Education

University of Iowa cancels 'white privilege' workshop following lawmaker concerns

'I certainly think a different name to that course would have been helpful'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette/file photo)
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa has canceled a “white privilege” workshop set for February after the event and others like it were “misconstrued” in online reports, the university said, and people with questions about the seminars including lawmakers expressed concerns.

“Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion leadership became concerned that the confusion and misinformation surrounding the title of workshops could mar the event for this year’s attendees,” UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck wrote in an email in response to questions from The Gazette. “As a result, the workshops for this spring were canceled to give the university the necessary time to meet with concerned stakeholders and address any concerns or misperceptions.”

The interactive workshops — called “Exploring White Identity” and “Understanding Your Whiteness” — began on the UI campus in spring 2017 amid a politically-polarized and racially-fraught time following the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.

Campus leadership developed the workshops at the request of faculty and staff “who identify as white and had attended other training sessions related to race and specifically wanted an opportunity in which to discuss ways to support inclusivity,” Beck said.

“During the workshop, facilitators discuss the history of race in the United States and present case scenarios, bystander skills, and strategies on supporting inclusivity,” Beck said about the events, which she said didn’t cost the university extra to host “because they are organized by existing members of the UI faculty and staff.”

The workshops offered participants the chance to discuss their experiences with race in general and on the UI campus. A slideshow from a November event indicated those in attendance formed small groups to reflect on questions like, “What does it mean to be white at the University of Iowa?” and “Where does white privilege show up?”

According to the slides that the UI provided, the group also addressed questions like, “Why is it challenging for white people to understand white privilege?” and “How do feelings of white guilt and white fragility show up?”

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Right-wing publications including Breitbart News published stories on the workshops in 2017, reporting the public university hosted a conference on “white privilege this semester to allow white students a space ‘to discuss whiteness and its privileges with other white people.’”

“This can be the first step to reducing tokenism and increasing responsibility among allies to eliminate racism,” Breitbart reported, accurately quoting a Facebook page for the event.

Another publication, ZeroHedge.com, in fall 2018 reported on this academic year’s workshops set for Nov. 30 and Feb. 11, noting the university altered its description of the events after conservative publications Campus Reform and The College Fix asked about what the UI initially had described as a workshop “for people who want to learn about and discuss the inherent privileges that come with being white.”

Beck confirmed UI officials clarified the description to read, “This can be the first step to eliminating false diversity and assuming greater personal responsibility for eliminating racism.”

Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, told The Gazette someone — he said he could not recall who — brought the workshops to his attention, and he and other lawmakers had concerns, starting with the title.

“The name got our attention,” said Holt, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “There are some things in the name that can cause red flags or raise questions about what is this about.”

The lawmakers requested more information about the content of the workshops and planned to meet with UI administrators — a meeting Holt said was postponed due to bad weather.

Although the meeting has not been rescheduled, Holt said the broader issue of how politics and race are discussed on college campuses “is worthy of discussion.”

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“I’ll put it that way,” he said. “If our mission is to bring about unity on college campuses, and talk about strengths and what binds us together, I certainly think a different name to that course would have been helpful.”

About 100 people attended the November version of the university’s “Understanding Your Whiteness to Become Better Allies” workshop, according to Beck, and about 100 were registered for the February event.

UI officials didn’t say just when they decided to pull the plug on the upcoming workshop, but the university provided The Gazette with a Dec. 20 email sent from its Diversity Resources Team to registrants for the February event thanking them for “your dedication to addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion in your area.”

“Unfortunately, we will need to cancel this session,” according to the email. “We will, however, keep you informed of future opportunities.”

“In preparing for this year’s workshops, it became clear the university needed to do additional work to educate our broader community and stakeholders about the purpose of these events, which has been misconstrued by online publications,” Beck said.

The university in years past also has promoted through its College of Education and other groups and departments a “White Privilege: 101” series of lectures and discussions. And it has several academic courses currently underway that relate to the idea of white privilege, including one titled “Diversity and Power in the U.S.,” which provides a “dynamic space to explore differences in power and privilege — and how an eye-opening understanding of how race, class, gender, and nation shape our lives and world.”

The UI isn’t alone in its attempt to tackle the sensitive issue on campus. Coe College in Cedar Rapids in September hosted a “White Privilege Symposium,” which cost as much as $135 to attend and was pitched as a look at navigating race, privilege, identity and equity.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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