Sunday, April 8, 2018

Pseudo-Equity: Further Remarks on the Politics of Mandatory Diversity Training at Evergreen

This post follows the previous one and explains why I get so exercised about the politics of equity at a place like Evergreen State College.  The single issue at the heart of activism at Evergreen for the past two years is mandatory diversity training for faculty.  This was first proposed by the Equity Council (which was set up by the college administration and whose name changed a bit from year to year) and brought before the faculty, where it failed on a secret ballot.  Equity people were furious and concluded that (a) the faculty had just demonstrated its deep-seated racism, and (b) they would have to go directly to top administrators to impose these trainings anyway.  This perspective was picked up by activist students, who felt that only confrontation could rid the campus of its plague of professors who refused to deal with their own racism.  This is a bit of a cartoon version, I admit, but it is broadly accurate and provides essential context for understanding why someone like Bret Weinstein got the treatment he received.

So what about mandatory training?

I agree completely that it takes a tremendous amount of skill to negotiate issues involving race, gender and sexual preference in the classroom.  I've learned a lot over the years, and I definitely don't think I've arrived at perfect wisdom.  I'm always trying to improve.  For me this is about both better serving the students in front of me and addressing the larger inequalities we're all enmeshed in because we live when and where we do.  I'm absolutely in favor of providing lots of resources for all faculty to work on this front.

Mandatory?  Maybe, but go into it with your eyes open.  It's not like Evergreen is the first institution to set up a system of mandatory trainings.  This is widespread throughout corporate America, the military, government offices, and nonprofit organizations.  There is a vast literature that studies the effectiveness of these programs in meeting their goals.  Of course, the findings will differ from one situation to the next, but generalizing, here's how it went: the first generation of studies, up to maybe ten years ago, was largely negative.  They looked for across-the-board, average effects and found almost nothing.  The conclusion at that point is that you can't reach the worst apples by subjecting them to mandatory retraining.  That's what I was aware of when the Evergreen debates first flared up.  When the shit hit the fan I went back and looked up the latest round of studies, and I'm glad I did, since now there is a new generation of them, more careful and fine-tuned than the first.

The new studies don't look for an overall average effect; they are more interested in how the specifics of each program interact with the context (the other things that are happening in the institution that puts the program in place) to get or not get results.  Out of this has come a much more nuanced and realistic sense of what trainings can do, and what else should be done concurrently so the combined effect really gets at racism, sexism, etc.

Now I'm not an expert in all this.  Please don't put me on a committee, because I'm just an amateur who reads a few studies and tries to increase my knowledge.  There are people out there who really know about this stuff, and we should look to them.  The absurdity of the conflict at Evergreen is that no one charged with addressing diversity and inequality in the classroom made a single reference to the accumulated knowledge of what works and what doesn't in mandatory trainings.  You won't find any awareness that there even is such knowledge in documents like the Equity Plan, and none of this learning has gone into the drafting of Evergreen's version of the program.

What to make of this?  What I conclude is that "equity" at Evergreen for this crowd is purely symbolic.  It's about showing you care and want to do something, which means you are on the right side of the issue, while anyone who opposes you is on the wrong side, racist and irredeemable.  But that isn't going to solve the problem.  If you really care about achieving equity you will want to approach the issue the best way you can.  You will draw on the accumulated knowledge of people who have studied this stuff to create the most effective program possible, and you will also establish a process to see how effective it is in your own context.  (See "adaptive management of complex systems".)  Why should I even have to say this in an institution of higher education, where learning from existing knowledge in order to change the world is the core of the mission?

Damn.

But it gets worse.  What a lot of the grumbling about mandatory diversity trainings, which has now been decisively suppressed at Evergreen, was ultimately about was a fear that this would devolve into mandatory ideological boot camp.  Is this paranoid?  I don’t think so, precisely because the people organizing these events at Evergreen, and perhaps elsewhere, are not motivated by the philosophy that you study the research, apply it, and assess outcomes.  I’ve been to many of them, and, while some have been better than others, it’s clear that a lot of the content is ideological.  The primary form of argumentation is appeal to authority rather than addressing the evidence.  Now it happens that I’m open to the content of this ideology, because my values are also about overcoming eons of oppression.  Nevertheless, the form of these events, their dogmatism and group-think, offend me.  And again, what matters to me and should matter to anyone who shares my values, is not affirming righteousness with ever more elaborate terminology but actually changing the world: achieving real, demonstrable liberation.  You can’t do that if you don’t question yourself and allow the possibility of evidence proving you wrong.

