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WHEN DIVERSITY TRAINING GOES
WRONG: A CASE STUDY ANALYSIS OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE RESIDENTIAL
EDUCATION PROGRAM
Brian C. Johnson
In an increasingly global and interconnected world, it is necessary for corporations and
educational systems to develop mechanisms for community members to enhance multicultural
competencies related to diversity including race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity,
sexual orientation, age, religion, and the like. Some people internalize anger, fear,
contempt, and guilt about these issues. As a result, people express their feelings in unhealthy
and unproductive ways in school and in the workplace. The solution often is to provide
diversity training or sensitivity training. This case study analysis utilizes Kaufman’s systemic
thinking model to examine what went wrong when one university attempted to implement
a yearlong intensive diversity training program that brought national media attention and
a potential lawsuit against the university, ultimately resulting in a dramatic shift in the
university’s out-of-classroom experiential learning policies.

INTRODUCTION
A student’s freshmen year of college is often described
as one of excitement, fun, and new beginnings as students transition from high school on a path toward their
chosen careers. The selected university promises a wide
variety of academic and cocurricular programs designed
to prepare students for lives of achievement, leadership,
and service and to help them to develop the competencies
necessary to be marketable and hirable after graduation.
The preparation is to include learning the cross-cultural
skills that empower students to live and work in a global
and interconnected society. Imagine, then, having that
first semester experience marred by a series of campus
educational programs that brought national press coverage and potential lawsuits against the university, with
freshmen students embroiled in the center of the fracas.
Such was the case in the fall of 2007 when the University

of Delaware came under fire for a series of educational
programs focused on diversity.
This case study utilizes Kaufman’s systems thinking
(1972, 2006) as a formula to evaluate the educational programs focused on diversity of the residential life program
of the University of Delaware. Utilizing publically accessible materials from the university website, student and
local newspapers, and the website of the Foundation for
Individual Rights in Education, which was a local advocacy
organization that took issue with the university’s educational
offerings, this case study provides an examination of what
went wrong, but also suggests that the university’s attempts
were planned with a systemic and systematic system.

ABOUT THE UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE
Celebrating such famous alumni as the sitting Vice
President of the United States, Joe Biden, the University of
Performance Improvement, vol. 54, no. 6, July 2015
International Society for Performance Improvement
Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) • DOI: 10.1002/pfi.21488
©2015

13

Delaware has a sprawling campus in Newark. The university offers a broad range of degree programs: three associate
programs, 147 bachelor’s programs, 119 master’s programs,
54 doctoral programs, and 15 dual graduate programs.
According to the university’s website, the current student body encompasses more than 17,000 undergraduates, more than 3,600 graduate students, and nearly 800
students in professional and continuing studies from
across the country and around the globe. (University of
Delaware, n.d.d, para. 4). In late 2007, according to the
Office of Institutional Research, the full-time undergraduate population numbered above 15,000 students.
It is a predominantly White institution; the number of
White students attending University of Delaware far
outweighed the number of African, Latino/a, Asian, and
Native American students, with a population of more
than 12,000 White students. Women numbered nearly
60% of the student population. The Newark campus is
the flagship institution of the University of Delaware
system; there are also campuses in Wilmington, Dover,
Georgetown, and Lewes, Delaware.

THE PROBLEM
The homepage of the Office of Residence Life and
Housing begins with the idea that the mission of the
office is to “partner with students to create welcoming, vibrant, and inclusive residence hall communities”
(University of Delaware, n.d.c, para. 1). The website
continues by sharing hopes “that students do more than
simply live in our halls, but rather take the opportunity
to also learn and engage as they develop as citizens and
leaders” (para 1). Armed with this commitment, the
department embarked upon the first phase of what was
to be an educational model that would provide diversity
education for all students within the residence halls.
The project was to be piloted in Russell Hall, one of the
dormitories for first-year student housing. The student
paraprofessional staff, known as resident assistants, were
to provide sociocultural education for their peers on
issues of diversity and oppression. The resident assistants
held floor meetings where all residents were expected to
attend these programs; if a student missed a program, the
resident assistant had to conduct a one-on-one interview
with the student to make sure that all of the students were
getting the required information.
It was the content and method of implementation of
these programs that caused many student participants
difficulties. According to newspaper accounts of student
interviews, these three-hour training sessions involved
several questionable practices (Clair, 2007):

