CARTERVILLE — John A. Logan College abruptly canceled all planned diversity activities last week pending a review of their content. In doing so, officials cited concerns the college could lose millions of dollars in federal funding if they violate President Donald Trump’s Sept. 22 executive order prohibiting workforce diversity trainings he considers “offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.”
Though college officials say they will reinstate events once compliance can be assured, the decision reflects a broader concern. Diversity experts said Trump’s executive order may have a chilling effect on diversity-related training and programs at colleges and universities in a time of national reckoning over race relations in America.
The president’s order seems to take aim at foundational components of diversity training, such as the concept of white privilege, which suggests that white people, simply because of the color of their skin, are conferred certain advantages in the U.S. not afforded to minorities. That can include simply the benefit of the doubt in various situations such as writing a check, renting a home or shopping in a store.
And while the order doesn’t mention critical race theory by name, it alludes to its underpinnings.
Generally speaking, critical race theory examines how America’s history of white supremacy, including slavery, continues to influence laws, economic systems and cultural responses today, and seeks to dismantle those systems that perpetuate oppression. The president has condemned the theoretical framework in speeches and prohibited its teaching within federal agencies in a separate but related directive.
“Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed,” Trump said during a speech at the National Archives Museum last month.
Two JALC events affected
John A. Logan College President Ron House said the decision to suspend campus diversity activities affected two planned events: a talk by a Southern Illinois University professor as part of National Hispanic Heritage Month activities and a forum geared toward youth about their rights and responsibilities during a police traffic stop.
“The nature of the topics of what we’re doing are perfectly OK. We’ve got to take a look at how the topic is going to be presented, and that’s the crux of it and we’re trying to figure that out,” House said. House said the program content would be amended, if necessary, to comply with the order and rescheduled, though he was unable to say when that would happen.
Organizers of the police-related forum have already moved it off campus, and Roberto Barrios, the SIU professor scheduled to speak Oct. 12, said he is alarmed by the college’s decision and would only be interested in rescheduling if all diversity activities are reinstated immediately and the college president apologies.
“We will be judged by how we behave in this moment,” said Barrios, an applied anthropologist with a focus on post-disaster recovery and disaster-risk reduction in SIU’s Department of Anthropology. The original mission of institutions of higher learning, he said, went well beyond job training, and emphasized the importance of research and the search “for answers to profound questions about being human.”
“I am absolutely disappointed and disgusted with administrators,” he said, “who would forsake the mission and obligation of higher education institutions to the public."
House dismissed the criticism as much ado about nothing. “Does it just take a phone call from some professor to make the front page of the paper now?” he said. (Barrios did not call the paper, but rather posted his frustration with the cancellation on his personal Facebook page.) House said he doesn’t see ignoring the order as an option, and defended John A. Logan College’s early response while many other colleges take a wait-and-see approach.
“We get several million dollars in federal money here that could be jeopardized if we don’t,” he said.
Ambiguous order confuses response
House said last week’s decision was prompted by a letter the college received on Wednesday from the Illinois Community College Diversity Commission, which is part of the Illinois Council of Community College Administrators.
The letter from Terrance Bond, the commission’s vice president, noted that community colleges, as federal grant recipients, are likely impacted in some manner by the order, and therefore the commission wanted to bring it to the attention of administrators.
The letter said the order upholds the need to foster environments devoid of hostility grounded in racism or sexism. It also pointed out recent guidance from the Office of Management and Budget to federal agencies concerning workforce training espousing the belief that ideologies built upon critical race theory and white privilege are “divisive, un-American propaganda…”
“Although we as an executive board believe our practices are in accordance with the spirit of the law, we also recognize the need to be vigilant in protecting our institutions against challenges to the methods and ideological underpinnings of the training we are offering on our campuses,” Bond wrote in the letter.
In a phone interview with The Southern last week, Bond said part of the challenge is that, absent guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, it’s not clear how the order affects colleges and universities. The order says colleges may discuss the "divisive concepts" it outlines as part of a larger course of academic instruction so long as it is done "in an objective manner and without endorsement."
