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Degrees of diversity

8 June 20140 comments

483395-university-studentsThe University of Washington, in the US, has become the first in the world to require students to complete a course in diversity before they can graduate.

The university, sited in multicultural Seattle – home to truly global brands such as Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks and Amazon, says it has an obligation to prepare students for a more global society.

As a result, it is insisting undergraduates enrol in a course in some area of diversity – either economic, cultural or political – to gain a degree.

The new policy, initiated by a group of mostly minority students, followed failed attempts over couple of decades to introduce changes meant to ensure that all graduating students know a little more about other cultures and people.

The courses will not add to the number of hours students need to put in to obtain a bachelor’s degree and won’t apply retrospectively.

Environmental science and resource management graduate Helen Fillmore was part of the student group which pushed for the initiative.

“Students come from different places with different backgrounds and … arrive at the university where we’ve become part of this huge melting pot,” Ms Fillmore said.

“But the differences that students bring with them aren’t always positively recognised.

“Here we are in a place where we have a lot of ability to grow, not just while we’re here but after we graduate and enter the workforce. We’re so much more connected than ever before – yet there’s still so much bickering.”

The new requirement is tailored around a broad definition of diversity, covering areas such as sexual orientation, disability, class, race, age, gender, religion and politics.

To satisfy it, students at the university’s campuses would be able to choose from among 400 and 500 courses that are already part of the curricula, such as Peasants in Politics, Class and Culture in East Asia, Gender and Spirituality and World Music.

Two-thirds of the university’s students already take classes that satisfy the diversity requirement.

Professor James Gregory, chairman of the Faculty Senate, which must approve all such changes, said there was a lot of wordsmithing and adjusting the resolution at various stages.

“There were changes in executive committee, more changes on the floor of the Senate,” Professor Gregory said.

“A lot of the things that bothered certain faculty members were worked out.”

There was some opposition from students however and some letters to the university’s newspaper article pointed out the UW is not a liberal-arts school and referred to the requirement as another hoop students with coursework-heavy majors would have to jump through.

But Professor Gregory said: “It doesn’t complicate the curriculum – we were careful not to do that.”

He said universities are preparing young people for adulthood and for jobs that in many cases will involve visits to countries around the world and interactions with people of different cultures abroad as well as at home.

“The fact that so many students are already taking courses that deal with some aspect of diversity shows there is recognition among students that this is valuable,” Professor Gregory said.