Higher Education

Ray Carter | February 18, 2021

OU tells staff: Embrace political correctness

Ray Carter

In a mandatory diversity training program for staff, the University of Oklahoma has explicitly directed professors and other employees to embrace political correctness in their communication.

The training course defines “political correctness” as “the conscious avoidance of speech and action that exclude or insult socially marginalized groups.”

“It is fundamentally about treating people with respect,” the OU training states. “By being aware of the language you choose to use, you are not being silenced. You are being kind.”

The training concedes that the term “political correctness” is “often used as a criticism by those who perceive the practice to be overbearing or stifling,” but counters that a single 2015 study found political correctness “increased creativity” in mixed-sex group settings.

“Political correctness can be a useful compass when it comes to setting a standard of respectful contact and collaboration,” the training states.

The training advises OU officials to avoid gender-specific labels like “policeman” or “actress” because such language can be “alienating because it excludes people who do not share the specific gender being referenced.”

The training also advises OU staff to avoid phrases such as “man up” and “that’s insane.” While use of such phrases may “seem harmless at first,” the training states that it “is possible that anyone within earshot may not only take offense but also be hurt or alienated by the insensitivity or demeaning nature of certain words and expressions.”

While the OU diversity training program cited one study to defend political correctness, it ignored the work of other academics who have found political correctness can have negative consequences for all employees in a workplace.

In 2006, three professors— Robin J. Ely of Harvard Business School, Debra Meyerson of Stanford University, and Martin N. Davidson of the University of Virginia— urged officials to rethink political correctness, warning that “political correctness is a double-edged sword.”

“We embrace the commitment to equity that underlies political correctness, and we applaud the shifts in norms wrought by that commitment,” the three professors wrote. “We are troubled, however, by the barriers that political correctness can pose to developing constructive, engaged relationships at work. In cultures regulated by political correctness, people feel judged and fear being blamed. They worry about how others view them as representatives of their social identity groups. They feel inhibited and afraid to address even the most banal issues directly. People draw private conclusions; untested, their conclusions become immutable. Resentments build, relationships fray, and performance suffers.”

Political correctness is also rejected by much of the public. A 2018 study conducted by More in Common, an international initiative to build stronger societies and communities, found that 80 percent of Americans believe political correctness is a problem. That view was held by large majorities of most ideological groups surveyed with just one exception—progressive activists. Only 30 percent of progressive activists believed political correctness was a problem.

The 2020 College Free Speech Rankings report—compiled by College Pulse, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and RealClearEducation—provided a “comprehensive comparison of the student experience of free speech on their campuses” based on surveys of 20,000 currently enrolled students at the 55 colleges surveyed.

The University of Oklahoma ranked 38th out of 55 top national universities in its support of free speech, according to the report, and students from OU accounted for 267 of the individuals surveyed.

The report included comments from some surveyed OU students. Those student comments indicated that the OU administration was viewed as being “firmly on the side of totalitarian politics with regards to free speech rights,” making it “not safe to speak publicly on campus,” and also stated that it felt “dangerous” to voice certain opinions at OU especially “when the university administration seems so quick to give into the mob mentality’s protests and threats.”

On Oct. 20, 2020, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs submitted an open-records request for all materials presented in all mandatory diversity training courses for OU staff and students. OU acknowledged receipt of that request but has not provided any of those materials as of Feb. 18, 2021.

OCPA obtained the training materials independently.

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

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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