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• Students were instructed to publicly write down all
the stereotypes of the ethnicities of other students on
poster boards around the room.
• Participants were asked to publicly identify their
stances on hot-button political issues such as gay
marriage and affirmative action. To answer these questions, students were instructed to move to one side of
the room or the other with no middle group.
• Resident assistants identified all White persons as racists based upon the definition from the University of
Delaware Office of Residence Life Diversity Facilitation
Training Manual, which indicated “the term applies to
all white people (i.e., people of European descent living
in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture, or sexuality)” (Butler, 2007, p. 3).
• In the one-on-one sessions, which were designed to
improve relationships between resident assistants and
their student peers, residents were asked prescribed
personal and intrusive questions such as “When were
you first made aware of your race?” or “When did you
discover your sexual identity?” Resident assistants had
to assess the students’ responses and give a written
report to their supervisors (Boccella, 2007).
Some offended students shared their misgivings with
their professors, including Dr. Jan Blits, a professor in
the school of education, who took umbrage with the
program as “a flagrant violation of students’ rights” and
“its appropriation of faculty prerogatives, and responsibilities” (Blits, 2010). Blits took this information to
the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a
Philadelphia-based advocacy group whose mission “is
to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s
colleges and universities. These rights include freedom
of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty,
and sanctity of conscience—the essential qualities of
individual liberty and dignity” (“Mission”, para. 1). The
Foundation sent a letter to the university president, Dr.
Patrick Harker, asking him to put an immediate censure
on the program. Within three days of receiving that letter, Harker suspended the controversial program via a
letter to the campus community, which was posted on
the university’s website. He insisted that the interruption of the program was not related to the Foundation
for Individual Rights in Education complaint, but that
“there were enough questions raised about the program,
in my mind, so that the best course of action was to stop
the program, to step back, and take a look at this. We’ll
have a faculty group, along with the administration, take
a deep look at this to make sure we’re doing it right”
(Case, 2007).

Most campuses see diversity
as a problem to be solved
rather than as an opportunity.
PRECIPITATING FACTORS
Higher Education Culture
Institutions across the country are addressing the subject
of diversity on campus. As the issue relates to recruitment,
access, retention to graduation, campus climate, and more,
the subject is also one of the most contentious. Most campuses see diversity as a problem to be solved rather than
as an opportunity.
Postsecondary educational institutions often possess
learning outcomes focused on integration of personal
ethical responsibility within the structures of academic
disciplines. Students leave the university with an understanding of academic integrity, research skills, and hopefully some level of intellectual growth, yet employers are
often dissatisfied with the interpersonal relationship skills
required for success in the professions (Dobbin, Kalev,
& Kelly, 2007). This lack of preparedness often results
from students’ lack of diversity engagement. One can talk
about diversity and why it is so important; but to really
understand the benefits of a diverse education, one must
truly experience diversity (Seaman, Beightol, Shirilla, &
Crawford, 2010). Institutional priorities should include
creating “global citizens” who possess vast knowledge of
complex multicultural competencies (Stearns, 2009).
Consistent with these ideals of preparing students for
the global society, the University of Delaware adopted
five “Guiding Principles” to shape their strategic plan:
The Path to Prominence. Two of the principles arguably
helped to shape the Residence Life planning:




Diversity. The University of Delaware will foster
a robust educational environment in which all
people are welcome and feel welcome—one
that supports critical thinking, free inquiry,
and respect for diverse views and values. As
a community, we will embrace diversity as an
integral and vital part of everyday life and a
cornerstone value of our University. (University
of Delaware, n.d.b para. 3)
Engagement. The University of Delaware will
engage students, faculty, staff, and alumni in
the most compelling social, cultural, artistic, and
scientific challenges of our age. It will place
itself among the world’s leading universities
by addressing such important matters as
environmental sustainability, social justice, and

alleviation of human suffering. (University of
Delaware, n.d.b, para. 5)