Finally, and here’s the crowning touch: the whole brouhaha at Evergreen was about mandatory training and similar stipulations for “reflection” on equity in annual self-evaluations, hiring decisions and so on.  Meanwhile, there is no language in the faculty’s collective bargaining agreement that makes equitable treatment of students an actionable responsibility of faculty, nor was any attention given to this lacuna by our putative equity warriors.  All the struggle has been about changing consciousness, and none of it has been about providing students a workable channel for redressing unacceptable faculty behavior.  This says quite a bit about the pseudo-politics of equity at Evergreen, doesn’t it?

I hope it’s clear that my outrage at the way this issue has been framed at the college, and is upheld by the latest “independent” report, is miles away from the narrative about Evergreen peddled by the Right.  I want to make real progress, at every scale, in dissolving the hierarchies and injustices that pervade this society, and I don’t like seeing this cause abused by those claiming to represent it.

12 comments:

jed said...

Helpful in shedding some light on what is otherwise hard to understand.

Is there anyone on the pro-training side who would respond thoughtfully to these points? If not, that is informative. If so, it would be good to read a response.

Peter Dorman said...

I agree completely. I'd definitely like to hear a response, and as always I'm prepared to learn I'm wrong. What would be the venue, though? First, on a personal note, I'm on leave for the year and seldom on campus, so informal discussion won't work for a while. But the more important point is that there isn't, as far as I know, any channel for this sort of communication, not for Evergreen and only slightly for the broader society. It's as if lines have been drawn and you have to be on one side or the other. Also on a personal note, I've tried repeatedly over the past year to put my perspective on Evergreen into a national publication, either purely journalistic like the Chronicle of Higher Ed or political (various liberal or lefty journals). I can report there is zero interest, generally not even enough to merit a rejection letter.

On yet another personal note: hey Jed, your Blogger profile doesn't provide an email address, and it would be nice to catch up. Feel free to contact me.

Benjamin Boyce said...

Professor, thanks for this nuanced view of this issue. In studying at Evergreen up the protests, then spending my first post-bachelors year examining the Equity movement at TESC and other institutions, I have been increasingly unwilling to see mandatory training as not based wholly in a moralist belief system that prizes surface over authentic human relationship. In fact, I’m at a point where I’m fairly entrenched in a deep skepticism of anything having to do with challenging and fixing bias—the present and potential fall out make it seem like a means for certain people to gain power without having to prove competency in any other way than manipulating the emotions of others. Your viewpoint and belief in the possibilities of this sort of training—done smartly—gives me some pause in this reaction of mine, and for that I thank you.

Peter Dorman said...

Good to hear from you. These things are always complicated. People often get into something with one motive, and then over time other motives take over. Or our conformist tendencies allow a group-think to emerge which gets in the way of actually doing what we say we want to do. But that doesn't impugn the original motive!

Another way of looking at it is that a relatively large industry has been built up around diversity in the educational and corporate worlds. It's been institutionalized into a form of management; witness Evergreen's new VP for diversity and equity. I haven't met her yet, and I have no reason to question her qualifications etc., but the reality is that she is in a management position and faces the same sort of pressures any manager does. On the one hand, our hierarchical model of management is based on the presumption that the top levels have the skills and insights to make wise decisions for the organization; on the other, the problems they have to deal with are complex and mired in uncertainty. The result is we see a succession of management fads, where gurus sell managerial confidence by promulgating the seven sure steps to organizational greatness or whatever. If you read the diversity management literature -- and a good place to start is the common reading recommended by the "independent" panel (interesting that a panel like this would "independently" come up with the same reading that was pushed by the Equity Council) -- you will see pretty much the same thing.

And what about the pop management literature? It's not devoid of research findings, but they cherry-pick the stuff that fits the fad, since the actual research is all over the map. I wouldn't say the management gurus and their acolytes don't care about results -- when they look in the mirror they probably see idealistic do-gooders -- but the logic of gurudom leads ineluctably to motivated reasoning and biased reading of research.

A lot of the problems of Evergreen are classic management problems, which leads to another discussion about why a school that has had such a thin management structure and an ideological predilection so opposed to managerialism has proven to be so vulnerable, but I've gone on long enough.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response in regard to the topic of training. Just for perspective, all staff exempt and classified, must attend training for ethics, various bias training, etc. I don't think the trainings are very deep and if the same format was used for training on race/gender/orientation issues it would be ineffective.

