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UW-Madison officials renewed efforts to foster inclusion of people of color in campus life as a rash of bias incidents sparked protests in spring 2016.

JOHN HART -- State Journal

UW-Madison officials say several new initiatives they have launched in a bid to improve the racial climate on campus will not stifle free speech, criticizing as a false choice the idea that making the university more inclusive means limiting the exchange of ideas that is at its heart.

But at least one professor and First Amendment advocate says he is concerned an aspect of UW-Madison’s policies could have just that effect.

Many students and professors, who start classes on Tuesday, will be required to take part in inclusivity training and other programs this fall, launched after a string of protests and racist incidents last spring brought national attention to the university.

Along with a previously announced cultural competency program for 1,000 incoming students, campus officials said Wednesday that teaching assistants and dorm house fellows will also be required to take part in new training. Chancellor Rebecca Blank has directed all academic departments to hold similar diversity programs for faculty and staff, as well.

In other changes this year, UW-Madison will open a new center for black students in the campus’ Red Gym, and increase mental health services by hiring additional staff. Those measures were among the goals of student activists who have pushed UW administrators to improve the experiences of minorities at the predominantly white university.

The new programs, resources and training aim to make students of color and others feel more comfortable at UW-Madison, Blank said, and to prevent the kinds of high-profile incidents the campus saw last spring, which included students heckling a Native American ceremony and others taping swastikas to a Jewish student’s dorm room door.

What they won’t do, Blank said, is limit free speech.

“I’m confident we can be a diverse and an inclusive community while also continuing our commitment to free speech,” she said.

UW-Madison has been one of several institutions thrust into a national debate over what steps colleges should take to make sure all students feel welcome on campus, and the point at which those efforts could limit important classroom debates and veer into censorship.

At UW, where a plaque on Bascom Hall touts the university’s commitment to the “fearless sifting and winnowing” of ideas, free speech and inclusion “are not mutually exclusive,” said Patrick Sims, the campus’ vice provost for diversity and climate.

“People who try to set those up against each other I think are not fully understanding what universities are and how they can best function,” Blank said.

Tyriek Mack, a student who has taken part in several campus demonstrations, said new training programs and activists’ efforts do not seek to police what people can or can’t say. Instead, Mack said, they are meant to show students how what they say can have an impact on marginalized groups.

“I don’t think you need to limit other people’s speech,” Mack said. “I do think people need to become more open-minded … about how the things they say can affect other people.”

Rather than limiting free speech on campus, Blank argued that making UW-Madison more inclusive will further open it, because faculty, staff and students must feel welcome in order to take part in the risky research or contentious debates that fuel a university.

“You have to feel comfortable to engage in that conversation,” she said.Donald Downs — a UW-Madison professor who helped craft a statement passed by the university’s governing board last fall affirming UW’s support for the open exchange of all ideas, even those that are offensive — said he respects officials’ efforts to make the campus more inclusive.

But Downs found some of their methods troubling.

He pointed to a campus website for reporting incidents of “hate and bias” that defines those incidents as “single or multiple acts toward an individual, group, or their property that have a negative impact and that one could reasonably conclude are based” on someone’s race, sexual orientation, religion or several other factors.

The phrase “negative impact,” Downs said, is “way too broad,” and could be interpreted to mean that anyone who expresses certain ideas could face discipline from the university. That fear limits discussion, he said.

“People are not going to be talking to each other about anything that matters,” Downs said. “The wrong kind of bias reporting procedures can certainly do that.”UW-Madison officials also have not released details of the curriculum for their new training programs. It’s those specifics, Downs said, that will ultimately determine whether those efforts fulfill administrators’ goal of fostering a campus of inclusion and free expression.

“It really boils down to how this stuff is applied,” Downs said. “There’s concern there, given how these things have worked out around the country.”

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.