Culture of Assessment
As much as attention to diversity has become a benchmark
in American higher education, the topic of assessment has
certainly risen to the top of institutional priorities. The
development of cultures of assessment that measure both
student learning and institutional effectiveness is reflected
in the priorities of accrediting bodies like the Middle
States Commission on Higher Education. Assessments are
designed to lead and support the programs and services of
colleges and universities. Faculty and administrators are
expected to regularly evaluate themselves and to continuously improve their effectiveness based on the outcomes.
The University of Delaware, as an institution of higher
learning, is not exempt from the pressures and requirements of assessment. In fact, the Office of Residence
Life identified a comprehensive research agenda that was
presented to the professional staff in September 2006 and
updated in the early summer of 2007. In this report, the
writer identified the purpose of assessment as dictated by
the university’s Office of Educational Assessment website:
“The student outcomes assessment has one central goal,
which is to create a University of Delaware culture of
continuous academic improvement which is based upon
accountability and learning” (University of Delaware,
2007, para. 1). The Residence Life document insists that
having a full plan for assessment and evaluation would
validate the work of the department and justify the
departmental budget to the administration.
The Residence Life Research Agenda identified three
assessment priorities for the department, including the
development of eight complex-based yearlong assessment plans, the design and implementation of a first-year
baseline focused on social identity and views on oppression, and continuation of previous summative studies on
student civic engagement and sustainability. The present
case is borne out of the second initiative on social identity
and oppression. Assessment responsibilities for this priority were assigned to the assistant director for residential
education; this person was to coordinate, develop, and coimplement action research on related competencies for the
following learning goals:
1.

Understand how your social identities affect how
you view others.
a. Each student will understand their social identities which are salient in their day-to-day life.
b. Each student will be able to express an
understanding of how their social identities
influence their views of others.

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2.

3.

Understand how differences in equity impact our
society.
a. Each student will learn about the forms of
oppression that are linked with social identity
groups.
b. Each student will recognize that systemic
oppression exists in our society
c. Each student will recognize the benefits of
dismantling systems of oppression
Understand your congruence with citizenship
values:
a. Human suffering matters.
(University of Delaware, 2007, p. 9)

The Office of Residence Life and Housing research
agenda does acknowledge the “unfortunate reality” of
our “steep learning curve needs” (University of Delaware,
2007, p. 6) regarding assessment for diversity-related
learning outcomes. What complicates this even more is
that the need for assessment to fully justify and validate
their department puts added pressure to perform. Various
statements within the agenda place a high priority for
evaluation measures:
• “Student progress or lack of progress on the competencies as we have defined them [emphasis University of
Delaware] determines whether or not we are successful
as a department” (University of Delaware, 2007, p. 6).
• “If we hope to actualize this belief [about students
becoming intentional learners], it is incumbent upon
us to express the learning we seek to stimulate”
(University of Delaware, 2007, p. 7).
These provide examples of the insistence to accomplish these measures.

Addressing the “Steep Learning Curve”
Because of the stated inexperience with some of these
expectations, the Residence Life administrators hired
a consultant to help them with training the staff on
diversity-related education. The Residence Life Summer
School held diversity facilitation training in August 2007,
just two weeks prior to the start of the fall semester implementation. The trainer was Dr. Shakti Butler:
a multiracial African-American woman (African,
Arawak Indian, and Russian-Jewish) whose work as a
creative and visionary bridge builder has challenged
and inspired learning for over two decades. She
is the producer and director of groundbreaking
documentaries including The Way Home, Mirrors
of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, and Light
in the Shadows. Her latest film Cracking the Codes:
The System of Racial Inequity uses story, theater and
music to illuminate the larger frame of structural/
systemic racial inequity. Dr. Butler is executive director

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of World Trust Educational Services. She received
her doctorate from the California Institute of Integral
Studies in the School of Transformative Learning
and Change. She holds an MA in Guidance and
Counseling from Bank Street College of New York
and graduated magna cum laude from City College
of New York. (World Trust, n.d.).

Dr. Butler is widely known in multicultural education circles for her insistence on racial justice and equity work. She
is most known for her videos on unmasking White privilege.
Dr. Butler provided the summer school participants with
a training manual that would shape the fall educational
initiatives. In this manual, which only focused on matters
of race and racism with no other identity dimensions, the
“definitions and descriptions of racism” (Butler, 2007, p. 2)
provided nearly two full pages of harsh language towards
White persons, suggesting that all are racist and imperialistic oppressors. These definitions and the other included
material were highly inflammatory, but the Residence Life
staff of Russell Hall was required to use this information in
their educational programs and research assessment.