Evergreen has engaged in looking at issues of race several times with committees charged to study the issue and make recommendations. Those recommendations get placed on the shelf and ignored by the college and the college community. All efforts that demand change in process or culture have always been deeply resisted by faculty.

There is national research on how to promote equitable outcomes in higher education. Not every institution has the same challenges or is in the same place in terms of its approach and successes in achieving equitable outcomes for all students. Focus and training needs to reflect where an institution is in its path toward diversity and real progress for equitable outcomes for all groups of students. It requires difficult institutional introspection.

Evergreen culture doesn't really allow that. We are quite taken with ourselves and our self-perception at our achievements as a progressive institution. I think that is why Spring 2017 hurt our feelings so deeply. It told a different story of our alleged progress and the picture wasn't as delightful as we all presumed.

The approach for higher education is completely different than it would be for a corporation. It must take into consideration student development theory, promotion and tenure (conversion) pressures for faculty, collective bargaining agreements, and changing demographics at the institution, the state and national levels. It must include a hard look at difference in graduation rates and time to degree and fields of study and how the institution responds to retirement and other changes to faculty. It must reflect awareness of what other institutions in the state are doing to attract and retain students and graduate those students.

The norm at Evergreen (and just about all higher education institutions) is white, euro, hetero centered. Every change to that structure threatens privilege and looks like oppression to some who see privilege as the norm, and victimhood of the "other" as comforting familiarity. Stories of oppression are consumed with the relish of a rich dessert. The act of listening is seen as "the work" with no regard for the cost for the teller of the story or the exhaustion about realizing that meaningful change is impossible even in environments where intellectual discourse happens every day.

Clearly the issue is complex, and deeply an issue of American culture. Our respective experiences within that culture will shape how we respond. The training, really, would be about being open to those differences and developing curiosity about those experiences all the while recognizing that in some instances, nothing you say or do will be good enough to mitigate or change a student's interpretation of your actions.

Who does the training and what the training looks like is equally fraught. No matter who does it, no matter how well-constructed and respectful for faculty position, expertise, maturity, level of classroom experience, the training will be resented and resisted because it will upend assumed privilege and potentially threaten one's deep sense of self.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Well, anonymous, your post certainly shows to some of us how poorly thought out and how those on the Equity Council, or whatever this group is currently being called, managed to botch this up and alienate what is probably one of the most progressive faculties in the nation.

Your post seems to have as a major theme that too many faculty are white, euro, hetero (and male also?), with this not something easily changed in a short space of time without eliminating tenure so one can wholesale dump lots of these non-diverse faculty to be replaced by suitably diverse faculty.

The other is a point that does not appear in the post but that I gather has been an issue at Evergreen involves course content. But the hard fact is that while some subjects these matters are issues or reasonably potentially so in the course content, there are plenty where it is simply not, such as say math, and where efforts to introduce talking about them in the classes of these subjects will simply be a wasteful diversion done to please a handful of power hungry poseurs running this council.

There is also the problem that, to put it really bluntly, a lot of the people pushing this, whether admins, faculty, or students, have behaved like a bunch of authoritarian assholes who should have themselves been fired or removed from campus permanently, if not arrested and thrown in jail.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

BTW, of course what I have to say on this should probably be ignored given that not only am I a pompous white, euro, hetero, male of elitist background, but someone who is turning 70 in two days and has just had his professorial chair renewed for another five years. Clearly I am insufferable.

Peter Dorman said...

Very briefly (I am collateral damage from the Air France strike), my reaction is rather different from Barkley's. I agree that Evergreen has been uneasy about especially race and gender, maybe less so sexual preference, since the founding. I've heard stories from the early days about predatory male faculty, but the women rose up and that was changed. There is still residual sexism, but less at Evergreen than other colleges and universities I've been a part of. (Not that I tolerate the residual of course.) Race? Well, that's been a struggle.

Honestly, I've looked for but seen no data that indicate that demeaning treatment by faculty is a widespread problem for students of color at Evergreen. I'm not saying it isn't, just that I haven't seen the evidence. Different students tell me different stories, and maybe they're all true. I have heard credible stories of what would have to be considered at best obtuse behavior, if not outright bigotry, by certain faculty. The obvious first step is to *require* faculty to treat students equitably with statutory language, so students have a viable process if they're mistreated. The code of conduct stuff doesn't cut it here.

