Incoming freshmen at Stony Brook University in August. The content...

Incoming freshmen at Stony Brook University in August. The content of courses there already satisfies the SUNY diversity initiative, officials said. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

A new rule at all 64 colleges in the State University of New York system requires this fall's incoming freshman class to complete a course before graduation with a diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice component — but a check of Long Island’s SUNY campuses finds they already offer courses that meet the requirement.

SUNY joins many other higher education institutions across the nation with a diversity core requirement, even as some states, most prominently Florida, take steps to limit or eliminate diversity and inclusion instruction and hiring.

The new rule is part of a 25-point Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan announced by SUNY in February 2021. SUNY's policy and guidance memorandum to campus presidents on what would be required was released Dec. 21, 2021.   

David Cantaffa, the SUNY system's interim senior associate provost for academic affairs, said the intention was to prepare students for diverse campuses, workforces and communities. "There is a strong academic, historical and sociological basis for this in multiple disciplines, even in STEM fields and health professions," he said.

The diversity content isn't new to local campuses, however, with a core requirement in place at SUNY Old Westbury since 2001, and at Stony Brook University since 2019. Farmingdale State College, SUNY's online institution Empire State (with a student support location in Selden), and Nassau and Suffolk county community colleges say they already offer eligible courses in fields from literature and history to women's studies and public health. 

The objectives of the new requirement "are very similar to the learning outcomes for Old Westbury's long-term diversity requirement, so we don't expect major changes for our curriculum as we implement the new SUNY requirement," said SUNY Old Westbury Associate Provost Barbara Hillery. 

The schools are all reviewing their courses to be ready for the fall, administrators said. 

The enactment of the new rule aroused concern among some state lawmakers and their constituents. State Sen. Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue) said he and others on the Senate Education Committee were reassured by SUNY Chancellor John B. King Jr. that students would not have to take a separate course on diversity or pay for extra credits. However, he said he wants to see course content and make sure students are not graded on whether they express belief in ideas they may not agree with. 

"Initially there was a pretty big response, a concern they were making this a full stand-alone course," said Murray, who last month co-signed a letter to King with two other committee members asking for clarification. "I think the fears have subsided somewhat, but still there is the question: What exactly does this consist of. We’re still waiting on that." 

He added he believed college "is the place for conversations to expand your mind and talk about these things. My concern is when a particular viewpoint or opinion is presented as fact and then [students] are graded on whether they agree with it or not."

Cantaffa said students would not be judged or graded on their values but rather on their grasp of the course content. "Certainly there is no commitment for a student to say, ‘I will live my life according to x, y or z point of view,’" he said.

He said that many academic disciplines were already grappling with issues of power and inequality, race, gender and economic class. "Education is not indoctrination," he added. 

Community college degree programs in occupational and applied studies have until fall 2024 to come into compliance, he said. At that point, transfer students to four-year institutions also will have to meet the new requirement, but if they already meet it, their credits must be accepted.

At Farmingdale State College, about a quarter of the courses qualify, said Senior Vice President and Provost Laura Joseph.

"Farmingdale has always embraced the concept of an inclusive campus and what that means for students," Joseph said. "We really hit the ground running and made sure we had courses that met the requirement for DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] and social justice."

New and adapted courses in anthropology, sociology, literature, political science and other fields will qualify under the new rule, she said, and their instructors must "undergo training to become a certified DEI and social justice instructor" including how to "engage students in discussions around sensitive issues."

Hillery, the associate provost at SUNY Old Westbury, said that in the fall of 2022, about 37 different courses of about 700 met the diversity general education requirement that had been in place on that campus since 2001. Courses such as "Social Determinants of Health," and "Adulthood and Aging," which fulfilled the existing requirement, would probably meet the new diversity requirement, she said. 

Stony Brook University, since the fall of 2019, "has required all undergraduate students to engage with DEI via the ‘DIV’ category in the Stony Brook curriculum. DIV stands for ‘Respect Diversity and Foster Inclusiveness’ and as a consequence, it already satisfies the requirements of SUNY’s initiative," school officials said.

Courses with the DIV designation also may satisfy other core requirements. Those courses include Contemporary Caribbean Women's Literature, which also meets the humanities and global issues categories; and The Early Republic, which also carries an American history designation.

While at least one conservative Suffolk County Community College professor has been an outspoken opponent of the new rule, Drew Biondo, SCCC spokesman, said, "Suffolk’s faculty has long embraced diversity, equity and inclusion and made it a part of classroom conversations."

In the summer of 2021 it launched the JEDI Institute, a pilot program to help educate faculty in "a Just, Equitable, Diverse and Inclusive environment." The JEDI Institute was funded by a $35,000 grant from the American Federation of Teachers.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the Suffolk Community College spokesman's last name and misstated David Cantaffa's current title.

A new rule at all 64 colleges in the State University of New York system requires this fall's incoming freshman class to complete a course before graduation with a diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice component — but a check of Long Island’s SUNY campuses finds they already offer courses that meet the requirement.