The letter to peers, Bond said, wasn’t necessarily to prompt immediate action but to prepare officials for what may be on the horizon.
Bond said no diversity events or training materials were immediately affected at Heartland Community College in Normal, where he serves as assistant to the president, with a focus on equity, diversity and inclusion activities. That includes an upcoming college-sponsored viewing of “70 Acres in Chicago,” a documentary that explores racial and economic inequities through the lens of former Cabrini-Green Homes public housing residents. Trump’s order, Bond said, is ambiguous, making it hard to determine what types of activities might violate it.
“It doesn’t matter if you say the words critical race theory, which most trainings don’t, or if you stop saying the words white privilege and just talk about the concepts — it seems to a certain degree that the concepts themselves are in question,” Bond said. “But we’re not going to stop our training processes without some specific guidance that says, ‘This is what we don’t want to see, this is what we want to see.’ And I don’t think that’s been provided.”
Experts worry over 'chilling effect'
As it pertains to grant recipients, the order says federal agency heads are to identify grant programs which they may, as a condition of award, require grantees to certify they will not use federal funds to promote concepts such as “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex or race” or that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”
Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, an organization whose membership includes chief diversity officers across hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities, said there seems to be a disconnect in terms of the intent of diversity, equity and inclusion training and how some people perceive the work.
“It’s an essential component of creating inclusive campuses, and that’s by providing learning experiences,” she said. “It’s not our goal to raise sex stereotypes or race stereotypes. It’s not intended to shame or blame in ways I think are articulated in that executive order.”
Still, that misguided interpretation, seemingly endorsed in the president’s order, may have a “chilling effect on the essential work that needs to be done to better educate, certainly, our campus community on what it means to live in a global society,” she said.
When people are asked to confront their ideologies and beliefs, “the expectation is that there will be discomfort,” she said.
A Sept. 24 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted that it was unclear whether colleges and universities receiving federal grant funding would have to halt all programs that violate the order, or simply agree not to use grant funding to pay for them. The U.S. Department of Education, which issues the majority of grant funding to community colleges, did not respond to an inquiry from The Southern on Friday.
Matt Berry, spokesman for the Illinois Community College Board, which oversees Illinois community colleges and serves as intermediary for much of the federal grant funding that is passed on to them, said the agency has not received any guidance from the Education Department regarding the order. The agency also has not spoken on the matter to Illinois colleges.
“We’re not, as a state agency, coming down on any of the colleges discouraging equity activities or training or diversity,” Berry said. “We’re looking at the opposite — how to increase it.”
Trump targets higher education
The president’s order does not specifically reference colleges and universities in terms of compliance, though targets them for teaching ideologies the president decries as offensive and anti-American. As part of a long narrative, the order says that “thanks to the courage and sacrifice of our forebears,” the U.S. has made significant progress toward realization of its national creed expressed in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This has been especially true in the 57 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” during the 1963 March on Washington, the order says.
“Today, however, many people are pushing a different vision of America ... rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans,” the order continues.
The presidential order also cites several examples of recent trainings that Trump found offensive, such as one offered by the Department of Treasury, promoting such arguments as “virtually all White people, regardless of how ‘woke’ they are, contribute to racism” and instructing leaders to discourage narratives that Americans should be more color-blind.
“Such ideas may be fashionable in the academy,” the order says, “but they have no place in programs and activities supported by Federal taxpayer dollars.”
Diversity experts contend the ideology of “color blindness” can be used to discredit the unique lived experiences of people of color in America, including discrimination they may face, and that it is more appropriate to acknowledge and seek to understand differences while celebrating diversity. As for King, the celebrated nonviolent protestor who was assassinated in 1968, many civil rights historians point out that his more radical views on the need for economic reform to achieve racial equality are often overlooked.