I can't spend more time with this, except to say (1) the absence of even remotely adequate academic support for students with background gaps is the 800 lb gorilla in all this (and the refusal to acknowledge it undermines my respect for the Equity crowd), and (2) the materials presented to the faculty to support "equity" are almost entirely data-free. (The IR data appended to the Equity document either doesn't support or actually contradicts most of its claims. You can look it up. This coming year I'll be teaching a stats program where will use more advanced methods on IR data. I go into it open-minded about what we'll find.)

Oh and one other thing (I really have to stop): my complaint about the students, aside from the intense meanness they showed, is that *they weren't political enough*. They didn't form organizations, hold public meetings and events, bring speakers, do research and step up to make real change happen. It was just a Facebook instant event led by a few charismatic individuals. That's not how you build a movement. Evergreen's mission is social justice, and we should be encouraging students to mature in their grasp of political understanding and collective power, not making excuses for their shortcomings.

But I can't really blame them very much; I was pretty out of line at their age too. It's the job of the rest of us to teach and set positive examples.

Barkley Rosser said...

Obviously Peter knows the details of what has happened at Evergreen better than I do. Suggestions for what to do he makes above seem reasonable. I shall simply note that I am especially intolerant of arbitrary authoritarianism anywhere, but especially in academia, and especially when this involves either threats of violence or actual violence.

Sandwichman said...

The way I look at it is that people who were a lot like me have created an environment where people who were a lot like them (which now includes me) could thrive. While the original bias may have been incidental to the purpose of the institution, higher education subsequently became a selection mechanism for reinforcing ethnic, gender and class hierarchies.

I frankly don't see how this institutionalized transmission belt of discrimination can be reformed by applying a coat of diversity whitewash (if you'll pardon the pun). I would suggest a more fruitful place to start would be to dismantle economics faculties. The foul dogma that passes for learned discourse in those archaic "magazines of untruth" does far more damage than the odd micro-aggression from some random suburban solipsist.

Anonymous said...

Hello from Australia.
In the last few weeks I have been laid up as a result of an operation. For some reason whilst trawling through the vasty deep of the internet I have become fascinated with the whole Evergreen saga. It is so Orwellian. Equity Council? How more Sovietesque could you get?
But what has been most evident is that the so called grievances of the protestors are never actually described. They complain of racism and other forms of bigotry, it they never actually tell us what form these acts of oppression take. Yet, the spineless administration and faculty allowed these protestors to engage in intimidation, kidnapping and suppression of the rights of free speech of anyone who dared to question them. This is not about racism or bigotry, but about young unformed minds recognising that they can wield a bit of power if they are naughty.
Soon you will see a new motto near the gates of more and more American colleges:
Diversity macht frei

Peter Dorman said...

Dear Aussie Anon,

I hope I can be completely clear. (1) Evergreen, despite its many achievements, suffers from severe, demonstrable equity gaps. It is not unique in this respect among colleges and universities, although, as an open admissions school, the academic gaps are especially profound. (2) I would certainly welcome an Equity Council that adhered to the values we in higher ed espouse (responsiveness to evidence, open-mindedness) and pursued policy changes with a defensible relationship to closing equity gaps. Prioritizing the changing of thought and speech patterns over all other goals as a matter of doctrine, however, is both ineffective and potentially oppressive. (3) In saying (2) I am *not* defending or even belittling bigoted ideas and language. Rather, I am acknowledging that reprogramming at a personal level is difficult to achieve, and the more aggressively an organization pursues it, the more it moves into dangerous waters regarding free thought and expression. (4) And prioritizing thought and speech reform, labeling it "equity activism", crowds out the crucial equity work that ought to be taking place. It also holds up egalitarian -- anti-racist, anti-sexist -- values for general ridicule, such as (if I read this correctly) yours.

Finally, while the actions of some students last spring is indefensible, remember that they are students. That's a time in life for learning and trying out new ideas. Mistakes will be made. I love these kids even though I don't always love what they do. It's up to those of us who are at a later stage of life to respond to them in a mature manner. I was a rather unruly 20 year old myself. I now recall fondly the professors and others who saw other possibilities in me and, in retrospect, helped me see the difference between rebellion and disrespect.