UMass critics decry veer to left in required courses

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AMHERST – The University of Massachusetts has turned a corner and begun to more explicitly prescribe political attitudes and views that students – and faculty – at its flagship Amherst campus must not only study but embrace, critics say.

The school, in recent guidelines sent to teachers on constructing new courses or updating old ones, is pushing a “social justice agenda,” according to Daphne Patai, a professor who has publicly objected to the policy. In an email, she said it’s about “the explicit politicization of the guidelines so that they embody a particular political perspective, which evidently professors and students are expected to embrace.”

Patai, who teaches languages, literature and culture, says that the school has adopted a “social justice agenda” that students must learn. In comments made by email and published on a website that deals with academia, she has said that the structure of required courses for undergraduates is being politicized without explicit approval from the faculty’s governing body.

School administrators say there hasn’t been a change in the faculty guidelines regarding required diversity courses for undergraduates in years. But in a recent article posted by Inside Higher Ed and written with Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties lawyer in Boston, Patai said that new wording in the missive that teachers received in March crossed a threshold.

“What’s new is the specific language about social justice,” Patai said by email when asked about her concerns.

UMass Amherst has long mandated passing two social and cultural diversity courses – one about diversity as an issue in the U.S. and another that examines the subject on the global level – as a graduation requirement for bachelor degrees. But courses that meet the requirement are being updated and the guidelines distributed in March are meant to help faculty reshape their offerings or to create new ones that satisfy the mandate.

Professors are encouraged to include concepts like “social justice,” Patai said. They are also told to explain the dynamics of “power and inequality in historical and contemporary societies” and to help students “engage with others to create change toward social justice,” according to instructions on the UMass website.

Specifically, U.S.-focused diversity courses are expected to focus on topics like sexuality, minorities and native groups, and other “marginalized” populations, according to the guidelines, which came from a school council that includes faculty members as well as students and administrators. Global diversity courses must focus on subjects such as “imperialism and colonialism,” and deal with “the role of patriarchy and gender/sexual identity.”

“The guidelines make plain that the university is no longer content with attempts to censor student and faculty speech,” Patai and Silverglate said in the Inside Higher Ed article last month. “The time has come to cross over into the realm of compelling the inmates to utter – and presumably come to believe – the nebulous precepts of ‘diversity, equity and inclusion.’”

But the guidance to faculty on diversity courses, which have been required since 1985, haven’t been changed in the past three years, according to Daniel Fitzgibbons, a university spokesman.

“The guidelines for developing diversity courses were clarified in 2013 to assist faculty,” he said. They will “address societal problems as they might choose, but not based on any particular political or philosophical point of view.”

As Patai and Silverglate wrote last month, “indoctrination into the entire social justice agenda is hardly new at UMass or, for that matter, on the vast majority of campuses elsewhere around the country.” They went on to point out that the thought-shaping process begins for freshmen even before classes, citing “explicitly political” orientation sessions at the start of their academic careers.

While this isn’t uncommon on campuses nationwide, they say, at UMass the “political indoctrination” has spread from specialized courses of study and “has now officially taken up residence as an explicit and crucial goal of liberal arts education via course requirements disguised as academic study.”

Professors who want to offer a diversity course that satisfies the undergraduate requirement must submit an outline for approval, and they’ll be required to conform to the guidelines, Patai said. She has taught at the school for 38 years, most recently focusing on the Portuguese program and comparative literature. Patai said that as a professor of utopian and dystopian literature, she is attuned to the use of language for political purposes.

“I think this was plainly manipulative and improper, but it explains why most of us never heard about this until a couple of months ago when suddenly (in my department at least, and in some others that I know of) the guidelines were passed around, casually, as if this was nothing new. I actually READ them, and was shocked,” she said.

Patai and Silverglate, who sit on the board of the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, argue that the new guidelines “demonstrate a troubling shift from proscription of speech to prescription of political attitudes.”  

They fear that this indoctrination has spread from specialized areas of study and has “now officially taken up residence as an explicit and crucial goal of liberal arts education via course requirements disguised as academic study.”

“All of this should cause concern at a public university that is bound by constitutional norms,” they wrote. “The line crossed is an important one, for it ventures aggressively into the realm of thought reform.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.