Through group discussions, one-on-one conversations and even a card game, UW-Madison officials hope a new program they will roll out next week for 1,000 newly arrived students will be a step toward improving the racial climate at their university.
In a pair of two-hour workshops, the Our Wisconsin training will attempt to show students how their backgrounds and experiences have shaped their perceptions, as well as how their actions and statements can affect people with different identities, according to program materials UW officials provided to the Wisconsin State Journal this week.
But some on campus who reviewed the curriculum are skeptical of whether the cultural competency program will succeed in its goal of creating a more inclusive UW-Madison.
One student activist said the training focuses too much on individual actions, and tiptoes around discussion of the systemic racism and prejudice he says drive problems on campus.
Meanwhile, as conservatives nationwide and in Wisconsin have criticized what they view as political correctness run amok on college campuses, some professors worry the training could limit free speech at UW-Madison if participants fear their ideas could be seen as offensive.
“My concern is, overall, this kind of program will create an atmosphere in which students and faculty and staff will be hesitant to say anything that will be interpreted as troubling to other groups on campus,” history professor John Sharpless said.
UW officials have pushed back against the idea that their efforts to make the university more tolerant will limit free speech and the open exchange of ideas.
Joshua Moon Johnson, an assistant to the dean of students who oversaw the development of Our Wisconsin, said the program will instead create more productive classroom debates by first helping students feel comfortable discussing topics such as race and religion.
“Our goal is to create a place where people can openly talk about more controversial topics,” he said. “We encourage people to express ideas that are controversial or debatable.”
Calls to ‘Care about all Badgers’
Training materials UW-Madison officials provided to the State Journal include the packet Our Wisconsin’s facilitators will use during their workshops with students, which start Tuesday and continue through November.
Students in four residence halls will take the program this fall; it is not mandatory, but UW officials plan to expand it to all first-year students in the future. It will cost the university between $150,000 and $200,000 this year.
During one activity, students introduce themselves to someone they don’t know and talk until they find something they have in common. In another, the group is asked to say what every UW student deserves as part of their college experience — words such as respect, safety and fun are recommended.
“If you really care about all Badgers, care about all Badgers,” student facilitator Mariam Coker says in an Our Wisconsin video.
For many students, college may be the first time they interact with people from backgrounds different from their own, Johnson said.
“Many times when people aren’t exposed to those differences, they avoid them,” he said. With Our Wisconsin, he said, UW-Madison hopes to encourage students to do the opposite.
Criticism of program from two sides
Later in the program, students are given playing cards at random, and told to treat people certain ways based on the number on the cards they are holding. Afterward, facilitators connect the game to “the big picture of social and systemic advantages and disadvantages because who we are individually regarding identities and experiences is connected to a larger system,” according to curriculum materials.
“Within this system, some groups are treated better than other ones,” the program states.
Critics on the right have said that sort of conclusion in other cultural competency programs amounts to an indoctrination of students. Sharpless said the program at times “reflects a kind of liberal thought process.”
But Michael Davis, a graduate student who led a protest last spring calling for changes to improve the experiences of minority students, said the training program didn’t go far enough — it doesn’t come out and say which groups benefit from systemic advantages.
“If we really are attempting to get at the heart of the issue, we’re going to have to do more than have a curriculum where the issues at hand aren’t even explicit in it,” Davis said.
Moon responded that Our Wisconsin seeks to give students a “framework” for conversations, leaving it up to students to discuss how they have seen systemic advantages play out based on race, gender, class or ability.
“Our facilitators’ job is not to tell people what to think or what to say,” Johnson said.
Discussion of microaggressions
Our Wisconsin also touches on a topic that has become a lightning rod in the debate over inclusion efforts on college campuses: Microaggressions, which the program defines as moments when someone, often accidentally, does something “that belittles and alienates a member of a marginalized group.”
The program materials cite several examples of microaggressions, including a person being told, “I never see you as a black girl” and another disregarding a student’s disability because, “You get extra time on exams.”
Students have complained that those seemingly small slights can accumulate to make them feel unwelcome at UW-Madison and other major universities.
Conservatives and others, meanwhile, have said that the discussion of microaggressions has been used to restrict free speech at the whims of overly sensitive students.
Donald Downs, a retired UW-Madison professor and free speech advocate, said he is wary of the program’s focus on systemic advantages and microaggressions, saying it could “alienate more people and divide us on campus.”
For Our Wisconsin to be successful, Downs said, its discussions must respect all viewpoints, “including those that might be suspicious of the program,” Downs said.
Before the program is expanded to all new students, Johnson said, UW officials will evaluate its effectiveness with surveys of participants throughout the academic year. Those surveys will try to gauge what students learned and whether they put the program’s lessons to use, comparing their responses to those of students who didn’t take Our Wisconsin.