Higher Education

OSU offers ‘implicit bias’ training

August 18, 2021

Ray Carter

This year, state legislators passed a new law, House Bill 1775, that bars colleges and universities from requiring students to undergo “any form of mandatory gender or sexual diversity training or counseling” or any “requirement that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping or a bias on the basis of race or sex.”

While Oklahoma State University may not require such training of its students, the university continues to offer training to private businesses—for a price—that appears to embrace those concepts.

The Center for Executive and Professional Development at Oklahoma State University is offering a Fall 2021 series of programs on “diversity & inclusion” to state businesses at a cost of $225 per three-hour session or $1,200 for the full 18-hour series, per registration.

Those training programs include an Oct. 14 session, “Barriers to Inclusion: Unconscious Bias, Microaggressions & Polarized Positions,” that will “focus specifically on fundamental psychological processes of unconscious bias, as well as how they give rise to behavioral microaggressions (alienating acts of subtle bias) and further entrench polarized factions among groups of people.”

The description for a Nov. 18 session, “Wake Up To Unconscious Bias: The Emotionally Intelligent Leader’s Guide To Inclusion,” states that “inclusive leaders have learned about their own and others’ unconscious biases, as well as the subtle and overt ways such biases can be built into personnel policies and practices in the workplace.”

The description for another session scheduled for Oct. 28, “Crucial Communications,” declares, “We are in the middle of a global movement to address racism and racial injustice” and states that the program will “help you hold others accountable” while operating “in a climate of bias, discrimination or injustice.”

While the programs appear to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the new state law, experts say there are other potential problems. For one thing, the Implicit-Association Test (IAT) that provides the foundation for much training on implicit bias is notoriously unreliable.

“It’s not a valid tool,” said Hart Blanton, a professor of communication at Texas A&M University whose research work has included analysis of the Implicit-Association Test. “There’s no evidence that the score that a person receives is something that should inform their understanding of their underlying attitudes, prejudices, or biases.”

Research has shown the IAT will produce significantly different scores for the same individual when the test is taken multiple times.

In some instances, implicit-bias training can even increase a business’s legal exposure.

“If you have a group of 10 people and they each take the test, wait a few minutes and take it again, the person who was the worst on it might be in the middle next time and the people in the middle might be in the bottom or the top,” Blanton said. “It’s giving different information about them after just the briefest of time. If it can’t predict itself a few minutes later, there’s no reason you would think it can predict someone’s behavior over the course of a week or a month or a lifetime.”

He noted that “75 percent of the people on this measure are likely to score badly at any given time.”

Because the IAT is foundational to many premises about implicit bias, it can distort implicit-bias trainings even if participants are not required to take the IAT.

Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow with The Heritage Foundation whose research focus includes Critical Race Theory and associated topics like implicit bias, says there’s another core problem with implicit-bias training: It assumes people are racist and unaware of it.

That’s a view Gonzalez said defies reality.

“People understand very well when they are racist,” Gonzalez said. “Just like you know very well when you are a rapist or a murderer, you know when you are a racist. If you think a person of another race is inferior to you because of his or her race, and you carry this thought around in your head, you may not be open about it with other people because it’s so disgusting, but you know you’re a racist.”

Gonzalez said implicit-bias training augments the message that racism is a “systemic problem in society” in which most people are assumed guilty regardless of their actions.

“Racism is an individual sin that we commit explicitly,” Gonzalez said. “People who are racist commit it explicitly.”

Blanton said implicit-bias training often produces little more than a “feel-good quality that we’ve ‘done something.’”

“The fundamental premise of these implicit-bias trainings is that someone from the outside can teach you something that you don’t know about yourself and that experience is going to change you so fundamentally that you’re a less-biased person,” Blanton said. “There’s no evidence for any part of that. There’s no evidence that that person can detect something you don’t know, that you can learn from it or that it’ll change your behavior if you’re told about it.”

Monica Roberts, interim assistant vice president of strategic communications for Oklahoma State University, said the training programs offered by OSU’s Center for Executive and Professional Development were “developed at the request of and to fill a need for business executives and professionals in industry,” and she stressed that the trainings are “not mandatory for employees or students of OSU.”

“OSU complies with HB 1775 in all aspects and will continue to do so,” Roberts said.

For businesses that pay OSU for implicit-bias training, research indicates the results will range from negligible to decidedly negative.

“I and others argued there’s good reason to think that these things could backfire, that telling people that there’s some bad thing in them that they need to correct for that they can’t even perceive could create the sorts of anxieties and tensions that can make intergroup and interpersonal interactions more difficult and not less,” Blanton said. “But they proceeded. We now know that, at best, these interventions do little to nothing.”

In some instances, he said implicit-bias training can even increase a business’s legal exposure. When employees sue a company alleging bias, Blanton noted one thing that “stands in the way of these suits is that you don’t have data on people in the firm.”

“They don’t have that evidence,” Blanton said. “How do you get that evidence? You can get that evidence if you do implicit-bias training. So an organization that conducts implicit-bias training, by giving everyone this measure and then telling them they need to change, has provided the documentation for a lawsuit against them.”

[For more stories about higher education in Oklahoma, visit AimHigherOK.com.]