THE RUSSELL HALL PLAN
Pursuant to the directives of the Residence Life Research
Agenda, Sami Nassim, complex coordinator for Russell
Hall, developed the Russell Complex Curriculum: Designing
Educational Initiatives for Social Justice using “information gathered from national data on freshman populations developmental and educational needs, University
of Delaware General Education requirements, the
Department of Residence Life’s educational priority and
learning outcomes, the demographics of Russell freshmen,
and the results of the Russell 2006–2007 assessment”
(Nassim, 2007, p. 16). Taking data from the previous two
years coupled with the research agenda expectations,
Nassim, in the executive summary, promised that the
Russell staff would offer deep and significant learning
opportunities to students to “press incoming freshmen
to move past the surface-level understanding of power
and privilege (2007, p. 1). The complex curriculum would
center on “guiding our students through a journey of self
reflection on their own and personal and social identities,
prompting them to reflect on issues of oppression of self
and others, fostering conversations to develop empathy
toward diversity issues, and developing an action plan for
learning about other social identities” (Nassim, 2007, p. 1).
These goals would be accomplished through floor meetings and activities and personal interviews conducted by
the resident assistant student staff, who in turn would rate
the students’ progress on multicultural competencies.

The expectation that these
inexperienced students could
or should lead these activities
is at the heart of the human
performance question of this
case. An additional question
arises whether the Residence
Life department overstepped
its bounds when it attempted
to “educate” students without
the approval of faculty, who
are charged with this area of
university governance.
The 2007–2008 curriculum design by Nassim outlined
seven areas of emphasis that were “directions for new
strategies” (2007, pp. 15–16) for implementation that fall
semester:
1. Emphasizing issues of sexual identity and ability. Previous student responses indicated students were least
comfortable with these two dimensions.
2. Developing assessment tools and clarifying assessment
strategies. These were designed to assist in filling in
evaluation gaps for the mid-year report.
3. Addressing students’ cognitive dissonance. Previous survey results suggest students deflect blame of oppression, arguing it as a societal issue rather than a personal one. The fall initiatives “should be reviewed to
ensure that students are prompted to take ownership
of their privilege and oppression” (p. 15)
4. Promoting students taking action. There was a stark
difference between students’ verbalized willingness to
“stand up against hate crimes” and their likeliness to
confront negative behavior. Activities would encourage students to stand up for issues of social justice.
5. Developing strategies to foster student empathy toward
oppressed social groups.
6. Providing opportunities for shared learning about each
others’ differences.
7. Tying in issues of sustainability. This provided an opportunity to extend student learning to goals and

outcomes beyond the first year and in other residential
living complexes.
The 68-page document establishes that the resident
assistants would be doing much of the facilitation of these
programs and initiatives, while acknowledging these new
directions and activities were “thus never experienced by
the RAs” (Nassim, 2007, p. 28). The expectation that these
inexperienced students could or should lead these activities is at the heart of the human performance question
of this case. An additional question arises whether the
Residence Life department overstepped its bounds when
it attempted to “educate” students without the approval
of faculty, who are charged with this area of university
governance. This was the primary concern of Blits and
several other colleagues (Blits, 2010). In a network such
as an institution of higher learning, understanding issues
from a systems approach can be very effective.

SYSTEMS THINKING
In his book Strategic Planning Plus: An Organizational
Guide, Kaufman (1992) describes the processes by
which an organization can accomplish long-term institutional change. Recognizing the complexity of organizations such as colleges and universities, Kaufman
suggests that managers and administrators examine
both internal and external realities that affect and shape
the campus culture. He suggests that significant and
lasting change requires more than trendy solutions; it
requires data-driven approaches that have been vetted
over time. His system thinking model argues that planning is “most successful when the right needs, visions,
and missions have been first identified and selected”
(Kaufman, 1992, p. viii). This idea describes three levels
of planning as a focus for action:
• Mega. Described as a panoramic view of the organization (often referred to as a strengths, weaknesses,
opportunities, and threats analysis) (Kaufman &
Stakenas, 1981; Kaufman & Watkins, 2000)
• Macro. This level examines the organization as the
sum of its parts (Kaufman, Guerra, & Platt, 2005)
• Micro. Micro planning focuses on individuals within
the organization, their roles and functions, and personal skills and knowledge.
In an earlier work, Kaufman (1972) argued that educational institutions could most benefit from reform measures that offered systemic and systematic approaches to
education. He argued that the “major purpose of a system
analysis is to identify the requirements for problem solving and possible ways to accomplish each requirement”

