When Inclusion Becomes Exclusive: Why DEI 1.0 Failed

At its DEI 1.0 evaluation earlier this month, the university reaffirmed its commitment to “inclusive teaching.” LSA’s website dedicated to that practice (a resource that was highlighted in the evaluation) defines inclusive teaching as “design, teaching and assessment that deliberately cultivates an environment in which all students are treated fairly, have equal access to learning, feel welcome, valued, challenged, and supported in succeeding academically,” among other qualities. This is a laudable, necessary goal, but the university has not lived up to it. As the Michigan Review has previously covered, according to the recent campus-climate report, students in 2021 were “significantly less likely to report that they fe[lt] valued and belong[ed]” than students in 2016. This failure should be no surprise, however, as the ideological underpinnings of Michigan’s inclusive teaching efforts have the potential to divide the student body rather than unify it.

One of the inclusive-teaching resources on the LSA website is a document titled “Identifying and Addressing Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture,” based on the work of Tema Okun, a popular writer in DEI circles. White supremacy has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities in world history — genocide, slavery, terrorism, forced sterilization — but the document doesn’t mention any of those. Instead, it provides a list of 16 alleged qualities of white supremacy, a few of which are bad and others of which are, in an almost self-defeating way, unequivocally good. And with the exception of paternalism, not one of them is a salient feature of white supremacy.

The University of Michigan is actually teaching students that having a “Sense of Urgency” and believing in “Individualism” are white supremacist characteristics. It’s easy to laugh off most of the university’s points, and that’s probably the most appropriate reaction; there’s no sense in trying to refute the arguments because they lack factual basis. But when the university starts to attribute positive qualities to white supremacy, some ugly inferences about non-white people can be made. Take academic integrity: The document argues that according to white supremacy, “If it’s not properly cited according to academic rules that many people don’t know or have access to, it’s not legitimate” and “Academic standards require ‘original’ work when [in reality] our knowledge and knowing almost always builds on the knowledge and knowing of others, of each other.” Sadly, stealing other people’s work and calling it your own is, irrespective of racial divisions, bad. And the not-too-subtle implications that avoiding plagiarism could be an insurmountable challenge for non-white students — that they are incapable of doing original work and citing sources — are even more insulting than the charges leveled against white students. In fact, the university might even say they’re paternalistic. Please recall that the purpose of this invective is professedly to make teaching more inclusive.

Students with the wrong background may become targets in the hunt to eliminate “white supremacy culture.” An activity called “Common Ground” makes a show out of determining which circumstances students actually do not have in common. The class stands in a circle, and the instructor reads a series of statements. If a statement applies to particular students, they step forward and “introduce themselves to the other students in the inner circle.” The statements start out innocent: “I am an early riser,” “I drink a hot beverage every morning,” “I get more work done at night.” But by the end of the activity, the least intersectional students are singled out. Those who “grew up in a two-parent household” are asked to step forward, as if they should feel shame. Those who “attended a predominantly white school” are isolated, as if that’s a sin they must publicly confess. Meanwhile, the students in the outer ring are forming their first impressions. They don’t know each other’s names yet, but they do know who (by the game’s standard) are the most insular, sheltered, and privileged. Students of more advantaged backgrounds feel ashamed of circumstances outside of their control, while those who are not so lucky are given the impression that they will be less successful because they have been robbed of such blessings. The resentment and guilt imposed on the students by this activity in the name of inclusion may linger over the subsequent 15 weeks.

Sooner or later, DEI initiatives inevitably become autocannibalistic; inclusive teaching, the university tells us, is not inclusive enough. A page on LSA’s inclusive-teaching website argues that inclusive teaching is inferior to “anti-racist pedagogy.” The university’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, one of the main DEI organs on campus, likewise has shifted to “equity-focused teaching.” Even the icebreakers are full of caveats that they might be harmful. Students asked to write a “Five-Minute Poemabout their neighborhoods, familiar foods, their family, and their friends could be reminded of trauma. Another activity, “Connect with Someone,” requires students to tap each other on the shoulder, but “if someone in your group is not comfortable with being tapped on the shoulder, offer a non-contact way to participate. Another option is to have the person hold a piece of paper that others can tug on, so they do not have to be touched.” (Students who are uneasy about this should wait for the part when they’re asked to tap a student who made them cry.) The attitude with which administrators approach these activities is a microcosm of the campus climate that U-M’s DEI efforts create. Students are taught that good habits such as academic integrity are tools of white supremacy. Furthermore, they are encouraged to characterize themselves as either unjustly disadvantaged or unfairly advantaged, which can lead to a sense of despondency or guilt. Even when they take steps to be more inclusive, such as partaking in activist icebreakers, they are told they need to walk on eggshells lest they exclude others. DEI 2.0 will be announced in October, and inclusive teaching will doubtless be a major component of it. In the remaining months, the university should reassess whether the efforts being carried out in the name of inclusion are truly making students “feel welcome, valued, challenged, and supported.”

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About Alex Stamell

Alex Stamell is editor in chief emeritus of the Michigan Review.