UI's largest undergrad college to require diversity courses

Move comes as top university officials condemn racist incidents

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IOWA CITY — Every incoming student at the University of Iowa’s largest undergraduate college will be required to fulfill a “diversity and inclusion” curriculum requirement starting in 2017, UI leaders said Tuesday.

The announcement of the new requirement — the details of which are still being developed — came as part of statement from top university officials emailed to the campus Tuesday that condemned racist incidents on and around the institution and listed efforts underway to foster “tolerance, sensitivity, understanding, and mutual respect.”

The message, and recent ones leading up to it, indicate the UI is taking steps to get in front of a growing concern nationally that minority students don’t feel welcome or sometimes even safe on campuses. Last month, for instance, student protests over poor handling of racial incidents led to the ouster of the University of Missouri System’s president.

Tuesday’s statement was signed by UI President Bruce Harreld, Provost Barry Butler, Vice President for Student Life Tom Rocklin, Chief Diversity Office and Associate Vice President Georgina Dodge and Downing Thomas, associate provost and dean of International Programs.

“Reprehensible comments on social media platforms have referred insultingly and disparagingly to members of our community,” according to the statement.

Those comments often occurred on Yik Yak, a website allowing users to make anonymous comments specific to campuses.

UI students began compiling those comments in September and created a Facebook album to display the “overarching theme of xenophobia on campus and the fact that, in the past, the university has ignored the problem.” Many of the disparaging comments refer to international students.

“While the university encourages and facilitates free speech and differences of opinion, the educational environment is damaged and lessened when free speech descends into verbal abuse, bullying, and racism,” the UI administrators wrote.

Although they stressed that “no quick fix exists,” they pointed to nearly a dozen efforts to make the campus more inclusionary, including the move toward a diversity requirement in 2017.

At the largest UI undergrad college, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, students already have to complete at least three semester hours of coursework in “values, society and diversity.” But classes include things like “History of Jazz,” “King Arthur Through the Ages” and “Food in America.”

UI Student Government President Elizabeth Mills said many students have complained that those classes don’t teach inclusion techniques and don’t prompt “deep conversations.”

Student leaders spent the last year pushing for a change. Starting soon, liberal arts students will have to fulfill both a “diversity and inclusion” requirement and a “values and culture” requirement, Mills said.

“The next step is to incorporate different colleges,” she said. “But those two will be required for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.”

In addition, UI administrators are developing a module on diversity and inclusion that will be incorporated into the online “Success at Iowa” course required for all incoming undergraduate students.

Iowa State University already has undergraduate curriculum requirements in the areas of diversity in the United States and in global perspectives.

Among student initiatives on the UI campus, the undergraduate and graduate student governments are discussing launching a “thumb it down” campaign aimed at removing offensive Yik Yak posts, and the groups recently issued a statement condemning the hateful social media comments.

At the same time racial tensions are flaring on U.S. college campuses, fears from recent terror attacks are inciting rhetoric nationally and bringing student responses.

Student groups and departments at Luther College in Decorah, for example, issued a statement “on Islamophobia” this week.

“While anti-Muslim hate crimes intensify, prominent politicians support proposals advocating for mosque closings, registration programs, internment camps and halting refugee resettlement,” the statement said. “We repudiate the hostility and hatred aimed at Muslims in and beyond our community.”

Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, for another, has a committee focused on creating “an environment of awareness and appreciation of differences, building skills for interacting across cultures, and taking action to address racial equity and social injustices.”

And Coe College in Cedar Rapids is involved in preliminary discussions on the issue, said spokesman Rod Pritchard.

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