UW-Madison expanding diversity training program

New UW-Madison students who participate in this summer's Student Orientation, Advising and Registration (SOAR) session will experience the first hour of a new diversity training program.

JEFF MILLER, UW-MADISON

Nearly all new UW-Madison students will be encouraged to participate in a diversity training program next year after about 1,000 students participated in the program this past fall.

The program, known as Our Wisconsin, is one of several steps the university has taken to address a series of racially charged incidents on campus over the past year and what some minority groups have called a hostile environment. The program has been criticized both for not doing enough to address issues of systemic racism and also for potentially stifling unpopular free speech.

A participant survey found some evidence the program was fostering a greater awareness of race, though there was also “considerable drop-off in participation” between the two workshops, which took nearly five hours to complete.

UW-Madison Dean of Students Lori Berquam said the training will be limited to four hours as it expands to nearly all 7,000 new students next year. It will also be offered to various groups, such as athletes, the UW Marching Band, and fraternities and sororities.

Though it won’t be mandatory next fall, the first hour of the program will be incorporated into the summer student orientation process known as SOAR. Freshmen will be able to participate in a follow-up three-hour session as part of their residence hall activities in the first few weeks of school.

“Our hope is to be able to capture 90 percent of our incoming new students through these two mediums,” Berquam told reporters Monday.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank expressed support for the program’s expansion, Berquam said.

The university is adding a full-time position to oversee the program, which is costing $240,000 to implement.

Berquam said survey data so far doesn’t support making the program mandatory, but she added “we put this together in a very short amount of time.”

The survey found 52 percent of participants said learning about diversity was very or extremely important before participating, and 60 percent said the same after the first session. Also, 12 percent said before the program that they were very or extremely comfortable talking about race, and after both sessions that increased to 19 percent.

And 39 percent before the workshop said they would question a friend about a biased or stereotypical comment, with that number increasing to 50 percent after the first workshop.

Feedback on the sessions included that they should include snacks, be shorter, occur earlier in the year and include UW-Madison examples.

Race relations has been a hot topic on campus after incidents including racist graffiti, a football fan dressed up as President Barack Obama with a noose around his neck and an attempt to start a “pro-white student club” by a student who had been convicted of setting fires at predominantly black churches. Last week, the university’s student government passed a resolution saying black students should be offered free tuition and housing.

Tyriek Mack, a UW-Madison junior and Associated Students of Madison representative who authored the free tuition resolution, said he doesn’t oppose expanding the diversity training program because students asked for it. But he’s disappointed it doesn’t address more challenging issues such as white privilege and minority oppression.

“It’s not talking about the issues we’re facing in a way that gets to the root of the problem,” Mack said. “The chancellor’s putting this forward to pacify students to make us feel the university is committed to diversity and inclusivity. But these are just empty promises to make her not look like the bad guy.”

John Sharpless, a history professor who has been critical of the diversity training program, said his concern with broadening it is that students will become dismissive of it, like some are with a mandatory program about the dangers of alcohol.

“I don’t know if this is something that students are saying, ‘It’s one more hurdle being thrown in front of me to get a degree,’ or viewed as really being helpful,” Sharpless said.

UW-Madison officials highlighted progress on other diversity initiatives, including:

  • 8,500 students participated in the first-ever campus climate survey in November. Results are still being analyzed.
  • University Health Services has added two new staff members focused on underserved student groups and the needs of students of color.
  • Residence hall student staff are receiving more training on cross-cultural communication and awareness.
  • The university appointed a Community Advisory Committee which has met twice so far to offer advice on diversity issues.

The university also is opening a Black Cultural Center in the Red Gym, expanding its culturally relevant student advising program, increasing diversity training for teaching assistants this summer, reviewing its ethnic studies courses, expanding its introductory course on comparative American Indian studies and developing training for faculty to improve classroom discussions about diversity.

Blank has called for a campuswide discussion among different departments on issues of inclusion and diversity.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.