In December 2020, the Department of Health Behavior at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health hosted an ideologically charged faculty retreat. According to a slideshow, the event’s goals included “learn[ing] strategies for fostering antiracism in the classroom” and “reflect[ing] on how instructor positionality can impact teaching.” Other slides revealed what this means. One read simply, “Critical Race Theory and Teaching.” Another prompted faculty to consider “What questions about CRT do you have?” and, most tellingly, “What ideas do you have for how to integrate CRT in your teaching practice?”
The Health Behavior retreat was not a one-off event. It reflects the policies of the Gillings School—the nation’s top “public school of public health” and second-ranked nationally, its website reminds us. In July 2021, the school released its Inclusive Excellence Action Plan (IEAP), which aims to put “social justice” at the center of its curriculum and practice.
Mandatory training and curricular reforms figure prominently in the plan. One goal is to “develop, implement, and evaluate trainings, including strong antiracist and equity-driven components, for faculty, staff, TAs, and other members of the Gillings community.” The plan seeks to ensure that “all students graduate with the ability to apply social justice in their public health work.” In case there’s any ambiguity about what that means, the plan reiterates that the aim is “to require social justice and racial equity training at orientation, as part of the curriculum, and in the classroom.” The plan also includes one amusingly miswritten goal: “Racism, social justice and health equity are integrated throughout and across curricula.” One assumes that the plan’s creators meant anti-racism, though the error might be closer to the truth.
What does “health equity” look like at a school of public health? The plan notes its intent to help faculty to make courses “more equity-driven.” It highlights an Anti-Racist Planning Guide for Public Health Pedagogy, which the school will roll out along with “related trainings.”
Developed by a graduate student at Gillings, the planning guide espouses every anti-racism cliché. Racism, it claims, is everywhere, as “we have all been colonized and socialized in a white supremacist system.” Responding means challenging purportedly racist notions like the “idea that there is only one right way to do things”—which, as it turns out, “is a concept deeply rooted in white supremacy.” Likewise, “anti-fatness is deeply tied to anti-Blackness and is pervasive in public health research, policy and practice.” The guide also issues a strong warning against using too many texts written by white people (“when most of your course content elevates the voices of white people, you normalize white domination and hinder the growth of your students”); suggests that students should play a large role in dictating curriculum (“part of your job as an educator is to cater your course content to what students want to learn about”); and indicts standard grading practices (“traditional grading systems stifle creativity, imagination and critical thought, while encouraging habits of whiteness including stances of neutrality, objectivity and apoliticality”).
The guide carefully emphasizes that last point, on the purported racism of traditional grading. “Other habits of whiteness promoted by traditional grading practices also include an individualized, rational and controlled self, a focus on rule-governed, contractual relationships and a focus on clarity, order and control.” This echoes a strange tendency in anti-racist pedagogy—to attribute to “whiteness” characteristics unrelated to race, while deriding perfectly benign characteristics (clarity, order) as somehow dangerous or racist.
Faculty, especially those concerned with racial disparities, should dismiss this guide as unserious. Yet, the Gillings School’s Action Plan puts it on a pedestal. Likewise, the Department of Health Behavior’s Equity Action and Accountability Plan notes that the guide “provides some shared definitions/language that we will build upon” and “will help our faculty move their pedagogy forward.”
Meantime, the Gillings School is ratcheting up its other DEI efforts. Consistent with the indictment of testing, the IEAP proudly notes that “the GRE requirement for all Gillings graduate programs was dropped.” A page tracking progress toward the IEAP’s goals notes that the school has updated its “Appointment, Promotion and Tenure (APT) Manual to strengthen recognition for anti-racist and equity-focused research, practice, service, teaching and mentoring.”
As nearly two years of the Covid pandemic have demonstrated, public-health professionals play an important—and often invasive—role in our lives. If Gillings is any indicator, we should pay more attention to how these professionals are being educated.