College walks back mandatory race segregated orientation

A mandatory orientation activity required students at one Oregon college to list their race, in order to break them up into groups.

The school claims that the characterization of this as "segregation" is "misleading."

Students at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon were required to list their racial identity for mandatory orientation and then segregated into different groups based on their race. When the Foundation for Individuals Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a letter to the school warning them of segregation being morally and legally wrong, Lewis & Clark College claimed that the event wasn’t mandatory.

In a New Student Orientation schedule  sent to first-year students, Lewis & Clark College listed several days of orientation programming, including a “mandatory” event titled, “Engage in Racial Justice With Portland’s Race Talks: A Virtual Event.” 

“Why is Oregon so white? What does anti-racist activism look like in Portland? Join Student Leadership and Service and RACE TALKS to learn and dialogue about race and place,’ read the event description.

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RACE TALKS is a group whose stated mission is, “to support interracial and cross-cultural communication and relationships through the development of sensitivity and understanding, and social justice activism supported by educational panels / or films, good food, and great discussions.”

Students had to register for the event and were required to provide their name and email address as well as their “identified race” and “preferred pronouns.” The description for choosing your identified race stated, “For our facilitated discussion, we will be separating into Affinity Breakout Rooms based off of your identified race. Please choose how you identify.”

According to an investigation FIRE, the options for students to pick from for identified race were white, black, or indigenous. The students were separated into different breakout rooms via Zoom based on their race.

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FIRE reports that students were separated into Zoom breakout rooms by race.

A professor at Lewis & Clark had emailed college president Wim Wiewel about his concern with the segregation of students at this event but never received a response back. FIRE later sent a letter to Wiewel after the professor reported his concerns to them.

“To provide differing educational experiences to students on the basis of their race is not only unconscionable but also unlawful. The legal and regulatory prohibitions on such a practice are considerable.” FIRE stated in their letter to Wiewel.

“The requirement that Lewis & Clark students identify their race for a mandatory orientation program and the division of those students into separate groups based on race contravenes the college’s promises and obligations under the law, ultimately reducing students to the sum of their blood and ancestry.”

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Lewis & Clark responded back to the letter sent by FIRE, stating that the event wasn’t mandatory even though the schedule specifically listed the event as such.

“The session was ‘mandatory’ in the sense that new students are expected to participate fully in NSO, although some students do miss individual sessions and there are no consequences for doing so. In fact, some students did opt out of this session, or left before it concluded. Attendance is not taken and participation in NSO events has no impact on students’ academic standing”

The letter also stated that the events were put together last minute due to the pandemic, and they will make it more clear to students next time that it is optional to participate in these events.

“In the future, if affinity groups are to be part of such a session, we will be clearer that it is optional and that students can accomplish the session objective in a different manner. Whether or not we will even include such a session in NSO in future years is uncertain, given that some of the NSO events this year were planned at the last minute due to the pandemic, with new remote events taking the place of the traditional schedule.”

Lewis & Clark College Director of Public Relations Roy Kaufmann told Campus Reform that the school chose this event because of COVID-19. He admitted that students were asked to select the race with which they identify for the activity, but noted that the group reconvened at the end of the session. 

“This session was provided in place of the community service-type event that is generally included in NSO, but which was not feasible due to COVID. As part of this particular session, students were asked to self-select an affinity group, based on the racial group with which they identify, for smaller group discussions. All participants then came back together to wrap up the session,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman also stated that the school found FIRE’s characterization of the event as “segregation” to be “misleading.” 

“Overall, the student evaluations of the session were positive, although it’s clear that at least one faculty member, and perhaps some students and other community members as well, have concerns about the session," Kaufman added. "We will be evaluating whether to have such sessions in the future, and we will make clear, if we do so, that breaking into affinity groups is optional.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @mn_turn