The Wesleyan Student Assembly has announced that they are exploring the implementation of a fourth general education expectation focused on diversity. Ideally, the requirement would cover a wide swath of courses and encourage students to become exposed to issues relating to various forms of diversity.
President of the WSA Rebecca Hutman ’17 said she began to consider the plan to add a diversity requirement in her freshman year, during the #AFAMIsWhy movement. The departure of two professors, Leah Wright and Sarah Mahurin, led students and faculty to advocate for increased funding and attention to the African American Studies Department. After Hutman and members of the Academic Affairs Committee began meeting with the Provost at the time, Ruth Weissman, they realized that a dwindling interest in identity-based departments was leading administrators to consider folding these disciplines into other majors.
“That led me to think about how to drive up demand for under-resourced departments and give the institution the incentive to pour resources into them,” said Hutman.
At a Town Hall Meeting with President Roth later that year, Hutman questioned the assumptions that the University considered when evaluating student demand for classes. General education requirements in the Humanities (HA), Social Sciences (SBS), and Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM) already push students into particular classes they would not select voluntarily. Because the market for classes is already shaped by administrative decision-making, Hutman wondered how the University could leverage a fourth requirement to push demand toward departments that were underrepresented.
“These identity-driven departments are not only important for people to be exposed to, but they also act as fundamental communities for historically marginalized people on this campus,” Hutman said.
Fast forward nearly three years later, and Hutman has finally been able to see the beginnings of her plan come to fruition. She has partnered with Azher Jaweed ’19 and Josh Prywes ’17, Chair and Vice-Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC), who have begun to do research on comparable policies at peer institutions. One study from 2000 demonstrated that 54 percent of American colleges have some form of a diversity requirement for undergraduate coursework. In 2016, the faculty of peer NESCAC institution Hamilton College faced pushback from alumni after they updated the college’s academic requirements to include a mandatory diversity requirement.
Prywes and Jaweed are focusing more specifically on the systems that several of the University of California schools and the University of Michigan have recently implemented. Hutman suggested that the requirement could function as a broader course cluster on WesMaps similar to the NSM or HA sections. She hopes that a petition process would allow both students and professors to advocate for particular classes they feel would satisfy the requirement and would incentivize faculty to build more perspectives into their courses.
One critical matter that the WSA is wrestling with is defining exactly what types of classes and disciplines might be defined within the diversity requirement. Will this new procedure apply to different regions of the world; incorporate diverse perspectives on class, sexuality, or gender; or drive students to explore work outside of the Western canon? Should it seek to accomplish all these goals at once?
“It seems like there’s a debate as to whether academia is moving toward a place where historically marginalized identities and histories are studied in their own departments or integrated into umbrella disciplines (Government and History for examples) which have always privileged white and western narratives,” Hutman said. “The fourth Gen Ed, as we conceive it, believes that we can support the independent departments while making departments like History and Government more representative and inclusive.”
According to Prywes, when the WSA made the initial push for the diversity requirement, they had planned to count study abroad experiences toward the expectation. They had been operating under the notion that any non-U.S. experience, regardless of how similar the country, would expose students to some cultural, societal, and social diversity.
“However, we’ve already received some feedback suggesting we restrict the expectation to non-Western study abroad experiences,” Prywes wrote in an email to The Argus. “We will explore this more with our survey results, focus groups, and other discussions with students, faculty, and staff.”
While Hutman believes that the nature of academic change is sluggish, she hopes that the WSA’s fact-finding mission will be wrapped up by the end of spring break. At that point, the AAC will begin to solicit student feedback more broadly. Hutman believes that a careful approach will allow the WSA to consult faculty about the requirement. Last year, they conducted focus groups with students to test reactions to the policy.
As for the actual implementation of the diversity requirement, the WSA is currently envisioning it as something that can be completed at any point during a student’s academic career. They are hoping that the requirement would have enough flexibility so that students could petition courses that they believe fulfill the expectation if the course was not already designated on WesMaps.
“We also want to double count the 4th general education expectation toward students’ Stage 1 and/or Stage 2 general education expectations; likewise students would be able to double count eligible Stage 1 and Stage 2 general education expectation coursework toward their 4th general education expectation,” Prywes wrote. “Understanding that schedules vary substantially, we aim to make this as flexible as possible.”
Another question on the Academic Affair Committee’s mind is how to avoid disturbing the intellectual and social communities that majors like African American Studies have helped foster.
“What if someone has no interest in this subject matter?” Hutman said. “Do these communities, which already act as spaces of solidarity for many Wesleyan students, want to bring in people who don’t necessarily want to be engaged with these classes?”
One certainty is that because classes in the departments on which the WSA is focusing tend to be smaller than average, an influx of student interest will drive demand for the hiring of new faculty. While it’s unlikely that Hutman will still be attending the University when her proposal gets implemented, she thinks that interest from WSA members has been encouraging, and that, because the “devil’s in the details” for the committee, the policy’s success will depend upon its execution.
At the moment, the WSA is gathering feedback from students. They have created a survey to gauge student sentiments that can be found on Facebook and via this link.
“We really need feedback on how the 4th general expectation can be best structured to equip students with the exposure, interest, and capacity to understand and appreciate diversity and inclusiveness,” Prywes wrote. “We also need feedback on obstacles students expect to encounter in completing the expectation and how we can collectively (as a student body and university) overcome these obstacles.”
Additionally, Prywes encouraged students with any comments, questions, or concerts to reach out to Azher Jaweed (email@example.com), Justin Campos (firstname.lastname@example.org), J.C. Pinales (email@example.com), and himself (firstname.lastname@example.org).