Diversity goes to head of class at Hamilton


In a Utopian society, colleges wouldn't need to enforce a "diversity requirement," according to Michael "Doc" Woods, a professor at Hamilton College.

By Alissa Scott 

CLINTON — In a Utopian society, colleges wouldn't need to enforce a "diversity requirement," said Michael "Doc" Woods, a professor at Hamilton College.

"But until we get there, it's necessary," Woods said, speaking of a new requirement Hamilton began this fall. "College is the last dropping-off place where a young person has a chance to learn long-lasting career skills and have those skills connected to an ideology of how to treat people right in the work place."

Officials at Hamilton announced in May they would institute a diversity requirement for all students to begin fall 2017.

Similar to many colleges across the country, it will be mandatory for Hamilton students to pass a course or combination of courses that examine "structural and institutional hierarchies based on one or more of the social categories of race, class, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, age, and abilities/disabilities" to complete their degree.

What's next: Proposals for implementation of the requirement in the concentrations are due from departments and programs in February 2017. Implementation for 2017-18 with review by CAP in 2021-22.

"What's different about Hamilton's requirement is that each department will design the requirement for their majors," said Karen Brewer, a chemistry professor and chairwoman of the subcommittee that reviewed the classes. "And in that way, they can make it relevant and meaningful to those students for their future goals in the department and their majors, as well as their careers."

For Woods' classes, that's easy. He teaches music at the liberal arts school and incorporates black culture into his jazz classes. But his department as a whole, he said, is very diverse, too. There are people of different races and sexual orientation.

"I'm an African-American," he said, "so what happens in my classes has a lot to do with African-American life."

Brewer said for other students, classes might look at the history or philosophy of the discipline.

"Questions that might be asked might include what is the scientific and social definition — distinction of race, for example," she said. "Is our science gender and race-blind? Who benefits from medical research and drug trials? So we can look at those from that perspective, and that's where the students are most interested."

Henry Shuldiner, a sophomore at Hamilton , spent the summer interning at The Chronicle of Higher Education and wrote a commentary piece about the change.

"We modern-day liberal arts students are equipped with a variety of skills and experiences within our concentrations or majors," he wrote. "We have the potential to connect different ideas so that they can be applied in different contexts. ... I believe it is Hamilton's job to teach its students about the blend of all the beautifully unique groups of people and cultures in our state, our country, our world. This new requirement is a welcome step toward that goal."

He noted that in the fall of 2015, an anonymous student group called The Movement sent Hamilton's president a list of demands, many of them touching on the lack of diversity on campus.

"Hamilton needs a curriculum that values the importance of understanding issues revolving around systemic power dynamics and inequities," the demand reads. "We demand the creation of diversity intensive courses."

Utica College instituted a diversity requirement several decades ago, said John Johnsen, provost and vice president for academic affairs.

"They must take at least one course that deals largely with issues related to diversity," Johnsen said. "They all happen to be social science courses, so typically they're history, anthropology, sociology. We think it's an essential part of their learning, of being a citizen of the country in our world."

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