UW-Madison to Test Diversity Training Program on Incoming Freshmen

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With hopes of providing an opportunity for students to learn about themselves and others, the University of Wisconsin-Madison plans to test a new diversity program on up to 1,000 incoming freshmen this fall.

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

About 53 percent of UW-Madison students are from Wisconsin — a state that is 87.6 percent white, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and some communities in the state are nearly 100 percent white.

The move to develop a diversity training program, called “Our Wisconsin,” began after several troubling incidents last year: A Native American elder was heckled with “war cry sounds” during a healing circle, swastikas were taped to the dorm room door of a Jewish student, and another student received racial threats via an anonymous note.

Designers of Our Wisconsin — which is estimated to cost anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000 — consulted other colleges that have implemented successful diversity programs, and the university commissioned a diversity consulting firm to write the curriculum.

During the pilot program this year, groups of about 50 students will be introduced to diversity concepts — such as social patterns excluding certain groups — during five hours of training split between two sessions. After the large-group sessions, students will be placed in smaller groups to discuss the diverse experiences of various cultural groups.

Steve Quintana, a UW-Madison psychology professor who helped develop the program, believes finding common bonds between individuals of varied backgrounds furthers cultural competency.

“General research shows that when you have personal connections and similarities with others from different backgrounds, this is what helps people develop greater appreciation for others,” he said in a statement. “A lot of research shows that it’s not exactly deficit of knowledge that leads to attitudes that are problematic, but it’s the absence of interpersonal interactions.”

However, not all agree that the mandatory programming will be beneficial.

UW-Madison professor emeritus W. Lee Hansen said there will always be some people at the university who have unwavering views on race, and he believes that diversity training can often deepen conflict and may cause backlash among students.

“There seems to be a lot of anger out there, and I think that a number of students will resist,” Hansen said in a statement.

After completing the program, students will respond to surveys to test their understanding, which will provide program managers critical input for altering and improving the diversity programming for future classes.

Our Wisconsin undergraduate student assistant Katrina Morrison proposed the diversity training program when she was an intern for the student government. She said she is optimistic that, in five years, when every student on campus will have gone through the training, the university will “start to see a new type of community being built.”