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Sharon McCutcheon

Iowa State University’s undergraduate U.S. diversity requirement has been in flux since earlier this year, when Provost Jonathan Wickert declined to sign off on a faculty-backed update to the requirement over concerns about state legislation prohibiting the mandatory teaching of “divisive concepts” about race and gender.

With that legislation now the law in Iowa, the university’s Faculty Senate Executive Board worked over the summer to put the diversity requirement update back in play, in clear compliance with the law. The board’s plan, which nine members approved and two did not, didn’t involve rewriting the diversity requirement update. Rather, it asked students to complete three of the four learning outcomes instead of all four, as originally proposed.

Only one of the updated learning outcomes—analyze systemic oppression and personal prejudice and their impact on marginalized communities and the broader U.S. society—potentially conflicted with the divisive-concepts law. The board’s workaround therefore meant that students who had a problem with this particular outcome didn’t have to achieve it.

The compromise satisfied Wickert, the provost. But it proved controversial with the full Senate once it became widely known this fall. Even though the board is allowed to act on behalf of the full Senate when the Senate is not in session, some senators questioned the board’s right to make a decision of this magnitude on its own. Some saw the compromise itself as watering down the diversity requirement and hurting students in the long run.

One of the board members, Annmarie Butler, Senate secretary and associate professor of philosophy and religious studies, eventually put forth a resolution calling for a vote to rescind the three-of-four agreement. Following a lengthy discussion, the full Senate voted 33 to 20 to keep the agreement and begin to put the new requirement in place.

Andrea Wheeler, Senate president and associate professor of architecture, said, “It was an important issue. The rescind was not uncontroversial. People felt strongly.”

Now that the vote is over, she said, the Senate will work on a timeline and process for adopting the requirements.

“Our Faculty Senate committees and councils emphasize the importance of shared governance and the central role of cooperation in collegial decision making,” Wheeler added. “Serving as a faculty senator is a very significant commitment.”

Rob Schweers, a spokesperson for the provost’s office, said that Wickert originally declined to sign the updated requirements due to concerns about the new legislation as well as those related to student choice, course capacity and flexibility for professors setting their course syllabi.

The Executive Board’s agreement helps address potential concerns about the legislation, Schweers continued, and “provides greater choice for students to take courses that address their individual needs or knowledge gaps around diversity, equity and inclusion.” It also “enhances capacity so students can complete their graduation requirements in a timely manner, and provides greater flexibility for faculty to teach courses the way they want.”

Those senators who voted to rescind, among other professors, aren’t happy with the deal, however, and remain concerned about the new Iowa law’s demonstrated ability to affect the curriculum.

David A. M. Peterson, Lucken Professor of Political Science, said the “handling of the entire process, particularly the invocation of Iowa’s law about divisive concepts into the debate over the diversity requirement, has created real climate issues on campus.” Faculty members sense a “chilling effect due to our administration’s interpretation of the law. I think that is quite unfortunate and damaging to faculty morale.”

Brian Behnken, an associate professor of history who helped draft the original, four-of-four diversity requirement, said he was speaking for himself and not the university and that the Senate decision “was deeply disappointing. While some are celebrating this decision as a victory, I see it as a retreat from our commitment to diversity and the education of our student body.”

Revising the new U.S. diversity requirement “before it even had the chance to be implemented sends a message that there is something wrong with educating our students about diversity and only heightens the chilling effect many faculty members are feeling” since the law passed, Behnken said.

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