Brown, update the Open Curriculum; DIAP shouldn’t be optional

On June 15, President Christina Paxson P’19 announced a series of measures to address racial injustice through the University’s institutional power and resources. The measures include a new task force, funding for research on policy and awareness projects related to structural racism, a reaffirmed commitment to the Providence Public School District, a new health equity scholars program, community forums and an openness to reimagining community policing when conducting the already planned review of Brown’s Department of Public Safety. We commend the University for recognizing the urgency of this moment and for recognizing Juneteenth as an official holiday for the first time.

Paxson correctly acknowledged that as a prosperous, well-endowed institution of education, “This is Brown’s role and part of our mission, and thus it is our responsibility.” In this ongoing moment of need and potential for transformative change, we encourage the University to consider another feasible change with far-reaching benefits: implementing a Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan course requirement into the open curriculum.

In the past few months, the University has been understandably occupied with planning the hybrid model of learning for the upcoming academic year in light of COVID-19. But the number of significant logistical challenges the upcoming academic year entails are no excuse to neglect the urgency of the proposed curricular update. We believe that the drastic current, persisting circumstances — which have disproportionately impacted Black communities and communities of color — make it more important than ever that we push our curriculum closer to the ideal: one that challenges us to think tangibly about the world Brown charges us with improving.

Following student protests about race relations at Brown in 1985, the curriculum has included diversity courses — demarcated by some form of indicator that has evolved over the years. DIAP, the University’s most recent iteration of this indicator, was developed in response to the first Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan in 2016. Per the University’s description, courses with this designation teach students about “issues of structural inequality, racial formations and/or disparities and systems of power within a complex, pluralistic world.”

Since then, there have been multiple calls for these course offerings to be fully incorporated into University curricular requirements. Former Herald columnist and senior staff writer Randi Richardson ’20 called for this change in a 2017 column. And now, a petition with close to 900 signatures demonstrates a resurgent and widespread interest in the idea. First circulated about a month ago, the petition specifically asks that DIAP courses be incorporated into the University’s pre-existing writing or WRIT requirement; this would mean students’ first WRIT course would be required to also have DIAP designation.

We commend the petition organizers for generating essential momentum for a curricular update to require DIAP, but we urge the University to go a step further, to recognize the value of mandating an independent DIAP course, rather than modifying the attributes of an existing requirement. Simply put, education in diversity should not be embraced as a subcategory of a practical skill; it ought to be cemented into our curriculum as a necessary and fundamental component of the Brown education.

The small benefit of convenience of making DIAP a part of WRIT would undermine the new component practically and conceptually. WRIT courses are already too often dismissed by students and do not always guarantee feedback or progress on writing, as former Herald columnist Jon Douglas ’20 argued. And further, forcing DIAP into a preexisting requirement does not send a strong enough message. The University already recognizes the value of these courses and has increased the number offered in recent years. We implore the University to recognize the importance of DIAP by recognizing the designation as a new requirement in its own right.

As sophomores, all members of our undergraduate community plan out their coursework for the remainder of their time on College Hill. This process, which culminates in declaring a concentration, is intended to spur deep reflection about how one’s individual academic pursuits at Brown can fulfill the key objectives of a liberal education. In the process, we are reminded by the University’s own Liberal Learning Goals that our education ought to equip us with the ability to confront “the most significant social, political and moral issues of our time.” We firmly believe that tackling issues of racism and colorism and working to dismantle ingrained systems of power that perpetuate oppression of people of color remains one of the most consequential obligations of our generation. By instituting a DIAP requirement, the University would reflect this obligation with a curricular commitment.  A liberal arts education that fails to prepare students for the realities of these complex challenges in the wider world, and even within the University community, falls short of itself.

Students may object to the new requirement as being in opposition to the spirit of the open curriculum. Indeed, a similar argument could be made about the University’s current WRIT requirement. Yet, in justifying its decision to make two WRIT courses a compulsory part of a Brown degree, the University has argued that writing, no matter your future career, will always remain a vital part of your life. It is time that the University show a similarly strong commitment to producing scholars who are not only aware of racial inequity, but who have also been thoroughly challenged to think critically about their own individual complicity in this inequity and their responsibilities as citizens with the privilege of a Brown education to contribute to systemic change.

Further, we believe it is particularly incumbent on an elite institution that has profited off of slavery — as the University itself has acknowledged — to expose students to the systems of power and white privilege that the University has itself historically perpetuated. This small change could even help shift norms that enable continued discrimination on Ivy League campuses, moving toward greater awareness of microaggressions and blatant racism, with the hope of reducing and eliminating them.

Students in these courses would see the benefit of establishing conversations about race as a cornerstone component of a liberal education. They would learn about values, challenges and ideas they might never have sought out otherwise, as Richardson argued in 2017. In fact, this very exposure strikes at the heart of multiple pillars of the open curriculum itself. At a higher level, the University writes that a students’ curricular exposure ought to facilitate openness “to people, ideas and experiences that may be entirely new.” What’s more, the University emphasizes that liberal learning at Brown must help students to “embrace diversity” to learn, in part, “how to participate productively in a pluralistic society.” Is understanding the profound complexity and inequality of our increasingly diverse society not just as essential a skill as writing for contributing to the modern world?

We fully recognize that many students may initially shy away from supporting such a requirement for fear that an additional obligatory course would infringe on their academic freedom and flexibility. But we firmly believe that the sheer variety of courses offered under the DIAP designation would make the requirement no more daunting than the WRIT requirement to fit into a schedule. So the requirement, while manageable, would still hold students with many concentration requirements accountable to venturing out of their comfort zone.

In addition, we would encourage the College to introduce this new requirement with an accompanying commitment to help professors. A myriad of departments across campus would need to plan courses that would fulfill the DIAP objectives — meeting students where they are in their educational  journey, while broadening their perspective on the complex world they will be graduating into.

By no means are we proposing a “solution” that lulls us into the false belief that we are advancing flawlessly and smoothly toward easy change. Nor do we, as the editorial page board, claim to have the answers or the right to mandate solutions on behalf of all communities oppressed by racial injustice. We advocate for this change simply because we believe it is our obligation to add our voice to other voices on this issue, consistent with our mission: to “write editorials bearing in mind interests that include promoting equity and inclusivity, holding powerful actors accountable and enhancing the student experience.”

If required DIAP courses do not effectively grant students the opportunity to meaningfully engage with racism and systems of oppression, all we’ve done is afford students the opportunity to check a box that is progressive in title alone. What’s more, there is legitimate room for concern that a requirement would actually disincentivize students from approaching these subjects with genuine earnestness.

We don’t pretend to suggest that this change, or any of the other University measures in progress, would be sufficient to address the harm that Brown, as an institution, has caused Black and Indigenous communities and other communities of color. But this small, manageable shift would generate a meaningful change in the educations of thousands of present and future University students, while still allowing them to benefit academically from the freedom of the open curriculum.

We believe that the shift would align with the goals already exemplified by the University’s 2017 DIAP report, and accelerate its gradual shift toward incorporating diverse perspectives into the curriculum — one of the six priority areas centered in the University’s plan for greater diversity. But more fundamentally, as recognized by the petitioners, we believe this requirement would strengthen the education of University students and help the University better fulfill its mission “by educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.”

To our administrators in University Hall, we urge you to show your commitment to this objective by establishing a DIAP requirement in its own right.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board. This editorial was written by its editor, Krista Stapleford ’21, and members Vicky Phan ’21 and Dylan Tian ’21. 

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