Officials hope the programs will also help with recruiting and retention efforts.
Contact hypothesis is a theory that suggests contact between two different groups can lead to a reduction in prejudice and promote tolerance and acceptance. That’s one of the goals of the new diversity studies minor at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.
“You should not graduate from the university the same way that you came in,” says John Blue, executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion. “These classes should help transform these individuals that are actually taking part in the minor, helping them broaden their perspective and their mindset.”
The new 18-hour program allows students to combine courses from multiple disciplines. Students are required to take Introduction to Diversity Studies and Cultural Anthropology, followed by four more upper-level courses that have a diversity emphasis. Students can choose from more than 30 classes to build their degree emphasis, 17 of which will be offered in the spring.
UAFS is the first university within the University of Arkansas system to offer this type of general education course and Blue says he believes it’s the first-of-its-kind program in the region, which will be beneficial for recruitment and retention.
“This minor by itself actually separates us from every other institution on I-40,” Blue says. “I think this is a game changer.”
Professor of anthropology and sociology Dan Maher has been named coordinator of the program and says the diversity studies minor has been “a long time in the making.” A plan for the minor has been in the works for years, and the UA System Board of Trustees and the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board gave approval during the fall semester.
“We obviously live, and have for a long time, in a very diverse society and in a lot of ways I think the public conversation is catching up to the academic conversation and so that’s fantastic,” Maher says.
There’s a raised awareness about having the skills to interact with a variety of people and if students can learn them through this minor, that could help them in the workforce, he says. Maher plans to make his courses experiential, requiring students to attend events on campus which he says could fit well with some of Blue’s initiatives.
Blue began his role as DEI executive director in January, so he didn’t have much to do with the creation of the diversity studies minor which was already in development. He did, however, launch the Men of Excellence (MOX) program during the fall semester. The initiative aims to support men on the UAFS campus through mentorship, empowerment and community building.
Familiar with MOX from his time at Mississippi State University, Blue brought the initiative to UAFS to increase retention, specifically among men of color, but the program is open to all males on campus.
Men have experienced an enrollment decline twice as steep as women during the pandemic. Male undergraduate enrollment fell by 8.9 percent in spring 2021 compared to the 4 percent drop among women, according to Inside Higher Ed. Enrollment dropped 14.3 percent for Black men and 6.9 percent for Black women during that same time period.
The goal of MOX is to holistically serve male students by helping develop them academically, socially and professionally, Blue says. Each bi-weekly meeting features a guest speaker who discusses various subjects like academic resources or civic engagement. In the future, Blue wants to address mental health which he says often has a stigma among men, especially men of color.
“We’re trying to break down those walls so that our men on campus can make sure that they are healthy and whole, both physically and mentally,” he says.
MOX recently concluded a month-long crowdfunding campaign, raising more than $10,000. The UAFS chapter has 10 active members and the hope is to continue growing the program. Another round of recruitment is planned for the spring semester.