January 25, 2017

KRAVITZ’S KORNER | We Need to Rethink First-Year Diversity Programs

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The student theater troupe Ordinary People perform the Tapestry of Possibilities in the Schwartz Center's Kiplinger Theater.

Cornell University recently decided to replace Tapestry of Possibilities — the diversity event that has been presented to incoming first-year students for the past 11 years — with the Identity and Belonging Project. This change was due to a host of complaints leveled against the old program, particularly the failure of the old program to encompass enough topics. The University’s decision to modify this decade-long program brings into question the efficacy of diversity programs, and whether they are really needed.  

Diversity programs instill in students the belief that anything that can be remotely perceived as offensive (i.e. microaggressions) is indeed offensive and should therefore be prohibited. On today’s college campuses, speech that is innocuous in mainstream society is often misconstrued as offensive. Last year, the Cornell Football Team tweeted a photo of a player wearing a sombrero with the caption, “Eman and Fosta! THE BIG SOMBRERO!” The team used a hat commonly associated with festive occasions to celebrate their victory. After intense censure by segments of the Cornell community regarding cultural insensitivity, the team had to remove the photo from Twitter. In no way did the team intend to disparage Latino students, and it is incorrect to assume so from the photo. Moreover, no reasonable person would ascribe such a nefarious connotation to this act. This is one of many examples of behaviors which are skewed to be offensive in nature that diversity programs try to stamp out. The result of these diversity programs is a culture where normal behaviors have to be consciously eliminated because they may accidentally induce harm to emotionally fragile students. Such restrictive measures serve as an abridgement to the free speech of students.

Some might argue that clamping down on student speech in order to make students feel comfortable is a necessary tradeoff. However, there is evidence that this might not be tradeoff worth making. Prioritizing the subjective reality of students over objective assessment of situations can have damaging outcomes on student mental health. As I wrote in a previous piece, it is well-known among psychologists that one of the best ways to think rationally involves “describ[ing] the facts of the situation, consider[ing] alternative interpretations, and then choos[ing] an interpretation of events more in line with those facts,” with the ultimate goal of “minimizing distorted thinking and see[ing] the world more accurately,” according to Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind. So from a medical standpoint, valuing subjective feelings over objective truths is an unhealthy practice. Given the precipitous deterioration of mental health on college campus, there is reason to believe that university regimes like diversity programs worsen student mental health, or may be an inappropriate response to the psychological affliction of college students.

Imposing speech codes at diversity events also ushers in a dangerous precedent for further curtailing student freedoms. Applying the logic employed during diversity programs, Cornell Cinema should cancel the showing of “Godfather” movies, which cast Italian-Americans in a stereotypical role as organized criminals. “Clockwork Orange” is also being shown, which includes rape scenes. These cultural treasures should certainly not be banned from public consumption. At what point do we accept that reality is inevitably offensive, and start treating students as adults?

There is also hard evidence that diversity programs, in their current form, do not yield measurable benefits. A Harvard University study which examined workplace diversity programs in 829 companies over 31 years showed that diversity training had “no positive effects in the average workplace.” Peter Bregman, in the Harvard Business Review, found that the main issue with diversity programs, specifically in the workplace, is that they fixate on labeling people as members of racial and sexual groups. This stokes the flames of identity politics, which inhibits our ability to see ideas through a clear lens. Bregman prescribes that, “instead of seeing people as categories, we need to see people as people. Stop training people to be more accepting of diversity. It’s too conceptual, and it doesn’t work.”

The time to seriously think about scrapping freshman diversity programs at Cornell is long overdue. This should be done in light of the evidence that diversity programs, despite the best of intentions, do not work.