19 February 2016

The Limits of Institutional Structures of Diversity in the University

At my university, graduate assistants recently unionized, forcing the university to recognize us as state employees. This has had the positive effects of providing us with access to state employee benefits such as state healthcare, but has also meant we now have to do a lot of the things other employees do, like attend mandatory trainings. This past Tuesday, I attended a sexual harassment prevention training. Parts of it were helpful-- the details of reporting requirements for instructors had never been indicated to me in eight years here-- but parts of it were also pretty stark, often due to the limitations of providing meaningful training to a group of one hundred people at a time.

What really hit me was this slide:

Why do we have to report? Legal liability. Not because you might help stop someone from being the victim of harassment or assault, but because you'll save the faceless institution that is the University from being sued. They're who really needs to be protected here.

Now, I am being realistic: I know that the reason things like our Office of Diversity and Equity exist is because of legal requirements. But I don't see why being legally obligated to exist can't stop these structures from thinking of themselves as protecting the individual, not protecting the institution. I have worked in a large bureaucracy, and though I suspect I occasionally (or even often) failed in this regard, I always tried to keep in mind that our requirements didn't exist to serve themselves, or even us, but the people.

The problem with this protect-the-institution mindset is amply illustrated by a different training session I went to earlier this semester, about diversity. We watched an eight-minute clip from an ABC show called What Would You Do? about two deaf women trying to fill out an application to work at a coffee shop that needs help in the kitchen:

If you don't feel like watching the actual video, the manager tells the women they can fill out the application if they really want, but he will never hire them on account of their disability. But the deaf women and the manager are all actors, and the experiment is repeated a few time across the course of the same day. The focus of the video is on the bystanders and their reactions, a few of whom confront the manager, and one who declares he's never buying coffee there again. Many others just sit there and look disgusted. (Most likely this would be what I did.)

But three people come up to the manager after the women leave and tell the manager that if he's going to discriminate against these women, he just needs to be smarter about it. He should politely accept their applications, and then reject them for reasons of "fit." All three of these people work in Human Resources.

To me, this seemed a weird video to show at a mandatory employee diversity training because it's not damning of ordinary employees or even the manager (after all, he's a plant). It damns the very people putting on the training we were attending, highlighting that these structures are fundamentally not about protecting people from discrimination, but protecting the institution from being accused of being discriminatory.

Which, really, was the whole problem of the trainings. Lecturing hundreds of people for 2-3 hours is not an effective way to "teach" them diversity, as anyone who works in higher education should full well know. But these trainings aren't actually about teaching anyone about diversity or harassment. They're about protecting the institution from liability, and they were about as perfunctory as that implies.

Seriously, look at this slide:

No way was this slide made by anyone who was actually giving any thought to people being able to understand or use the information. It was probably on the projector screen for around 30 seconds. This slide is the invention of someone who wants to get through something as quickly as possible so that they can claim that they did their duty when they get in trouble for something. Actually helping people understand issues of diversity and equity doesn't enter into it.

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