Higher Education

Mike Brake | November 2, 2020

Are Oklahoma universities violating Trump’s executive order?

Mike Brake

OU says its diversity training doesn’t violate the executive order (though at least one OU student isn’t so sure). Meanwhile, Oklahoma Christian and other schools are staying mum.

Leading Oklahoma institutions of higher education are grappling with a recent presidential executive order that could suspend much or all of their federal grant funding if they engage in diversity and anti-bias training that crosses the line into what the order called “race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.”

A sampling of several such institutions and conversation with one student suggests that some of them may be facing loss of federal funds.

The executive order, issued by President Donald Trump on September 22, said federal funds could be withheld from agencies and institutions, including colleges and universities, that mandate diversity training modeled on so-called critical race theory (CRT).

“Many people are pushing a different vision of America that is grounded in hierarchies based on collective social and political identities rather than in the inherent and equal dignity of every person as an individual,” the order said.

Several colleges and universities have responded to the executive order by pausing or canceling existing diversity training programs. According to an article in The College Fix, the University of Iowa has instituted a two-week pause in its program. Texas State University is also putting its diversity program on hold, and John A. Logan College in Illinois has done the same.

The article noted that attorneys for colleges and universities “are scrambling to figure out how the order affects their schools’ myriad diversity trainings, and counsel and officials for the United States Department of Education are evaluating the order’s impact.”

“It was basically, the white male is a bad person. A typical student would come away from [OU’s diversity training] feeling guilty. They are trying to guilt you for being white.” —OU student Emily Wilkerson

While some institutions are pulling back from CRT-style diversity training, at least one, the University of Oregon, announced plans to defy the executive order. President Michael Schill, in a statement published on the Internet, said the university would continue all its diversity training and education programs.

Another online retort to the executive order from a faculty member at an eastern school said, “This is terrifying. This is fascism. The academy is under attack. We are experiencing policing and surveillance.”

Kesha Keith, spokeswoman for the University of Oklahoma, said OU’s “self-paced online (diversity) training modules do not promote race or sex stereotyping, which are prohibited by the executive order.”

Keith said OU’s “diversity, equity and inclusion training program (is) for all students, faculty, and staff on all three campuses. The online training aims to engage participants in a meaningful learning experience with the ultimate goal of fostering a more inclusive campus community centered on creating a sense of belonging and emotional support for all.”

She said the university is “closely monitoring the legal interpretations of the executive order.” The training will be required every three years.

Press releases from the university say OU has acquired a training system from Everfi. The Everfi website touts its diversity training modules—largely videos that require student responses—as a way to “learn about key concepts related to identity, bias, power, privilege, and oppression.”

Prior to this inquiry, OCPA journalist Ray Carter contacted OU requesting access to the diversity training courses to see what and how they are teaching. Keith responded, as is so often the case when OCPA asks for information from OU, that such requests would need to be submitted in the form of an open records request. Past such requests by the organization have languished for as long as 18 months.

One OU student suggests that the required diversity training is not as harmless as Keith claims.

Emily Wilkerson, a sophomore journalism major, said she completed the diversity course, a series of videos, and came away with one overriding message.

“It was basically, the white male is a bad person,” she said. As president of the OU chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative student organization, Wilkerson said she is more politically aware and active than most students.

“A typical student would come away from that course feeling guilty,” she said, even if that student has never harbored racist thoughts. “They are trying to guilt you for being white.”

Wilkerson said the course is hardly out of step with much of the leftist slant on campus. A professor in a cultural anthropology course she is taking recently informed the class that “white people are oppressors,” she said, and the faculty sponsor of her student conservative organization routinely fields threats from leftist students.

Adrienne Nobles, vice president for communications and public affairs at the University of Central Oklahoma, said UCO “does not currently require diversity training for faculty, staff, or students. The university is reviewing its schedule of upcoming training and is unaware of any training that falls within the scope of the executive order.”

Monica Roberts, director of media relations at Oklahoma State University, said OSU offers “diversity, equity, and inclusion training for all employees and students,” but added that the online course “does not in any way stereotype a group of people as sexist or racist.

“All our training is reviewed to ensure it does not violate the executive order,” she said. “We have no plans to cease or pause this training module as it does not violate the executive order.”

The website of Oklahoma Christian University (OC) promotes the school’s DEI program (for diversity, equity and inclusion), which includes a 14-part online tutorial made up of brief videos followed by a multiple choice question. The one headed “overcome your unconscious bias” includes the question “Is it possible to totally overcome an unconscious bias?”

The correct answer is: “No but you can embrace a worldview that helps you avoid biased decision making.” Another video module recommends students take the Implicit Association Test, regarded by many social scientists as inaccurate or even worthless since it reveals only thoughts, not actions or discriminatory acts.

The Oklahoma Christian website also notes that “OC understands power, privilege, and opportunity are unfairly shaped by history and social structures.”

Phone and email inquiries to Oklahoma Christian’s chief human resources officer, Terry Winn, who is identified on the school’s website as heavily involved in its diversity program, were not returned.

Oklahoma City University’s media spokesman Rod Jones said since the school is a private institution it does not have any mandatory diversity training that involves federal funds.

The University of Tulsa website features a 13-page single-spaced diversity plan that includes diversity training for faculty, staff, and students, but it is not clear how much of that plan has been implemented. Emails and phone calls to TU’s media office were ignored. It was apparent from the non-responses from several schools that, along with others across the nation, they may have been digesting the impact of the executive order or awaiting the results of the presidential election to see if it would remain in force,

Adam Kissel, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education, is a longtime observer of university diversity training programs. He noted that such training, when it falls into CRT format, can lead to hiring and admissions discrimination in academia.

“Training staff to scapegoat or stereotype helps explain why colleges discriminate,” he said. He noted that the two large associations for campus personnel staffers promote CRT-style training as well.

“They advocate ‘white privilege’ stereotyping and ‘white supremacy’ scapegoating,” KIssel said. For example, the theme of the 2018 annual conference of the American College Personnel Association was “White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack.”

The harm in all this, he says, is that such training “teaches that these college students are inherently bad people.”

For those and other reasons, Kissel noted, many college and university media offices downplay or deny that their campus diversity training programs would violate the executive order when in fact they do. Complaints to the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education may be submitted here.

Mike Brake

Independent Journalist

Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.

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