TOPEKA – The University of Kansas’ plan to require “inclusion and belonging” training for everyone on campus drew criticism Wednesday from Republican legislators who worry that it will become an effort to squelch conservative thought.
It could complicate the university’s sometimes-rocky relationship with the GOP-dominated Legislature as lawmakers face tough budget decisions and potential spending cuts next year.
The university and Lawrence, home to its main campus, are widely viewed as liberal political bastions in Kansas.
Diversity training is among the demands from a student group, Rock Chalk Invisible Hawk, which contends administrators haven’t done enough combat discrimination and other problems facing minority and “marginalized” students.
The university says it is creating an advisory team to produce an “action plan” by mid-January that will cover “mandatory education.”
Several GOP legislators said they have free-speech concerns and worry that the training will castigate participants for holding conservative political views unpopular on liberal campuses.
“They preach inclusion and diversity, but they do the opposite when it comes to conservative thought,” said Republican Rep. John Rubin of Shawnee.
“I think we will definitely have a role, and we will be watching.”
KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said Wednesday that the university won’t be trying to limit what people think and pointed out that diversity training already exists in the business world.
“Many industries have mandatory trainings about diversity in their settings,” Gray-Little said during a break at the Wichita meeting of the state Board of Regents, which oversees the university. “So this is not anything that is so unusual or that wouldn’t happen in business.”
Board Chairman Shane Bangerter said it has confidence in Gray-Little and the university’s process for addressing student concerns.
“We want to be colorblind, and whatever policies we can have in place to help us do that, I think our board is for,” he said.
And Democratic Rep. Jim Ward, of Wichita, called GOP legislators’ concerns “ridiculous.” He said diversity training educates participants about cultural differences.
“It tends to unpack the cultural significance of words and why some words are more offensive than others,” Ward said.
University Provost Jeffrey Vitter did not provide details about plans for diversity training in a statement Tuesday, other than it would involve “facilitated sessions.”
Details will be explored by the advisory team, university spokeswoman Jill Hummels said in email. She added that Vitter and Sara Rosen, senior vice provost for academic affairs, “are committed to ensuring such programs take place.”
“And they strongly believe in the value of having a facilitator present to help ensure people grasp and retain the concepts,” Hummels wrote.
The Invisible Hawk group issued a statement Wednesday, saying: “The most basic level of training would be required cultural competency classes for all students as well as training for staff, faculty, and administration.”
But Clay Barker, the Kansas Republican Party’s executive director and a University of Kansas graduate, said in an email that at best the training will be “mandatory drudgery” and at worst, “political indoctrination.”
In a later interview, Barker said he agrees with spelling out expectations for behavior, but the university’s language sounds “almost like it’s the leftist ideology.”
Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Nickerson Republican, said he’s worried about potential cost of mandatory training, given the campus’ 24,700 students.