After backlash, Stanford takes down diversity training memo that followed Trump order

Nov. 17, 2020, 10:30 p.m.

Stanford released and later withdrew a memo outlining modifications that departments should make to diversity training programs, including prohibiting references to structural racism and unconscious bias, to comply with an executive order. 

The memo, which drew swift backlash from professors and alumni — some of whom alleged that its restrictions went farther than the executive order required — was prematurely made public and has since been taken down, according to University spokesperson Dee Mostofi.

The memo followed a Sept. 22 Trump administration executive order titled “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” which prohibits federal contractors and federal grant-funded programs from using “blame-focused” diversity training that employs “divisive concepts” and stereotypes groups based on race or sex. While government agencies have modified their practices to comply with the order, many of Stanford’s peer institutions have not modified their diversity training programs.

The memo comes as Stanford has moved to expand its diversity training initiatives and affirmed its commitment to combating anti-Black racism. In June, the University established the Center for Racial Justice at Stanford Law School and announced that it was hiring 10 new faculty members to study the impact of race in America. Earlier this year, the law school voted to require instructors to undergo diversity training as part of a new diversity, equity and inclusion initiative that uses language similar to the phrases prohibited under the University’s directive. 

The directive cautioned against the use of the phrases “system racism” and “racial humility” within training programs.

Mostofi wrote in an email to The Daily that the checklist was not reflective of the University’s efforts to build an inclusive workplace.

“While we must comply with all state and federal obligations, including the recent order, we do not intend to be dissuaded from our goal of squarely confronting racism and building a university culture in which everyone truly can thrive,” Mostofi wrote.

The checklist in the memo instructed faculty to evaluate whether their programs promote concepts prohibited under the order, including the idea that the U.S. is fundamentally racist or sexist. It listed examples of prohibited content, including the statement that “systemic racism exists at Stanford.” Independent discussions among employees about concepts that the order prohibits do not have to be modified as long as training programs do not endorse those concepts, according to the memo.

Mostofi did not respond to multiple requests for comment on whether the University plans to release an updated checklist and how the substance of the checklist may change. The order goes into effect on Nov. 21, at which point the government will be able to investigate whether Stanford is in violation. 

Since its issuance, civil rights groups, lobbyists and universities have criticized the executive order, saying that it violates First Amendment protections and dissuades organizations from addressing racial discrimination. On Oct. 17, the American Council on Education submitted a letter on behalf of more than 50 higher education associations — including Stanford — calling on the Trump administration to withdraw the order. The administration has not yet signaled any intent to reverse the order.

Stanford educators sharply criticized the University for the content of the memo, contending that the University was willing to sacrifice working toward racial justice to protect its federal funding and ensure compliance with the order.

“The expansive reading of the executive order — extending it materially beyond its plain text — and deeming of established scholarly work on ‘implicit bias’ as taboo suggests a troubling blind spot when it comes [to] race, speech, and law,” said law and political science professor Daniel Ho.

Other professors said the examples of prohibited content in the memo go beyond what is required by the order. Law professor Michele Dauber tweeted on Monday that “the examples, which are not part of Trump’s [executive order], go much further than Trump and give you a window into Stanford’s mindset.” 

She cited the restriction of the statement that “systemic racism exists at Stanford” as a “frightening” extension. Though the order prohibits training programs from asserting that the U.S. is fundamentally racist, it does not make mention of systemic racism or explicitly state that programs cannot make statements about racism within individual institutions.

Similarly, comparative literature professor David Palumbo-Liu tweeted that “if diversity training cannot use this language it [is] censorship, period.” He added that he is “appalled by Stanford’s unquestioning, knee-jerk acceptance” of the order.

Stanford General Counsel Debra Zumwalt told The Daily on Oct. 28, before the distribution of the directive, that the University did not plan to halt its efforts to advance inclusion and racial justice, including through training programs, in response to the order.

“I expect that most of our training programs will not need any changes to comply with the executive order,” Zumwalt said. “There might be a few where we would suggest making a few tweaks to the training.”

The memo states, however, that the requirements in the checklist apply to all diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training material. Zumwalt did not respond to requests for comment following the circulation of the directive.

Though the University has indicated that it intends to ensure compliance with the order, experts say it is highly probable that a Biden administration would rescind it. And it remains unclear whether the current administration will take a strict or permissive approach to enforcing the order, according to Vice Provost for Faculty Development, Diversity, and Engagement Matt Snipp.

“The executive order was very ambiguous in terms of what it seemed to say,” Snipp told The Daily on Oct. 25. “They issue executive orders for all sorts of things, and sometimes they have a huge impact and sometimes they have little to no impact.”

Even if the order is rescinded in the coming months or is not strictly enforced, students expressed concern about the message that the University is sending the Stanford community by complying. Mohammad Elmojtaba Gumma ’22, an Associated Students of Stanford University co-director of racial justice, said that the memo represented a “shameful lack of moral leadership” from the University.

“How can the University say that Black Lives Matter but in the same breath admit to an executive order that consolidates intellectual dishonesty and white supremacy?” Gumma said. “Systemic racism not only exists but also thrives at Stanford University — the memo makes this abundantly clear.”

This article has been corrected to reflect that the order goes into effect on Nov. 21. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Tammer Bagdasarian at tbag ‘at’

Tammer Bagdasarian '24 is an Executive Editor for The Daily, and is planning to major in Communication and Political Science. He previously served as a News Managing Editor. Contact him at tbagdasarian 'at'

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