UW-Madison hopes new diversity program will be better than last

The University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) is starting a new initiative this fall to help incoming freshmen from one of the whitest states in the union better understand diversity.

Up to 1,000 students will participate in the pilot program, called “Our Wisconsin,” according to The Post-Crescent. It is projected to cost $150,000 to $200,000, and requires a paid program director and over 45 program facilitators.

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Students in freshman residence halls will attend a pair of two-and-a-half hour presentations on rethinking how ethnic majorities and minorities interact. Afterward, the students will take part in discussion groups, write about their experiences, and practice other mental exercises to help them realize their feelings toward other ethnicities.

UW Dean of Students Lori Berquam says the program will help students learn more about the differences among themselves.

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“That’s what the collegiate experience is all about,” Berquam said. “Some of our students are joining us from small towns and they’re going to live in a residence hall that’s bigger.”

According to government data, the state of Wisconsin was 87.6 percent white in 2015, and 53 percent of UW students come from within the state, so school officials assume that their newest students have little experience living in a racially diverse society.

Last school year, swastikas were reportedly found taped to a Jewish student’s bedroom door, students heckled a Native American elder at a healing circle with war whoops, and a student of color received an anonymous note containing racial threats.

An incoming Wisconsin Badger, Brandon Haughey, said he thinks the training will be necessary to help him adjust to his new environment.

“Madison is going to be a lot more diverse than I’m used to,” Haughey remarked. “I’m going to get a broader image of how other people live their lives that I haven’t really considered.”

A diversity consulting group has been hired to write the curriculum for Our Wisconsin. Plans have been drawn from similar programs at schools like the University of Oklahoma, Oregon State University, and the University of Maryland.

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An undergraduate student actually proposed the idea for Our Wisconsin. Katrina Morrison made the suggestion to the university chancellor while serving as a student government intern. Morrison says that she modeled her vision off of a similar program at the University of Oklahoma (OU).

“I thought it would be great to bring that to UW-Madison, because we desperately need something that is going to make this a safer and more inclusive campus,” Morrison said.

At OU, school officials mandated a 5-hour training session for incoming freshman in 2015 after video surfaced of fraternity members singing a racist chant. It was designed to help students address their unconscious racial biases and have meaningful conversations with peers of different backgrounds, USA Today College reports.

W. Lee Hansen, professor emeritus of economics at UW, thinks that the diversity training will only make race relations worse by highlighting divisions between students.

“There seems to be a lot of anger out there and I think that a number of students will resist,” Hansen said. “They’re trying to accentuate differences rather than pulling people together.”

Hansen blasted a UW diversity initiative in 2014, writing for The John William Pope Center that the school consistently wastes resources by focusing on the issue.

“The University of Wisconsin adopted its first diversity plan back in 1966 and every few years it launches a much-touted new one,” Hansen wrote. “During my 30-year teaching career at Madison, followed by more than a decade of retirement, I have seen not the slightest bit of evidence that the fixation on ‘diversity’ has made the campus better in any respect.”

Joshua Moon Johnson, director of the UW Multicultural Student Center, said the team working on Our Wisconsin hope to avoid delivering a strict set of sensitivity rules, as failed diversity initiatives have tried in the past.

“I’ve gone through a lot of really bad cultural competency trainings that were annoying and damaging,” Johnson said. “It’s not a checklist of things you’re going to do to be culturally competent.”

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