I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America — Alexis de Tocqueville
From 1991 to 1994, at Duke University, I edited a publication called the Faculty Newsletter. The Newsletter had a short and rather erratic history and folded a couple of years after I quit. When I was editor, I tried to attract faculty with different specialties and different political positions to debate controversial topics to get a little more “uni” into university. No luck! A few traditional types contributed, but only one faculty member on the postmodern side was willing to write anything.
I still have the files from those days, but they are in an old and almost unreadable format—anyone remember Wordstar? Nevertheless, I have been able to decode a few and one in particular rather surprised me.
The diversity, equity, and inclusion pandemic that came to a head in 2020—annus horribilis floydus—was an unexpected shock, at least to me. My memory is that in 1991, DEI was a tiny and slightly absurd cloud on the horizon. “Woke” was a word in the future. Most didn’t take multiculturalism and the like seriously. But in 2020, science faculty nationwide were suddenly urged to sign a “shutdownSTEM” petition. Apparently, concern about an unfortunate event in Minneapolis, the details of which were largely unknown, was enough to persuade science faculty to abandon their calling in favor of political protest.
Not everyone ignored the trends in 1991. One who did not was Kurt Back, a distinguished professor of sociology at Duke.
Browsing through old articles, I found one in which Back expertly points to some of the problems of diversity, equity, and inclusion and the facilitated trainings that are part of these programs (FN November 15, 1991). The points he raised in 1991 have been ignored. These sessions are still carried out by untrained and unqualified people. They amount to human experiments, yet they are not treated as such. They are not subjected to review by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of the university. Yet they may cause various kinds of harm, which Back describes.
It’s interesting that all these events took place more than 30 years ago, and yet here we are, trainings forever!
Legitimacy of Group Methods
Kurt Back is the author of a 1972 book on group methods: Beyond Words: The Story of Sensitivity Training and the Encounter Movement (Social Science Classics Series). Here, he discusses a DEI forerunner at Duke in 1990:
The Cultural Diversity Program has been discussed from ethical and legal points of view. Besides its content and apparent aims, its methods—and especially the use of group techniques—also merit consideration. The different names by which the program has been referred to, diversity program, awareness program, sensitivity training, etc. show some confusion about what is intended and how the intent is to be achieved. An analysis of group methods in an institutional context raises some warning flags.
Common experience teaches us that social pressure in its various forms is one of the strongest forces that can impinge on our lives. Like any force, it can be beneficial; but without skilled control, it can also be extremely dangerous. In the last half century, we have learned much about the workings of these forces. We are now much more aware of both the dangers involved in their uncontrolled use and the training needed to employ them productively.
Group work is one of most prominent examples of this new technology and it has accumulated a respectable body of professional knowledge. We know that sometimes powerful and sometimes persistent effects can be achieved on individuals through a group experience. However, sometimes participants can be badly harmed—including, in extreme cases, psychotic episodes and suicides—and unintended social effects such as violent eruptions of repressed aggression may result.
For these reasons, any responsible organization ought to use some precautions before instituting a program that uses group methods on a significant number of its members. The proposed multi-cultural training program at Duke must be judged by these standards. In essence, such a major exercise in group action in a non-emergency situation is an experiment on human subjects—but lacking the stringent review procedures that have evolved to monitor human-subject behavioral experiments. No program that uses group pressure as one of its tools should be carried out without informed consent and strict monitoring and evaluation by competent personnel.
Requirements for Responsible Group Experiences
For the conduct of the program itself certain requirements are essential.
- The prime requirement is that participation should be voluntary. This is important not only for the most obvious reason of preserving the civil rights of the participants, but for the conduct of the program itself. Unwilling or even uninterested participants can be destructive within the groups and express their resentment at a later time. Announcement of the program by anyone who has a supervisory or disciplinary role over possible participants must be considered as coercive. Any arrangement by which attendance in, or performance during, such a program is reported to people in authority may also be coercive. Participation cannot be considered voluntary if it is required of people in certain positions, such as residential advisors. Forced disciplinary participation in such a program (as imposed on at least one individual last Spring) is also inconsistent with these principles. Moreover, practices like this appear to violate confidentiality, which is also one the necessities of such a program.
- The organizers should be clear about the nature of the participants and the nature of the relations between the different group members. Even if there is no overt pressure to participate, there are many reasons for attending. People may want to join groups of this kind because they feel some distress or deficiency, as a sort of therapy for normals; they may come out of curiosity; they may want to discuss common problems in an open atmosphere; they may want to improve some skills; they may simply want to meet people. There may be many motives, but the organizers will act differently depending on the chief motivations of the group members. In the Duke program the participants appear to be treated as if they suffer from some deficiency, for which the “facilitator” has a sovereign cure: education in pre-defined “cultural proficiency” (see extracts from the Diversity Awareness Facilitator Manual…). Thus, the Diversity Awareness Program seems to constitute a program of psychotherapy, taught by people without professional qualifications and for “patients” who probably do not see any need for therapy and can be resentful at being tricked into such a situation and possibly harmed by it.
- Ambiguities can also weaken the position of the organizers of the groups. Openness is not created by calling the leaders “facilitators”, as if they just guiding the program, especially as the label is intentionally misleading. The so-called facilitators are instructed to “facilitate” not in an undirected way, but so as to promote a certain agenda. They run exercises whose ostensible aim is radically different from the real, but hidden aim. If discussions get off track (this is called “resistance”), facilitators are provided with an armory of techniques for “correcting” deviant participants and “restructuring their thinking.” The group leaders are therefore encouraged to use totalitarian methods by subterfuge. Whatever one may think of the morality of such a procedure, it clearly violates the expectations of the participants and is likely to leave at least the more perceptive among them confused or upset.
- Because of the subtle personal interactions and the potential damage, programs like this should be carefully designed and the leaders carefully trained. Professional organizations have issued detailed lists of requirements to produce leaders who are aware of their responsibilities and able to deal with potentially damaging incidents. A mass program, that trains a large number of unscreened leaders in one-day sessions, is hardly adequate for this purpose. Leaders in the Duke program seem often to be aware of their deficiencies and, in at least one instance, have been observed to read their “spontaneous” interpretations from their instruction sheets. Essentially untrained people like this are unlikely to be able to deal with serious problems.
- A common thread through all these difficulties with the program is the disregard of work in psychology and the other social sciences that is pertinent to this issue. Besides the lack of concern with such issues as participation, confidentiality, selection, training this unconcern is also shown by the use of ersatz “scales” and other questionnaires that seem to be based on no previous work. No valid assessment procedures seem to have been worked out. In a field that has produced a great mass of research on the general topic of attitude change and assessment this program looks half-baked. There may be nothing wrong in trying something that novel, but one would think that well-monitored pilot studies should be completed before unleashing such a program on the University community.
The same disregard of accumulated research in social science is also shown by the whole thrust of the program. There is hardly any evidence that multicultural understanding—a focus on group membership as opposed to the qualities of the individual—will lead to better relationships among individuals or among groups. A detailed discussion of this issue goes beyond the aims of this article, which concentrates on the group methods. But we would do well to remember that few groups understand one another as well as the Serbs and the Croats!
It is unfortunate that these issues were not debated in 1991. Perhaps it’s not too late now.
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