Chester Spell

Chester S Spell Ph.D.

Team Spirit

Can Diversity Training Help?

What do we do about the University of Missouri? (and other places)

Posted Nov 12, 2015

The top administrators of the University of Missouri recently resigned over charges of their insensitivity to incidents connected to racism at the school. Because we just conducted a meta-analysis of diversity training programs, the Missouri events have really hit home for us. The university’s response (other than people quitting!) has been to force all faculty and students to take diversity training as Missouri Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin ordered before he resigned. Some black students on the campus have said those measures were not sufficient, calling for broader approaches to address insensitivity. Based on our research, the black students are right. Forced training programs have been no more effective than ones where people voluntarily attended training.

So what makes a diversity training program effective? Will simply requiring everyone to take training helps? Our conclusion, after reviewing hundreds of studies on diversity training, is that a lot of the ways diversity training is implemented in colleges and workplaces is well-meaning yet out of step with what research says constitutes effective training. The misplaced efforts of many (not all) diversity training programs, in other words, really won't address the unrest at Missouri. So, can diversity training realistically help improve the situation at Missouri and other college campuses?  

The resignations of the president and chancellor happened after members of the Missouri football team threatened to boycott a game (which would have cost the university in 1 million in fees) unless the president quit.  Apparently, the issues stemmed from a number of incidents, over the past few months. For instance, the African-American president of the Missouri Students Association posted on Facebook that a group of men at the university had yelled racial slurs at him. A  white man shouted racial epithets about  black students at a rehearsal by  the Legion of Black Collegians. A third case, all in the span of a few weeks, saw a swastika made from feces on a university building. According to the university’s own statistics, the student body is about 15% minority.

Meanwhile, there’s been more diversity related controversies on other campuses. Yale has its problems with what students wear at Halloween, where some have been offended with ethnically- oriented outfits. Louisville’s president apologized for a Halloween party where attendees wore Mexican-themed costumes. UCLA students protested fellow students wearing blackface to a fraternity party. It is tempting to see such unrest, coupled with other issues where racial frictions are at play, as part of the same theme. Yet Swastikas and disrupting student events with racial slurs seems to be different from, say, someone wearing a Native American costume at Halloween. Perhaps it is an issue of intent (intending to offend as opposed to not realizing how you come across). While we don’t have all the answers, it seems that the proper response by universities (or businesses) is not going to be a simple one; that would be expecting too much of any intervention.

What constitutes good diversity training? As our research shows, most programs seen as effective are relatively long (it takes time to change attitudes, not a ‘one hour workshop’) and integrated into other areas of the school, in other words not “stand alone”- a program that isn’t connected to how the rest of the school or business operates. Meaningful programs need to be part of a package and integrated into the way the university does business. Training needs to be complemented by hiring practices, course offerings,  retention and promotion of staff,  and otherwise weaving diversity efforts into other aspects of the organizations. Otherwise, people will see diversity training program as just another check in the box, and doubt anyone intends to make any serious changes. The student protests, in fact, reflect this doubt. But as our research and recent headlines suggest, this is serious business.