On Monday, all currently enrolled Bowdoin students were required to have completed an hour-long online course on diversity, equity and inclusion, titled “Personal Skills for a Diverse Campus.” The course, as well as additional versions that faculty and staff were required to complete by the same date, was created through a partnership between the College and education consulting firm DiversityEdu.
On the morning of the deadline, the College community averaged an 80 percent overall course completion rate, with students’ completion rate falling slightly below that figure. The student course remains open for those who have yet to take it, and Senior Vice President for Inclusion and Diversity Michael Reed explained that he would be following up with these students in the coming days.
“Our approach has been encouraging people to join their colleagues in this journey and in this effort to help us to begin to understand and deal with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Reed said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “So [the reminders are] an appeal to engage people in helping us to be a better institution, to help us to begin to move forward as a college, to give us a common foundation for increasing our dialogue and understanding.”
The College announced it would be working with DiversityEdu to fulfill these institutional goals in November, and Reed explained that he and Senior Vice President and Special Assistant to the President Elizabeth Orlic had chosen to work with DiversityEdu after reviewing the materials of over 30 education consulting firms. The College chose DiversityEdu because, unlike other consultants and firms, it allowed Bowdoin to customize pre-existing courses to create separate versions for administrative staff and faculty, hourly staff and students; add in language and content specific to Bowdoin and incorporate interactive features. In addition, DiversityEdu’s format would allow people to pause and resume the course, as well as to go back and review modules they had already completed.
In addition, Reed explained that the College had selected DiversityEdu because administrators believed it offered the best foundational course in diversity, equity and inclusion.
“They did a much better job of being inclusive and talking about not just race but also talking about issues of accessibility, also talking about issues of sexual identity, also talking about issues of gender, also—talking about diversity writ large but not going too deep,” he said. “We thought that scope was important this time around, and being as inclusive as we possibly could.”
Reed and President Clayton Rose both emphasized that the course—which included definitions and terms around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion; the “iceberg model” of a person’s identity; implicit bias and microaggressions—was only an initial step in the College’s programming on diversity, equity and inclusion, which will continue with a course focused on anti-Black racism later this spring.
“This is the first building block—how do we ground ourselves in some of the fundamental aspects of diversity and inclusion challenges that face every organization in this country?” said Rose in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “And so that’s what DiversityEdu [is]—the initial grounding, the first significant set of building blocks that we’re going to have going forward.”
Some students agreed that the course did offer an effective introduction to diversity, equity and inclusion.
“I think it’s definitely a very important introductory course to take,” said Gail Saez-Hall ’23 in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I think it covers a lot of ground and sort of does the basics—covers a lot of basics which is good.”
Ray George ’23 agreed.
“I really think they did a great job of covering basics while also trying to teach everyone a new thing, no matter who you are,” he said in a Zoom interview with the Orient.
Esra Park ’21 also felt that the course effectively conveyed information to students who had not previously come across some of the topics it covered.
“I think it was a good way to expose students to some terms,” she said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I feel like probably not everybody knows about microaggressions.
However, she wished that the course had included an explicit introduction to the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a discussion about discrimination against Asian Americans in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think [discrimination against Asian Americans is] pretty important because I’ve also experienced it and it’s something I don’t think people are as aware of,” she said. “Especially because of COVID[-19] now, there’s a lot of assumptions, and it’s getting pretty violent in public. I wouldn’t expect any Bowdoin student to be a part of it, but maybe just to make [people] aware that that’s like something happening.”
Many students shared a belief that the course had left out key concepts, and some also thought that the course’s tone and scope presented issues that interfered with its stated purpose.
Wayne Harding ’21 felt underwhelmed by the course. Pointing to simplified diagrams, such as one drawing a connection between words and actions and their impacts, he explained that he saw the course as reductionist and more elementary than necessary for even a basic course.
“In order for this to stick for the people who this is more distant for, it needs to be more tangible,” Harding said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “And I felt like there was a little bit of that tangibility lost in service of being simple, reductionist and easy to digest.”
Harding pointed to discussions about examples of discrimination and microaggressions at Bowdoin as an idea for how programming could make these issues tangible for students for whom they were not already—a hope that multiple other students shared.
“I think that spills out into more organic conversations,” Harding said. “And it’s also a way to at least attempt to get to the people that would be the most resistant about this, because if we’re being honest there’s a lot of people who either care less or don’t exactly understand why this is relevant to them, whether they’re good intentioned or not. So, yeah—it’s not the course itself, but maybe the way the course is used.”
In a Zoom interview, Dean of Student Affairs Janet Lohmann said that the College would be offering discussion spaces on DiversityEdu’s content that would be led by trained facilitators later in the semester.
“There will be some opportunities for any number of people who participate in DiversityEdu to have more conversations about what they learned,” Lohmann said. “And so there’s been a group of people who have been trained across the College—faculty have been trained, staff have been trained.”
However, other students were less interested in having more discussions about the course and more concerned that DiversityEdu’s focus or tone had either missed more critical issues around race or even furthered problematic and destructive attitudes about how microaggressions should be viewed and handled.
For Theodore Danzig ’22, the course’s focus felt more like the College was virtue signaling by suggesting ways for people to show surface-level support for diversity, equity and inclusion without necessarily taking steps to make material changes to their communities or societies.
“I take a sort of Marxist approach to this, right?” said Danzig in a video interview with the Orient. “How can we improve and reduce inequality in people’s actual lives? How can we … reduce generational disparities in wealth? And [the DiversityEdu course] just suggests, ‘how can we use the politically correct terminology and say things that make us feel good about ourselves and make us feel like we’re doing stuff, even though it has no effect whatsoever on people’s material conditions?’”
Before taking the DiversityEdu course, Journey Browne ’22 had hoped that it would provide a mandatory opportunity for white students in the community to learn about race.
“When Bowdoin had announced that they were going to embark on this mission to educate the wider Bowdoin community on racial issues, I was excited,” Browne wrote in an email to the Orient. “I had been out for weeks protesting and organizing after we all witnessed the murder of George Floyd. I went to [B]lack women’s vigils, sit-ins, I mean, you name it and I did it.”
But when she did take it, she found the course’s tone to be coddling of people who committed discriminatory acts and unrealistic in the advice it offered on how BIPOC individuals could go about addressing microaggressions.
“I am sick of BIPOC always being told to assume the best of the person who did something to them and that is what this course was giving,” she wrote.