• Jack Davey

Univeristy Diversity Module Sparks Controversy

The University of St Andrews is facing severe criticism over the University’s diversity training. The Times, Daily Mail, and The Herald all covered the story with a Times editorial lambasting the University for following “absurd wokeist orthodoxy”. The controversy began on 1 October with a Times news article which focused upon a question in the University’s diversity training surrounding personal “guilt”. The final question of the diversity module reads: “‘Acknowledging your personal guilt is a useful starting point in overcoming unconscious bias’ Do you agree or disagree with this state- ment?” Students could then click whether they agree or disagree with the statement. The correct answer was “agree” with the rationale given being: “The best starting point is to accept that in general terms we are likely to be biased in some respects, and this will affect our actions and decisions. However, we should not feel guilty, but rather accept respon- sibility for our own behaviours.” The following day on 2 October, a Times editorial entitled “The Times’ View on the Bias Test at St Andrews University: Beyond all Reason” was published. The edito- rial condemned the test as “absurd wokeist orthodoxy” also stating, “Accusations of ‘unconscious bias’ sound like an injunction to abjure any opinions not considered accept- able by the box-ticking bureaucrats who compiled the questionnaire”. The editorial ended in excoriating fashion, saying that the university “ought to be ashamed of itself”. On 9 October, Joanna Blythman in The Herald called the diver- sity training a “thought crime test”. She went on to criticize the “denunciatory aspect to the St Andrews induction modules that is quasi-religious, redolent of medieval catechism.” She continued, “Advancement and acceptance are predicated on intoning what the arbiters of correctitude want to hear.”

The University responded emphatically, with a University spokesman saying, “The Times reports are inaccurate and misleading. These modules are not new and have been in place at St Andrews for several years.” The spokesman also specifically challenged The Times’ framing of the question surrounding personal guilt: “Students are categorically not asked to accept personal guilt, as per The Times report. In fact, the module states that no one should feel guilty about beliefs or attitudes which might support an unconscious bias.”

The University sent a letter to The Times in conjunction with the President of the Students’ Association; however, The Times chose not to publish this.

However, The Herald did publish a letter from Director of Communications at St Andrews, Niall Scott, as a response to the comment piece in the newspaper. He wrote, “In the current feverish rush to vent at anything that might appear vaguely woke, Ms Blythman and others have fixated on a single question which asks students to consider if acknowledging any feelings of personal guilt for uncon- scious bias is a good or a bad thing.” The letter continued, “The voices raised in anger against these modules are almost exclusively middle-aged and white, their university years are decades behind them, and minor considerations like the truth appear to be in the way of a good rant about the ‘latest craziness’.” Local MSP Willlie Rennie also came out in defence of the University telling The Saint that, "We know that many women, disabled people, older people, LGBTQ+ and people from ethnic minority backgrounds are far more likely to experience threats, harassment and violence which has left millions of people feeling unsafe on our streets.” Mr Rennie did not dwell on the question contained in the diversity test but did state that, "Students in St Andrews should be proud that they have led the way on this issue, helping shape the diversity programme that has now been in place for some time. The university's pioneering appointment of a sexual violence support worker, for example, shows that they are taking seriously their duty to root out this behaviour and keep students safe." This positivity was not shared across the political spectrum, with the former Universities Minister Chris Skidmore saying that diversity training was “an abuse of authority when students should be receiving support for their transition from school”. In St Andrews itself, the President of the Students’ Association, Lottie Doherty, also responded by tweeting, “These modules are included as part of matriculation because students have worked hard to get them there. They do not promote a specific agenda but raise awareness and provoke discussion about issues of sustainability, diversity, and consent. I can’t believe we’re still having debates about the necessity of conversations about consent and the importance of educating all people about consent — especially after everything that’s been in the news this week.” The Saint then interviewed Lottie to learn about the sabbatical's view on the furore. The Saint put a question from The Times editorial to the president: “What, one wonders, is the nature and scope of the ‘personal guilt’ which the average fresher, eager to begin his or her studies, is supposed to acknowledge?” The president responded, “I don’t really think that there’s a proper answer to that really. I think it’s whatever each sort of individual is feeling.” When asked if the average fresher had racial guilt, the president responded, “I don’t know, maybe they just haven’t thought about it before and maybe taking this module helps them realise it.” Pressed further on whether the student population, the majority being of white ethnicity, has personal guilt for the “crimes of history”, she said, “Yes. A lot of people do. I don’t think people should feel guilty, but you need to be aware of your guilt.” President of the Liberty Club and third-year student, Olivia Groom, told The Saint that, “The diversity training was not carried out in the most effective way and subjective choices were portrayed as objective facts.” When asked about the president’s claim that the modules are in place “because students have worked hard to get them there”, she replied, “There’s a certain type of person who’s involved with the university that the university listens to quite heavily, and a vast majority of students are not included in this category.” She also said, “Students shouldn’t be forced to comply to agree to subjective opinions in order to matriculate”. In this vein, questions have been raised about how compulsory this training is. When asked, a spokesperson from the University responded, “The modules are a mandatory part of matriculation which need to be completed in order to matriculate.” The modules may be compulsory, but the diversity training was explicitly asked for by the BAME Students’ Network in a report in June 2020. The report also stated that any diversity training made after its publication last summer would have to receive approval from the BAME Students’ Network. The report categorically confirmed that the module was mandatory and that students could not opt out, and that the aim was to promote “regular, active, deep engagement and dialogue”. The report said, “We hope the online module will be only the start of effective race and diversity training at the University.” The report continued by saying, “It is essential to make [diversity training] a primary part of the University system and our educational goals.” The University has grappled with diversity training over the past few years with one diversity training module being scrapped, with the BAME Students’ Network Report citing “appalling and highly problematic content”. Many students also took issue with a question last year which, as the BAME Students’ Network report described, asked: “Why is it important for you to be interested in equality and diversity?” The options for the possible answers included “it isn’t” and “because otherwise people might get angry with me”, but the correct answer was “workplaces are looking for staff who are aware of these issues”, directly implying that the sole purpose of such a training is for employment reasons. This alleged failure was at the heart of the new training questions which have created such controversy. The BAME Students’ Network pledged to try and include more similar diversity training for the next semester, although it is unknown how the furore will have im-pacted their recommendations. The BAME Students’ Network did not respond to requests for comment on the fallout from The Times’ article. Students are divided about how the Union and University deals with diversity training and discusses. Despite the affirmations of senior figures in the University and the Union, questions will remain about the nature and scope of compulsory diversity training.

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