty members resisted the urge, embedded in some of the counterproposals, to create a requirement skewed toward multiculturalism and cross-cultural tolerance. Doing so, they felt, would have moved the requirement even further from anti-racist education. Cross-cultural understanding and the ability to communicate across differences are important skills that ought to be taught in robust partnerships between student life and academic affairs. But if you want to seriously tackle questions of structural racism, ethnic violence, and white supremacy, a mellow “diversity” requirement isn’t going to cut it.

Lesson 3: You might want to establish learning goals for the requirement upfront.

At Michigan, the precise learning goals were left strategically vague, in order to get the requirement passed. Over the years, that decision compounded issues around assessment and accountability, on the one hand, and student expectations on the other. The takeaway: You should establish clear objectives and learning goals early on, and you should work equally hard to communicate them in effective ways to both faculty members and students.

It was not until a 2015-16 review of the requirement that we deliberately crafted a statement about what, exactly, we want students to know — and even these learning goals are still not as concretized as they probably ought to be. Remarkably, during the review, no one went on record in opposition to the requirement, but students did complain that the courses designated to fulfill the requirement were at times too broad and too vague. Some students admitted to not realizing they were enrolled in R&E courses.

While clear learning goals don’t altogether prevent conflicts, they can help provide a common language through which all parties (students, professors, administrators) can temper their own expectations and desires. If nothing else, such goals can be instrumental in assessing whether courses satisfy your institution’s requirement.

Lesson 4: You will need to have lots of conversations about resources, especially human ones.

You’ll be tempted to spend a good deal of time debating which topics ought to be taught and who ought to teach them. You’ll worry — and appropriately so — about whether teaching obligations will fall unfairly on faculty of color and those with appointments in racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural studies.

Don’t be surprised that many faculty of color will be reluctant to teach required courses on such difficult and challenging subjects — particularly in the absence of an appropriate level of resources and recognition. During the 2015-16 review of Michigan’s requirement, we found that several colleagues who taught courses with significant R&E content had never sought to have them certified to meet the requirement. Asked why, they expressed fears that the course dynamic would be harmed if students were forced to be there and possibly resistant and angry about it. Those colleagues also said they were exhausted by, and resentful of, the heavy load they already carried, in terms of undervalued, underappreciated, and often invisible diversity work.

At the same time, some departments used the review to reaffirm their commitment to the pedagogical potential of the R&E requirement, and even defined their own unit-level approaches.

For example, the American-culture department posted a statement averring that teaching these courses is “central to the mission of our department.” But the courses “offer more than content related to race and ethnicity,” the statement said. “They offer tools for analysis that students can apply to other academic work and to their own experiences, cultural choices, and identities. Tools for thinking about race and ethnicity are essential for participation in a diverse and globalized work force. But in our view, successful race and ethnicity courses also help students find their way to thoughtful citizenship in a society (and on a campus) where inequalities, privileges, and conflicts organized around race and ethnicity remain fundamental challenges to democratic values and educational equity.”

That level of visible, forthright departmental commitment and ownership is commendable. It is also not widespread on the campus — but should be. Indeed, a fully realized departmental strategy did not emerge from the 2015-16 review but very likely will be on the table this fall for those who want to see the requirement become more explicitly anti-racist.

Lesson 5: Pedagogy is the key.

Remember: What is most important about these requirements may not be who teaches them, what topics and disciplines they incorporate, what level they are offered at, or how many credit hours they generate. In the end, it’s the pedagogy that matters most.

Teaching about race, racism, and anti-racism involves skill-based practices that often challenge the limits of our pedagogical training. In addition to content expertise, instructors also need key facilitation and classroom-management skills to navigate the dynamics of teaching about race and racism.

Institutions must be prepared to offer substantive support in the form of regular training opportunities and the availability of expert guidance from individuals trained in critical race studies and pedagogies. Following our 2015-16 review, we created a new position in Michigan’s teaching center specifically to support instructional development for faculty members teaching R&E courses or teaching about race more broadly. This position is one of the first of its kind for a university teaching center. It should not be the last.

Moreover, course requirements with explicit social-justice orientations that aim to be anti-racist will need to offer different kinds of instructional support than those that aim only to foster awareness. Anti-racist pedagogies will require instructors to invest in long-term revision of their course design and teaching practices and commit to regular reflection on their progress and areas of growth. This means, especially for historically (or predominantly) white universities, naming and decentering whiteness in the student body, the instructor population, and the curriculum. This also means that faculty must have protected time to engage in the long-term work of developing anti-racist teaching practices, and that this work must be valued by the institution in terms of evaluation for tenure, promotion, and contract renewal.

As higher-education institutions aim to build on this watershed moment for racial justice, curricular interventions must be understood as one stage in continuing institutional, departmental, and individual investments in the dismantling of systemic racism on our campuses. These curricular requirements are not short-term fixes, and they are not sufficient on their own. Rather, they ought to be coupled with other campuswide, anti-racist initiatives.

We speak in this regard to both the choir and the pews. Even after 30 years of R&E at Michigan, there are still tremendous opportunities for improvement and growth. Above all, the moral imperatives of this moment offer yet another chance to listen to, respect, and substantively incorporate the voices of student activists in our collective anti-racist work.

Whitney Peoples is director of educational development and assessment services at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching and coordinator of its diversity initiatives. Angela D. Dillard is a professor of Afroamerican & African studies and of history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

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