SUNY joins many other higher education institutions across the nation with a diversity core requirement, even as some states, most prominently Florida, take steps to limit or eliminate diversity and inclusion instruction and hiring.

The new rule is part of a 25-point Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan announced by SUNY in February 2021. SUNY's policy and guidance memorandum to campus presidents on what would be required was released Dec. 21, 2021.   

David Cantaffa, the SUNY system's interim senior associate provost for academic affairs, said the intention was to prepare students for diverse campuses, workforces and communities. "There is a strong academic, historical and sociological basis for this in multiple disciplines, even in STEM fields and health professions," he said.

In December 2021, SUNY officials sent a memorandum to the presidents of the campuses that included policy and guidance on diversity, equity and inclusion. Here's an excerpt.

Diversity: Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice

(Required)

Students will:

• describe the historical and contemporary societal factors that shape the development of individual and group identity involving race, class, and gender;

• analyze the role that complex networks of social structures and systems play in the creation and perpetuation of the dynamics of power, privilege, oppression, and opportunity; and

• apply the principles of rights, access, equity, and autonomous participation to past, current, or future social justice action.

The diversity content isn't new to local campuses, however, with a core requirement in place at SUNY Old Westbury since 2001, and at Stony Brook University since 2019. Farmingdale State College, SUNY's online institution Empire State (with a student support location in Selden), and Nassau and Suffolk county community colleges say they already offer eligible courses in fields from literature and history to women's studies and public health. 

The objectives of the new requirement "are very similar to the learning outcomes for Old Westbury's long-term diversity requirement, so we don't expect major changes for our curriculum as we implement the new SUNY requirement," said SUNY Old Westbury Associate Provost Barbara Hillery. 

The schools are all reviewing their courses to be ready for the fall, administrators said. 

Lawmakers sought clarification

The enactment of the new rule aroused concern among some state lawmakers and their constituents. State Sen. Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue) said he and others on the Senate Education Committee were reassured by SUNY Chancellor John B. King Jr. that students would not have to take a separate course on diversity or pay for extra credits. However, he said he wants to see course content and make sure students are not graded on whether they express belief in ideas they may not agree with. 

"Initially there was a pretty big response, a concern they were making this a full stand-alone course," said Murray, who last month co-signed a letter to King with two other committee members asking for clarification. "I think the fears have subsided somewhat, but still there is the question: What exactly does this consist of. We’re still waiting on that." 

He added he believed college "is the place for conversations to expand your mind and talk about these things. My concern is when a particular viewpoint or opinion is presented as fact and then [students] are graded on whether they agree with it or not."

Cantaffa said students would not be judged or graded on their values but rather on their grasp of the course content. "Certainly there is no commitment for a student to say, ‘I will live my life according to x, y or z point of view,’" he said.

He said that many academic disciplines were already grappling with issues of power and inequality, race, gender and economic class. "Education is not indoctrination," he added. 

Community college degree programs in occupational and applied studies have until fall 2024 to come into compliance, he said. At that point, transfer students to four-year institutions also will have to meet the new requirement, but if they already meet it, their credits must be accepted.

The picture at Long Island SUNYs 

At Farmingdale State College, about a quarter of the courses qualify, said Senior Vice President and Provost Laura Joseph.

"Farmingdale has always embraced the concept of an inclusive campus and what that means for students," Joseph said. "We really hit the ground running and made sure we had courses that met the requirement for DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] and social justice."

Students on the Farmingdale State College campus in November.

Students on the Farmingdale State College campus in November. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

New and adapted courses in anthropology, sociology, literature, political science and other fields will qualify under the new rule, she said, and their instructors must "undergo training to become a certified DEI and social justice instructor" including how to "engage students in discussions around sensitive issues."

Hillery, the associate provost at SUNY Old Westbury, said that in the fall of 2022, about 37 different courses of about 700 met the diversity general education requirement that had been in place on that campus since 2001. Courses such as "Social Determinants of Health," and "Adulthood and Aging," which fulfilled the existing requirement, would probably meet the new diversity requirement, she said. 

Stony Brook University, since the fall of 2019, "has required all undergraduate students to engage with DEI via the ‘DIV’ category in the Stony Brook curriculum. DIV stands for ‘Respect Diversity and Foster Inclusiveness’ and as a consequence, it already satisfies the requirements of SUNY’s initiative," school officials said.

Courses with the DIV designation also may satisfy other core requirements. Those courses include Contemporary Caribbean Women's Literature, which also meets the humanities and global issues categories; and The Early Republic, which also carries an American history designation.

While at least one conservative Suffolk County Community College professor has been an outspoken opponent of the new rule, Drew Biondo, SCCC spokesman, said, "Suffolk’s faculty has long embraced diversity, equity and inclusion and made it a part of classroom conversations."

In the summer of 2021 it launched the JEDI Institute, a pilot program to help educate faculty in "a Just, Equitable, Diverse and Inclusive environment." The JEDI Institute was funded by a $35,000 grant from the American Federation of Teachers.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the Suffolk Community College spokesman's last name and misstated David Cantaffa's current title.

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