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

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 reallycare 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 effect 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?


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.