For many of the students she teaches, Dr. Sami Schalk is the first out queer professor they’ll have. She said her students take notice.
“There are a lot of students who share identities with me who feel really seen and supported by me being here,” said Schalk, an associate professor in the UW-Madison Department of Gender and Women’s Studies.
To her, that experience represents the impact and value of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the classroom.
Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos — who works blocks from Schalk’s classroom — views DEI programs as divisive and an “institute of indoctrination” in the UW System.
Vos and other Republican state lawmakers for months have rallied against DEI programs. As part of their efforts to strip funding from university DEI programs, Republicans cut $32 million cut in UW System funding in June and later blocked UW employees from receiving pay raises approved in the latest two-year state budget.
Despite how Republican lawmakers view DEI initiatives, UW System leaders and University of Wisconsin-Madison professors like Schalk continue to highlight the importance of DEI initiatives on campus.
That includes Dr. Ramzi Fawaz, who said conversations that happen in humanities classrooms are the “opposite of divisive."
“I think that Vos is saying ‘it’s divisive just to even talk about differences publicly.’ But that’s absurd because nobody is exactly like anyone else, and we have to learn how to negotiate our differences in a democratic society” Fawaz said. "In other words, Vos and his supporters want to stop us from discussing the basic realities of everyday life with our students, which is just delusional.”
Professor calls crusade against DEI ‘self-destructive’
UW System diversity programs aim to cultivate inclusive and supportive learning and working environments that reflect diverse backgrounds, according to UW’s Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging.
Fawaz, a Romnes Professor of English at UW-Madison, views DEI initiatives as having universal benefits for students.
As a queer Arab-American, Fawaz said he feels “privileged” that he can create space for his students to “negotiate our differences in a loving way that encourages our collective flourishing.”
“Ultimately, [DEI] doesn’t only serve underrepresented students,” Fawaz told The Daily Cardinal. “Part of what DEI infrastructure does is it creates the tools for all students to recognize what difference is in various contexts and to be able to respond to it in really complex, non-violent, and ethical ways.”
Fawaz said asking universities to “teach delusional thinking” means Republican lawmakers want the university to go against its mission.
“The reality is that people are different from one another. That's just a fact,” Fawaz said. “Part of what we do in our classes is we study that reality and develop the imaginative capacity to reach out to others across our differences so we can commune freely."
Fawaz said he thinks the crusade against diversity efforts on campus is “self-destructive” and “a way to dehumanize people in the name of a false unity.”
Genuine unity, he said, isn’t created by ignoring or “masking differences,” but rather by supporting and nourishing spaces to “discourse about them in a loving, ethical, and insightful way,” like the humanities classroom.
Cutting DEI could put UW at odds with federal law, professor says
Fawaz is not alone in his sentiment. To Schalk, DEI is about “creating an environment that is more welcoming and accepting.”
Schalk said DEI initiatives on campus can bridge structural gaps to provide support to promote equity for all groups on campus.
She specifically cited what DEI initiatives do for faculty, staff and students with disabilities on campus. For people with disabilities, Schalk said positions included under DEI go beyond ADA guidelines to provide more resources and better support those with disabilities.
The ADA is federal law, Schalk explained, and university compliance with it is non-negotiable.
“I think that some of these positions, if they were cut, would risk us violating federal law by not having enough support for faculty, staff and students with disabilities,” Schalk said.
DEI ties into broader educational goals
While UW System President Jay Rothman suggested some UW campuses “shift away” from liberal arts programs to address budget shortfalls, both Schalk and Fawaz stressed the importance of conversations that happen in humanities classrooms and the role they play in higher education.
“In some ways, humanities education is one of the last places that young people get to talk about the real difficulty and struggle of what the world is, and what we hope it will be,” Fawaz said.
Fawaz added that humanities professors are asked to do a lot of “therapeutic work” on top of teaching. DEI programs help evenly distribute the emotional labor professors often navigate, he said.
“It’s a huge amount of work we’re being asked to do, including tending to students' interior or psychic lives during a period of huge mental health crisis” Fawaz said. “To eliminate [DEI] actively devalues humanities educators at the very same time that we’re also being asked to teach entire generations of youth about the most inspiring and transformative aspects of our society including art, culture, history and ethics.”
“We are in some sense the last opportunity students get to train for participating in democratic life,” Fawaz said.
Schalk also discussed the emotional labor expected of professors, especially professors of color. Without the “structural support” DEI initiatives provide, she worried the university would struggle to retain queer faculty and faculty of color.
“There are plenty of people who are often the only Black person in the department, the only queer person in the department,” Schalk said.
While Schalk said she feels supported by her department colleagues, she noted that gender and women’s studies is more diverse than the average department.
What’s more, Schalk said faculty members aren’t the only people who see the effects of wavering institutional support for diversity.
“[It] matters to the students that faculty and staff are supported,” she said.
Anna Kleiber is an arts editor for The Daily Cardinal. She also reports on state politics and campus news. Follow her on Twitter at @annakleiber03.