House said he had not read the president’s order in its entirety and couldn’t say for sure how the college would ensure compliance, such as if diversity training or guest speakers would be disallowed from discussing white privilege by name, or the concept generally. He also said the decision to suspend activities should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the order; House said he has no opinion on its merits, but believes it must be followed.
“We do not believe it’s in our best interest to violate an executive order whether it comes from the governor or the president or any governing body,” he said. “We want to be in compliance. We don’t want to be in noncompliance and so that’s what we’re trying to figure out at this point and we haven’t done so yet.”
SIU waiting for more guidance
SIU, on the other hand, has decided not to take any immediate action. Under the direction of President Dan Mahony, the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses were both directed to create or revive anti-racism task forces, and his office has sponsored a series of virtual conversations on equity and inclusion.
Mahony has also called for a broad examination of systemic racism on campus, including the review of hiring and promotion policies and practices, retention efforts, student recruitment and educational approach. In a letter to the SIU community during the summer, he said every student who graduates should leave with an “understanding of systemic racism and its impact.”
Rae Goldsmith, spokeswoman for SIU’s Carbondale campus, said the university is taking a close look at the order, but isn’t making changes “until there is greater clarity on how it applies to colleges and universities, and how the higher education community will respond collectively.”
Darrell Wimberly, dean of students and a coach at Marion High School, one of the organizers of Monday’s canceled virtual forum titled “10 Rules for Dealing with the Police,” said he didn’t have any hard feelings toward John A. Logan College about its decision.
But he also didn’t want to wait for the college’s permission to reschedule it. It has been moved to Oct. 13. Each member of the panel will participate from their own location, and it will be broadcast via Zoom, Wimberly said.
Wimberly said he helped organize the event through his association with Connect 360, a youth-focused, community-based organization. The program, he said, is geared toward youth aged 16 to 25, who plan to tune in from various locations, including Marion High, Boyton Street Community Center, Paul’s Chapel Baptist Church, and Refuge Temple Church of God in Christ in Marion.
Wimberly said the presentation, which features a number of retired and former officers, is in no way anti-police or intended to place blame. Instead, he envisions it opening up a dialogue between young people and law enforcement. He’s already received more than 150 questions from expected youth participants wanting more information about how to respond if they are pulled over. “If we can help impact one relationship between an officer and our community, it will be worthwhile,” he said.
Barrios said his invitation to speak at John A. Logan College next week was in honor of National Hispanic Awareness Month. He titled his virtual presentation “Reflections of Hispanic and Latinx identity in a time of upheaval.”
SIU professor calls for critical reflection
Last week, in expressing his dismay with JALC’s decision to cancel his talk, Barrios wrote on his personal Facebook page that “ethics are something that cannot be afforded.” “A person or institution either has them or they do not,” his post continued. “In the face of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny, it is the role of higher education institutions to be an ethical beacon of our nation, not fall in line with executive orders meant to politicize education.”
Barrios told The Southern that he had planned to discuss his time growing up as a Ladino in Guatemala, where he was considered part of the privileged class, and relate that to the concept of white privilege in America. Ladino people in Guatemala are often of mixed Indigenous and European descent, but tend to identify more with European and Northern American culture. They are known to discriminate against Indigenous people, Barrios said.
“The types of privileges that I grew up with as a Ladino were kind of seamless for me. I just thought that everybody benefited from these kinds of structures of class and race, and I didn’t understand that other people — or even if I understood it — I didn’t think about what it would be like to be a person who didn’t have these privileges,” he said.
The experiences he’s had as a minority living in the U.S. caused him to reflect on inequities he unconsciously perpetuated in Guatemala. Barrios said nothing in his talk was anti-American or intended to shame or stereotype white people. Rather, he wanted students and other listeners to reflect on how his experiences may relate to their own lives.
“All humans have the capacity to do wonderful things, but also very painful things,” he said. “One of the things I always like to emphasize is we have to have a critical appreciation for our own identities to understand that we can certainly have pride in who we are, we can take value in our history and our genealogies, but we must also critically reflect on the various levels of power, and what we can do to promote equity within our communities.”
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI