March 2, 2021

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Trump’s controversial diversity training order is dead – or is it? Colleges are still feeling its effects.

8 min read

An overturned executive order from President Trump focused on banning some forms of diversity training is still sparking debate on college campuses. 

Many universities scrambled to comply with the controversial order last year, which would have prevented the federal government and its contractors from offering diversity training that Trump had called divisive. Biden has since overturned the order, but it had already tapped into a live vein of distrust among right-leaning voters who fear colleges are not teaching their students, but rather indoctrinating them.

Look no further than the University of Iowa and its college of dentistry. Back in October, the college emailed everyone in the department condemning the order. But one student disagreed with the university’s criticism – and did so by replying all to the email.

 “By condemning executive order 13950, does the [College of Dentistry] support using federal funds to promote trainings that include race/sex stereotyping and/or race/sex scapegoating,” student Michael Brase wrote.

What followed was a messy debate full of denials and accusations of racism that unfollowed one email at a time.

An excerpt of the email sent by administrators in the college of dentistry at the University of Iowa to everyone in the department. The email sent off a flurry of discussion in the college over race and diversity training.
An excerpt of the response sent by Michael Brase to the University of Iowa's college of Dentistry tied to President Trump's executive order on diversity training. The email set off a flurry of discussion around race and diversity training.

The result? 

The conservative student recently testified in front of Iowa lawmakers. And the Republicans in the committee praised his willingness to stand up to brain-washing while bashing the university. At the same time, other students, especially those of color, in the program are more vexed than ever. They recently led a protest that, among other things, is pushing the department to require more diversity training. (They also want to revise the email policies so it’s harder to reply all.)

“We are protesting for a culture change,” said Megha Puranam, one of the student protesters, “and to hold the University of Iowa and College of Dentistry accountable for the diversity values that they claim to champion.”

This debate is not new. A Pew Research Center survey in 2019 found that nearly 60% of right or right-leaning voters thought colleges have a “negative effect” on the country. And a 2018 survey showed nearly 80% of right-leaning voters said professors bringing their, “political and social views into the classroom,” was a prime factor in what was wrong with college. 

Those in higher education, though, fear Trump’s order and antagonism toward colleges more broadly may serve as a guidepost for state or local lawmakers looking to influence their local universities. And students at these institutions fear the attack on diversity training may translate to more overt racism. 

“Simply because the federal government has changed positions doesn’t mean state governments are going to follow suit,” said Peter Lake, a law professor at Stetson University that studies higher education law. “The executive order was more than just an executive order. It was a rallying cry.”  

And it’s not just in Iowa. In Georgia, a state Republican lawmaker asked the University system of Georgia to catalog which of its professors were teaching courses about white privilege. That lawmaker, Rep. Emory Dunahoo, said his questions came from his constituents. Professors though are already worried about what they see as overreach from the state government. 

Trump’s repeated attempts to mold campus politics  

This is not the first time, however, Trump’s actions would attempt to influence free speech in the American higher education system. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had the Department of Justice regularly get involved in free speech disputes on college campuses.

Trump also signed an executive order in 2019 that sought to “promote free and open debate on college and university campuses.” He threatened to withhold billions in research funding for those that failed to comply, but little was said about it beyond its unveiling. And the order wasn’t clear in how it extended beyond the first amendment.

The Trump administration’s focus on race also manifested in college admissions. The Department of Justice had sued Yale, alleging the university of discrimination against Asian and white applicants. That case was dismissed this week though as part of the Biden’s administration. 

But the executive order on diversity training was more pointed. It would have restricted  training that, “inculcates in its employees any form of race or sex stereotyping or any form of race or sex scapegoating,” and it applied to the federal government and its contractors or grantees. Universities weren’t directly mentioned, but they do rely on such forms of federal funding and many tried to comply with the order. 

“It’s more oriented towards viewpoints and content of speech and ideas,” Lake said. “To be that specific is fairly unprecedented.”

The Trump order homed in on critical race theory, or the idea that racism is interwoven into American society and gives some groups of people advantages over others. Supporters of the executive order will say they don’t have an issue with diversity broadly, but they’re against critical race theory. 

The order caused many universities to scramble in attempting to comply with the order. John A. Logan College in Illinois even canceled a talk by a Hispanic author in an effort to comply. The University of Iowa was one of the institutions that responded quickly to the order, and suspended its diversity training briefly. 

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What happened in Iowa?

“We encourage people to think and reflect on our history, culture, science, and other matters,” read the email signed by members of the college’s faculty. “The Executive order undermines fundamental university values and practices.”

Brase, a second-year dental student, recalled reading that message and feeling frustrated, he said, that administrators had lent their name and university position to condemning Trump’s executive order. 

Brase told USA TODAY he is not against diversity training, but that he specifically has an issue with critical race theory. As for responding to what was essentially a listserv, Brase said he wanted his words heard by all given the college’s message had gone out to everyone.

Michael Brase, a student at the University of Iowa's college of dentistry, recently lodged a complaint against the university. He claims the institution impugned his free speech rights after he responded to a mass email condemning President Trump's now defunct order on diversity training.

Among other points, Brase wrote in his response that he wanted to know if by condemning the executive order, did the college support using federal money to promote scapegoating? 

More replies followed. One faculty member, Steven Kelly, wrote he was frustrated that the college appeared to be blaming all of America’s problems on, “white males or the police.” And another, Nancy Slach, wrote she was a “conservative Christian,” and that she rejected the idea that America is an, “irredeemably racist and sexist country,” while saying she could not support Black Lives Matter.

One person even pleaded for the reply-alls to stop, which initially ended the discussion.  

Brase said eventually the college in November summoned him to a disciplinary hearing in connection to the emails for “unprofessional” behavior tied to using a “public platform after you were offered other means to continue the conversation.” Among the potential outcomes, administrators said Brase might face probation, a recommendation that he be dismissed, or that no action at all would be taken.

It was then that Brase elevated the issue and contacted his Republican lawmakers. Days later, the college had canceled the disciplinary hearing. Its dean, David Johnsen, wrote in a message to Brase they had been wrong in how they handled the issue and that everyone’s voice deserved to be heard.

As for Brase? He has a wider audience than ever. He recently spoke in front of an oversight committee where Republican lawmakers lauded his efforts. 

“The actual context of that executive order isn’t what is still in play here,” Brase said. “This whole situation has highlighted what happens when you disagree with official statements the administration has put out.”

Many of Brase’s peers, though, also feel like he still doesn’t understand the issues. And rather than feeling welcomed at the college, they say they feel more excluded than ever. To that end, a group of dentistry students recently held a protest pushing the college for a change in its culture. 

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Puranam had even replied to Brase’s original email. 

“Michael, it seems like you missed the point of the seminar or maybe you have yet to attend it,” Puranam wrote. “I am excited for you to take time to understand the core values of [Diversity, equity and inclusion] training while acknowledging your own biases, (the idea that DEI training is to turn a group of people into scapegoats.)” 

AJ Foley, a dentistry student, said that as a Black man it was especially difficult to see his professors condemning the Black Lives Matter movement.

What’s more, he said he had a hard time wrapping his mind around the fact that one student would takeover an entire email thread to make a point rather than going to a professor or administrators directly. 

Foley said he is one of only four students in his class who are Black, and that he had been asking himself, “Is this place really a place for me?”

The University of Iowa, for its part, said that improving the climate on campus requires a “community-wide effort,” and a university spokeswoman mentioned its diversity, equity and inclusion plan as an example of its efforts. 

“The University of Iowa is committed to fostering an equitable and inclusive environment for everyone in the university community, as well as one where ideas and perspectives can be freely expressed and discussed,” the statement read.

University of Iowa dental students, from left, AJ Foley, Megha Puranam, Jasmine Butler, and Shannon Oslad, hold signs and chant during a protest organized by Action UIowa Task Force to, "Put DEI in DDS," Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, outside the College of Dentistry on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, Iowa.

Just asking questions? Or controlling the classroom?

Meanwhile in Georgia, a Republican lawmaker had a simple request framed around themes that would have been home in Trump’s executive order.

Specifically, that lawmaker, Rep. Emory Dunahoo, had written to the University System of Georgia requesting to know if any faculty were, “teaching students who identify as white, male, heterosexual, or Christian are intrinsically privileged and oppressive, which is defined as ‘malicious or unjust’ and ‘wrong.'”

Dunahoo,  had told The Gainesville Times in January he sent his request to the college based on concerns from his constituents. 

Professors in the Georgia higher education system, though, saw Dunahoo’s request as an overreach by the government into their classrooms. Matthew Boedy, a professor of rhetoric at the University of North Georgia, said the questions do echo the themes in Trump’s executive order.

And he is fearful that Dunahoo’s comments may led to professors being singled out. He added someone can disagree with the critical race theory ideas that inform diversity trainings but to be, “labeled un-American because of what one teaches is the key to the frustration and fear of a lot of faculty.”

He said he hopes the university administration will explain why professors need to teach about concepts including racism or white privilege in an academic setting. And Boedy added, government oversight is necessary, but, “when it comes to curriculum and the freedom to pursue research and profess certain values as an expert in a field – none of that should mean one has to be a target.” 

Some states have proposed legislation to ban such teaching. In Arkansas, a Republican lawmaker Mark Lowery introduced a bill that would cut funding to institutions that, “isolate, students based on race, gender, political affiliation, social classes, or other distinctions within programs of instruction.” The bill’s sponsor told The Arkansas Democrat, he was specifically against, “critical race theory.”

Students of color at Iowa say the whole incident shows how they’re treated differently. Foley believes he would have been disciplined if he had sent, “insensitive and unprofessional comments” to the entire college. 

“That was the most frustrating part about it to me,” he said. “I couldn’t even put it into words.”

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