At Northern Arizona University, a course titled Intersectional Movements of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality promises to analyze “how intersectionality, and the matrix of inequality, have shaped the production of knowledge” and to provide “a critical lens through which intersectional epistemologies can be foregrounded.” Another, Introduction to Queer Studies, covers “queer theory and activism,” the “social and historical construction of gender and sexuality,” and the “role of allies and social change.” Trans Existence and Resilience, meantime, promises to “examine trans epistemologies as well as critiques of Eurocentric models of thinking about genders that explain peoples’ existence within Western frameworks and ontologies.”
Each of these courses counts toward one of NAU’s two “diversity requirements,” which students must satisfy to complete their degrees. Now, NAU plans to take the requirements even further, mandating that students take four of such courses—a policy that the university’s own diversity-curriculum committee describes as “unprecedented.”
These new requirements follow a concerted effort on NAU’s part to weave diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) “into the fabric of the institution.” In a forthcoming case study for the National Association of Scholars, I explore how Arizona’s universities teach American history and civics. The study shows that, increasingly, civic education is simply overshadowed by DEI initiatives, which often provide a gloss on American history and politics using the watchwords of identity politics: oppression, systemic injustice, and intersectionality. NAU provides the most striking example.
NAU’s new General Studies Program, approved by the Arizona Board of Regents in October 2021, requires students to take four Diversity Perspectives courses, one in each of the following categories: Global Diversity, U.S. Ethnic Diversity, Indigenous Peoples, and Intersectional Identities. Meeting notes for the university’s Diversity Curriculum Committee even acknowledge the boldness of this move. “The 12 credits of diversity requirements,” the notes maintain, “are unprecedented and puts [sic] NAU at the forefront of higher education.”
These Diversity Perspectives courses must, moreover, embrace the philosophical underpinning of identity politics. According to notes from the university’s Liberal Studies Committee, foreign language courses fail to qualify for diversity designation. Why? “Because they do not incorporate critical theory which the [Diversity Curriculum Committee] expects of the courses it approves.”
By all indicators, every one of NAU’s Diversity Perspectives courses accomplishes the goal of “incorporating critical theory.” In addition to Intersectional Movements, Introduction to Queer Studies, and Trans Existence and Resilience, NAU’s fall 2022 diversity courses include such entries as Race, Power and Politics, Introduction to Indigenous Astronomy, and Multicultural Perspectives of Natural Resource Management. The description of Trans Existence and Resilience concludes by declaring, “In a world that says trans folks do not exist we will think about the relationship between art, futurity, expression, survival, freedom, and liberation.”
This onslaught of “critical theory” courses is consistent with efforts to transform NAU as a whole. In 2020, NAU released a Diversity Strategic Plan, declaring its aspiration to become a “True Diversity University.” It calls for far-reaching institutional policy changes—the whole gamut of tools at the DEI bureaucracy’s disposal, which will leave a lasting mark on curricula and faculty alike.
The plan promises to embed “diversity as an important component of learning outcomes,” “incentivize diversity-centered learning, service, scholarship, and work,” and “reward effective diversity-centered teaching in all disciplines.” Even after taking four Diversity Perspectives courses, NAU students will almost inevitably take many other courses with similar themes. The plan aspires to increase “courses including diversity-centered learning outcomes” by 20 percent, and it makes a goal of increasing the “number of students engaging in diversity-related, sponsored, or directed research opportunities across disciplines.” “Diversity-centered learning outcomes” is a slippery term, but the university has already shown that such language can carry ideological connotations.
Most consequentially, the Diversity Strategic Plan also promises to create an ongoing “diversity and inclusion” litmus test for employment. The university vows to “incorporate diversity-centered work, professional development, service, and research/scholarship in evaluation and promotion and tenure criteria in substantive and meaningful ways such that it is valued on par with other activities.” Such a tenure requirement would push faculty toward ideologically charged research and teaching, while strongly deterring any dissent against the prevailing orthodoxy on campus.
The Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees Arizona’s public universities, recently announced an American Institutions general-education requirement, essentially aimed at teaching traditional American history. Unfortunately, it’s far more likely that NAU’s nearly 29,000 students will learn American history and politics through the lenses of equity, critical theory, and intersectionality.