May 7, 2021
Dear OU Community,
Despite our strong objection to it and advocacy against it, today Oklahoma House Bill 1775 was signed into law. This new law prohibits higher education institutions in Oklahoma from requiring students to engage in any form of mandatory gender or sexual diversity training or counseling, and from instituting an orientation or requirement for students that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping or a bias on the basis of race or sex. Although OU’s mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion training does not espouse superiority of one race or sex, its mandatory nature is impacted by the passage of this law. To comply with the law, students may now choose to opt out of the training, though we will strongly encourage them to still take it. The training is one of the many elements that reinforce our belief that the development and preparation of the whole student takes a multi-faceted approach. OU employees – including student employees – are still required to complete the training, along with other necessary and essential employee trainings, such as sexual harassment and workplace safety.
I have heard from some of our colleagues a concern that the new law also calls into question the sacrosanct matter of academic freedom. I do not believe the Oklahoma Legislature’s intent was to limit academic freedom or freedom of speech. Even if it were the intent, I do not believe such a measure would pass constitutional scrutiny. To our faculty, if that were ever to be in danger of occurring, let me assure you we would do everything in our power to ensure the continuance and full vitality of true academic freedom.
At the heart of our Strategic Plan is our purpose – We Change Lives – supported by five pillars that define what kind of university we want to be. Central to our purpose are our second and fourth pillars: Prepare students for a life of success, meaning, service, and positive impact; and Become a place of belonging and emotional growth for all students, faculty, staff, and alumni. In everything we do, we place the student and their experience first, crafting an intentional educational pathway that best equips them to enter society as leaders who understand the world around them and are able to navigate it with respect and dignity for all.
To that end, we have taken tangible steps to prepare our students to be the best leaders of tomorrow. In addition to our training, this coming fall we will introduce a pacesetting, general education course that we believe will be essential for each individual student, their future success, and their ability to impact society. The new class – “Gateway to Belonging at OU” – will serve as an essential introduction, or gateway, to our students’ futures. At its core, the class teaches critical thinking skills and supports students in developing a true understanding of others, as well as a sense of belonging at OU and beyond. It will be offered as a pilot to first-year and transfer students beginning in fall 2021.
A course like this will benefit more than the individual student. An anticipated outgrowth will be an improvement of our own campus climate. The likely broader impact a course like this can make will be seen in larger society – in the workplaces and communities that our graduates will join. These benefits speak to the importance of Gateway to Belonging at OU, for our students and their development, for our community and its health, and for society and its future.
In addition to Gateway to Belonging at OU, we will be adding two additional course options to a First-Year Experience General Education requirement. The other two courses, now in the early stages of development, are slated to be: Global Perspectives and Engagement, and Ethical Leadership Development. All three courses within the First-Year Experience offerings will share the course objectives of cultural fluency, critical thinking, civil discourse, citizenship, and community engagement. Students entering OU in the fall of 2022 will be required to complete one of these courses in their first year. We hope these new courses will help develop our students into people who know how to understand others not like themselves; engage in constructive, civil discourse; and to be open-minded while still holding strong convictions.
Our students’ success in making a difference in the lives of others depends upon their ability to engage with the broader world in a way that is understanding of all people and perspectives. With our available diversity, equity, and inclusion training and the First-Year Experience – coupled with the unparalleled OU experience – it’s our belief that our students will be better prepared for a life of meaning and positive impact.
Live On, University,
Joseph Harroz, Jr.