W. Lee Hansen: Broader definition of diversity won’t help UW

May 1, 2014

Wisconsin State Journal

UW-Madison’s curious new diversity plan is finally available more than a year after its scheduled completion. Its title is a mouthful: “Forward Together: A Framework for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence: Goals and Recommendations.”

The plan lays out seven goals, 27 recommendations for implementation and indicators of success.

The Forward Together plan is confusing because it uses two radically different definitions of diversity. One is the traditional definition that focuses on racial and ethnic diversity in students, faculty and staff.

The other is a completely new and greatly expanded definition. It defines diversity as: “Individual differences in personality, learning styles, and life experiences, and group or social differences that may manifest through personality, learning styles, life experiences, and group or social differences. Our definition of diversity also incorporates differences of race and ethnicity; sex; gender; and gender identity or expression; sexual orientation; country of origin; language; physical and intellectual ability; socio-economic status; and affiliations that are based on cultural, political, religious, or other identities” that can be engaged in the service of learning.

Why these particular “differences” are included in the definition of diversity is not clearly explained. More surprising is the failure to include important individual differences that do affect learning. I fail to understand why such factors as intelligence, aptitude, motivation, commitment, high school class rank, ACT/SAT scores, and academic preparation for college are not included.

Perhaps it is because these are perceived as “white privilege.” Yet these “differences” are associated with what most people view as indicators of “academic excellence” that are appropriate at an institution priding itself as a “world-class teaching and research university.”

The Forward Together plan also is puzzling in asserting that “multiple dimensions of diversity … can be engaged in the service of learning.” The words “engaged in the service of learning” sound elevating. But nowhere does the plan explain how these “multiple dimensions” can be “engaged in the service of learning.”

How might information on these “differences” be obtained? Applicants would probably have to make checkmarks in an array of boxes on their application forms. Identifying “differences” such as “race and ethnicity, and sex” is easy. But will applicants know their “learning styles” or how to characterize their “personalities”? Will applicants be willing to disclose personal information on their “affiliations based on their cultural, political, religious, or other identities”?

Instructors in classrooms of any size will find themselves confronted by overlapping mixtures of “individual and group/social differences.” Based on my experience, I would have no idea how to incorporate these “differences” into my economics teaching.

In the interest of transparency, the Forward Together plan should explain more clearly that its largely untested “Diversity and Inclusive Excellence” framework, endorsed earlier by UW System, is the brainchild of a Washington-based educational “think tank” rather than something developed out of the experience of college and university faculty and staff working to promote greater diversity.

UW-Madison has consistently failed to achieve the goals of its earlier diversity plans. What should lead faculty, students and administrators to believe any substantial progress can be made in promoting the much broader concept of diversity and inclusion that is the centerpiece of Forward Together?

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