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University to spend $121 million on diversity efforts – and maybe more in two years

Freshmen forced to study ‘diversity, bias, and privilege’

Last fall, Columbia University pledged to spend an extra $100 million on diversity efforts over five years.

Not content to play second fiddle on diversity spending, American University is spending even more, even faster.

The private university in Washington, D.C., plans to shell out $121 million in the next two years on its “Plan for Inclusive Excellence.”

That includes a mandatory full-year course for all freshmen starting this fall, The American University Experience.

The first section of AUx is designed to help students adjust to university life, covering topics such as freedom of expression, “exploring and expressing identities” and “diversity, bias, and privilege.”

MORE: AU says bananas are racist threats

For the second semester, AUx will pay particular attention to “race and social identity” issues and make students discuss contentious subjects in a way that “pushes beyond the norm,” according to the course outline.

Students will study the “uncomfortable ways” in which class, disability, religion, gender and sexual expression are often discussed, and learn about “structures of culture and power as well as social movements that challenge those structures.”

Two classes sessions in particular are titled “Examining Race and Class Privilege” and “Defining Whiteness.” AUx started a year ago as an elective to satisfy General Education requirements.

Just as crucial as math and English

Asked for its goal in forcing freshmen to take diversity courses in order to graduate, a university spokesperson told The College Fix in an email that AUx will help prepare “students for an increasingly global and diverse workplace.”

The new courses will help students “achieve cultural competency and critical thinking,” and their “effect is also immediate” because the courses “help students navigate their academic, social, cultural, and psychological adjustment to university life,” he said, quoting from the course description.

The spokesperson equated these diversity courses with math and English skills because each teaches basic life skills.

MORE: Columbia to spend an additional $100 million on diversity efforts

Andrea Brenner, the director of AUx, told The Eagle the courses are vital for students who want to function in society. “Many of our students come from homogenous backgrounds where they really haven’t dealt with diverse populations before, and so this was a way to respond to a demographically.”

The school says the program isn’t a direct response to any specific incident, although the campus has experienced several incidents in just the past year that were considered racially charged.

Last spring bananas were found hanging in makeshift nooses with the letters “AKA” written on them, a likely reference to the African American sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. Last fall, “Confederate flag fliers” were spotted on campus, and last month anti-immigration posters were posted around campus.

The school has yet to identify any suspects in the incidents.

Realistic goal: making everyone feel like ‘they belong here’

AUx is part of a pot of $7 million in funding for fiscal year 2018 that also covers academic centers, faculty development and programs “specifically designated to advance access, equity, and inclusion,” according to the plan.

The other $53 million this fiscal year will go toward diversity-oriented institutional scholarships. Next fiscal year’s $61 million is less specified. The plan simply says it will cover “investments in diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

The plan was specifically devised in response to campus survey data and meetings that found “more students of color experience bias, and feel alienated and unsafe, compared to their white peers.” Current AU responses to those experiences “are considered inconsistent and opaque, even biased.”

MORE: UNC Charlotte offers 345 ‘diversity’ courses

Then-President Neil Kerwin suggested in 2015 the general education program was due for a facelift that incorporated “race and multiculturalism.” He also suggested that faculty and staff of color would be given an advantage in promotions simply for interacting with students of color.

At the start of the 2016-2017 academic year, Kerwin convened the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion. Almost a year later, new President Sylvia Burwell proceeded with the plan.

Its five goals include making “all community members feel safe, satisfied, and that they belong here,” pursuing “equity” in hiring and promotion (“diversity goals”), and promoting “critical inquiry, intellectual engagement, and respectful discourse across diverse perspectives” in the curriculum.

Beyond AUx, the curriculum goal includes the ongoing work of the new Antiracist Policy and Research Center – the presumed target of last fall’s Confederate flag scare – and the buildout of the new African American and African diaspora major.

$121 million is … the floor?

“Having a campus that reflects the inclusion of everyone on our campus with different identities, different points of view, bringing different things – that’s the strength of an academic institution,” Burwell told The Eagle.

She suggested the Columbia-busting figure of $121 million over two years may actually serve as the starting point for the plan’s long-term goal.

Asked directly by The Eagle if the two-year figure was enough, Burwell danced around the question.

MORE: AU panics after ‘Confederate flag fliers’ show up on campus

The two-year plan is intended to help the school “learn and iterate,” she said:

And as we go into our two year budget cycle, my first one will be starting next year, we’ll examine that question and try and understand. We wanted to make sure it was clear the resources that are committed to this, and we’re specific about that. But as we think about the future, that’s a question we’re asking ourselves and it will have to do with the progress we think we’re making.

Burwell noted she entered office with one successful diversity metric: 44 percent of new faculty members as of last fall said they were “people of color.”

It will be a taller order for American University to make its students of color feel included on campus – some groups more than others.

In a survey last spring, 71 percent of white students felt included on campus, closely followed by 60 percent of Hispanic, Asian and international students, according to The Eagle. Only 33 percent of African American students said they felt included.

MOREAU bans media from covering racist banana protest

MORE: Baylor launches 22 new diversity efforts in span of one year

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