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(Kaufman, 1972, p. 52). This approach, Kaufman (1972)
suggested, should include determining educational needs;
examining the institutional mission; identifying the functions or jobs that must be done to accomplish that
mission, as well as the specific units of performance necessary, such as requisite tools, human resources, locations,
and so on; and performing a “methods-means” analysis
(p. 118) to examine any possible strategies or vehicles for
accomplishing the plan. Later, he would argue for “doing
what you’ve planned” (p. 130) and “planning what you
do” (p. 138).

CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Overall, the University of Delaware’s Residence Life office
developed an exemplary plan for increasing students’
knowledge, awareness, and skills (Pedersen, 2000) around
diversity issues in the first year. From a systems approach,
they recognized the interrelatedness of their venture and
attempted to tie their programs to the mission of the
institution, the general education outcomes of the university, and requirements of external constituencies like
their accrediting bodies. The decisions did not appear to
be random, but as a result of data analysis over a two-year
period. The curriculum was developed with support from
an expert in the field (Stolovitch, 2000) and followed a
process that Kaufman (2005) would probably suggest
as congruent with his six-step problem-solving process:
assess needs, analyze needs, select means, implement, and
evaluate (2005).
While the general planning was consistent with a
holistic assessment, these factors negatively affected the
experience:
1. The use of inexperienced undergraduate resident assistants. Clearly, these students were placed in an untenable and perhaps unethical position that they were
not developmentally prepared to perform. To ask these
students to lead workshops and other learning activities
and to assess their peers and provide written summaries
to their employers was a gross miscarriage of their roles
as students and mentors. It is important to note that
these initial programs and assessments began occurring
a mere two weeks after the initial training period.
2. No faculty involvement in the development of the curriculum. The Russell Complex Curriculum calls for the
administrative staff to “focus on designing and delivering an intentional, sequential, and outcome-based
out-of-class education” (Nassim, 2007, 3). By the standards of the institution, it is the faculty’s responsibility
to govern curricular matters, yet no faculty members were consulted. The complexity of these issues

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required the expertise of faculty members in appropriate disciplines.
3. Bias and stereotyping of participants in the needs assessment. The plans for the 2007–2008 Russell curriculum
were based upon data of population samples from the
previous two years. The findings of the surveys and
qualitative interviews, then, reflect the needs of students who would no longer be involved in the implementation process. The curriculum developers made
biased assumptions of the “traditional” Russell Complex residents’ prior levels of knowledge or competency in matters related to diversity, oppression, and social
justice. They could have surveyed the incoming class to
better tailor interventions to their particular needs.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE
RESEARCH
As the systems approach utilizes an analysis, design,
development, implementation, and evaluation model of
summative evaluation, this writer highly recommends a
review of this case study utilizing a front-end analysis as
a manner of addressing the full range of stakeholders who
may need to be a part of the discussion. Upfront analysis
may reveal not only a need for faculty involvement, but
also the identification of other important stakeholders.

CONCLUSION: THE CURRENT STATE
OF AFFAIRS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF
DELAWARE
Residence Life has since remodeled its own research
agendas and educational programming; the updated
curriculum does not “include a specific diversity component” (Shannon, 2008, 3). A university-wide task
force was charged in late 2008 with assessing campus climate in 2009 and making recommendations for further
work. Their 2011 report indicated recommendations for
recruitment of students, faculty, and staff of various constituent groups and an inhospitable atmosphere for nonheterosexual students and some racial minority groups.
How to both increase diverse populations and educate
all students for diversity and global awareness continues to plague the campus of the University of Delaware.
According to the 2011 Middle States report, the reviewers indicated “UD is not diverse in either absolute or
relative terms. With few exceptions, we believe that the
university trails its peers in every measure of diversity
in every constituency of the institution” (Cohon et al.,
2011, 8).

References
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BRIAN C. JOHNSON is an instructor at Bloomsburg University and a PhD candidate in communications
media at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He co-authored Reel Diversity: A Teacher’s Sourcebook
(2008). He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]

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