Two months ago, I received a campuswide email that left me speechless. The mass email asked me to participate in Georgetown University’s first Cultural Climate Survey, meant “to deepen our community’s understanding” of diversity and inclusion on campus. As I read the email, I recalled an incident from nearly three years ago: while hurrying to class as a junior at Georgetown in 2017, friends suddenly bombarded my phone with messages. Swastikas had been painted in the elevator of a residence hall and carved into a bathroom stall, along with messages threatening violence against women. At the time, I was shocked by the repulsive acts of antisemitism. Now, I am appalled by the university’s lackluster response.
In the weeks following the incident, Georgetown appeared genuinely concerned. University President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) stated in a campuswide email that the act was abhorrent, that the university stood in solidarity with the Jewish community and that those found responsible would be held accountable. Community and religious leaders even organized a teach-in to discuss hate speech and violence against minorities.
But then the attention dropped off and seemingly so did the university’s efforts to combat hate. The Cultural Climate Survey left me wondering, what had Georgetown been doing for the past three years before finally asking students how they felt about the cultural climate?
When I reached out to the university in early April about its response to hate speech on campus since 2017, I received a boilerplate response. In an email, Manager of Media Relations Ruth McBain asserted the university had “not only worked to respond to the incidents, but also to prevent future ones through extensive dialogue aimed at fostering an inclusive community.”
As McBain noted, the university has several programs intended to foster inclusivity. However, these initiatives rely on voluntary attendance. In the platED initiative, students attend dinners and discuss social identities such as gender, ability, religion and race. While admirable, the elective platED initiative had only 165 student participants from 2017 to 2018. Georgetown’s undergraduate student body alone tops 7,000 students. I doubt whether the person who scrawled swastikas in the residence halls was one of the 165 participants. Opt-in initiatives, like the one championed by McBain, fail to reach exactly those who need to hear the message most.
In order to combat hate speech on campus, Georgetown must develop a single mandatory class for new students with a uniform curriculum that asks students to think critically about issues of diversity, prejudice and hate. The course should give students a foundational understanding of social identities, knowledge of how bias develops and tools to constructively manage conflict. The class must be taught by professionals who specialize in race and diversity dialogues.
This new diversity course would supplement Georgetown’s rather vague diversity requirement. As some students have already pointed out, Georgetown’s standing requirement does not prepare students to navigate complex social matters of race and diversity in their own lives. Courses that count toward the requirement, such as “Chaucer and the 14th Century” and “American Gothic Fiction,” often fail to provide targeted learning about diversity and hate. A new mandatory course must focus solely on giving students the tools to understand bias, explore social identity and engage productively in dialogue.
Georgetown need not craft this course out of thin air. The University of Michigan’s Program on Intergroup Relations has reported 90% of participants in its courses and workshops felt they could better understand the perspectives of others. Participants also practiced collaboration across differences and reflective learning. Georgetown should look to the Program of Intergroup Relations’ introductory course for inspiration to create its own.
The window to build a comprehensive campus response is shrinking, as white supremacist hate rises across the country. Hate groups such as Identity Evropa and Patriot Front have already identified university settings as an opportunity to grow their ranks. Their messaging increasingly resembles professional branding and their recruiting efforts have grown for the third straight year.
This deadly ideology has already gained traction among young adults and resulted in violence. During the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., a 20-year-old white supremacist drove his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and underscoring the potential lethality of white supremacist propaganda. Given trends, Georgetown cannot afford half measures, the potential cost of which may be paid in lives.
A mandatory diversity course will not be a magic pill for deradicalizing students already embedded in hate groups. Indeed, it’s not meant to be. Rather, the course may help prevent radicalization on campus by building social ties based on trust and by strengthening community resistance to radicalization.
It’s time for Georgetown to put its money where the president’s email is. Georgetown must invest in qualified professionals and establish a mandatory diversity course. Certainly, this new initiative will have growing pains. However, the mandatory class would help create a more caring, empathetic student body invested in social justice and countering hate. If Georgetown continues its complacent response, it will be to blame for continued campus hate.
Sofia Gomez is a first-year graduate student in the Security Studies Program.