Editorial: Teaching diversity the right way

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Cameron Yong/HIGHLANDER

UCLA has faced some criticism recently for its diversity. A viral video created by UCLA student Sy Stokes last November protested the lack of diversity at the campus, where only 4 percent of undergraduates are black. Twenty-four percent of respondents at UCLA indicated that they experienced “exclusionary” conduct.

Virtually everyone agrees that these numbers can and should be improved. But nobody agrees on how to do it. With affirmative action shot down by the California state legislature, the conversation has now turned to implementing mandatory diversity courses. UCLA Chancellor Gene Block is vigorously supporting the move, and numerous students have expressed support.

This move is the right one for UCLA to undertake. Diversity is a vital part of any learning environment at any university, places where college students expand their horizons and debate different points of view. Students become better members of society as they learn to deal with diverse perspectives and mediate conflicting viewpoints. Without different people, life would be bland — diversity, after all, is the spice of life.

But the odds are still long. Such a plan has failed to pass three times before. The most recent attempt occurred just two years ago, when faculty rejected the measure 224 to 175. It’s understandable that opposition exists — UCLA would have to undergo significant changes to be able to implement such a requirement successfully. But that shouldn’t prevent the university from moving forward with the proposal. And the problems that may arise are certainly not insurmountable.

For one thing, mandatory diversity courses are nothing new — UCR already has an ethnicity requirement course in place, as do many UCs from as far north as UC Berkeley to the southernmost UC, UC San Diego. And in response to UC Davis student protests following a planned “Cinco de Drinko” party, UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi has also called for the implementation of a diversity requirement. It’s not a drastic move. UCLA would simply be joining the arc of the moral universe.

Students have understandably balked at adding another course to their requirements — one of the most intimidating things a college student receives (after the bill for tuition) is the list of graduation requirements. Especially with so many students now attending the UC, getting the classes we need to graduate can be as difficult as finding a parking space in Lot 30. So adding yet another course requirement to the graduation to-do list is sure to cause consternation.

However, there are smart ways to implement mandatory diversity courses and thereby avoid students raging at their schedules. One idea is to make the diversity requirement a two-for-one deal — UCLA can allow a course on diversity to meet both the diversity requirement and another general education requirement. UCR already does this by enabling the mandatory ethnicity requirement to also count for a miscellaneous humanities or social science course. This enables students to take a course on diversity without sacrificing their schedules.

Only a select few courses should be eligible for this dual requirement so as to avoid diluting the meaning of the requirement in the first place. A perfunctory lecture on diversity can’t be the only thing that makes the course worthy of the diversity requirement label. But that’s when professors and students can dialogue with each other to synthesize new courses that previously did not exist. Combining a course on media with one on diversity, for instance, can provide a fresh set of perspectives that make it stand out from the crowd. UCLA should be prepared to fund the new crop of course offerings, of course. But at the end of the day, UCLA ends up with more courses, both in number and in variety, enhancing the student experience and the staff experience as well.

The courses should also be structured in a way that entices students to attend. Courses with low enrollment and low turnout get cancelled — a poison pill for a fledgling diversity requirement. So, in addition to their own interests, professors must take into consideration what students are interested in learning. One suggestion is to ensure that an array of diversity courses is offered, raising the likelihood that one piques a student’s interest.

The way courses are taught can also be changed. History and theory are vital components of any diversity course, but the classes can contain practical information as well. Knowing what words to say and not say, and how to address people in a respectful way is a valuable life skill, important for anyone who wants to live in a society with other people. But whether through obliviousness or through ignorance, people sometimes don’t learn the lesson until it’s too late. A mandatory diversity class could give students that practical crash course in the acceptable standards of dialogue, helping us succeed in society.

Some students and faculty may go in kicking and screaming — this is true of many classes, not just diversity ones. But if the right material is taught, and it is taught well, students will nonetheless emerge from the class with a better understanding of diverse perspectives than they previously had. Who knows, those that first originated the protests may eventually grow to like them.

“The diversity of the people of California has been the source of innovative ideas and creative accomplishments throughout the state’s history into the present,” reads the UC regents’ policy on diversity. “Diversity can enhance the ability of the University to accomplish its academic mission.” UCLA can take up the mantle of accomplishment and be the source of the next step forward on diversity. In so doing, it can better achieve its own academic mission.

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