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Supporting Pride is about commitment to campus diversity

This article is promoted by ABET.

ABET, the global accreditor of science, computing, engineering and technology programmes, is supporting Pride Month and prioritising equality, diversity and inclusion. It believes collaboration between a diverse pool of talent is a vital contributor to finding the best solutions to the world’s problems.

In the weeks leading up to Pride Month, enraged by the fact that a number of national and international companies had put the rainbow flag on their products, or had otherwise expressed support for Pride Month, anti-LGBTQIA+ culture warriors in the United States began organising boycotts of companies such as Anheuser-Busch (brewer of Bud Lite), the low-cost department store Target, and the outdoor clothing company North Face.

On 11 June, US politicians including Republican Senator Roger Marshall (Kansas), and right-wing internet firebrands like Ben Shapiro, criticised President Joe Biden’s decision to display the rainbow Pride flag from the White House portico. Ten days earlier, Republican presidential candidate and governor of Florida Ron DeSantis signed a bill that defunded the diversity, equity and inclusion offices in the state’s public colleges and universities.

Against this backlash, ABET, the Baltimore, Maryland-based global accreditor of more than 4,000 college and university programmes, is standing with those institutions of higher learning, their faculties and staffs, and especially their students, who continue to support Pride and who seek to make college and university campuses safe spaces.

“Supporting Pride is important for several reasons. First, Pride celebrations and movements promote equality, diversity and also inclusion. They also try to create a more accepting society, where everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity can live authentically and without fear of discrimination,” said Richard Olawoyin, professor of industrial and systems engineering at Oakland University (Michigan) and chair of ABET’s Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Advisory Council (the IDEA Council).

“Pride also encourages individuals to embrace their authentic selves and foster a sense of self-acceptance and empowerment. Pride events and activities help individuals to take pride in their identity, which can help increase their sense of self-esteem, mental well-being and their overall happiness.”

ABET’s general criteria require that all programmes within colleges and universities have academic counselling and mental health services for all students.

For her part, Jessica Silwick, ABET’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer, set ABET’s support for Pride in the organisation’s commitment to all marginalised groups in society.

“Pride is important because it is a factor of diversity, and diversity and acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people and other marginalised groups creates a much richer society.

“The best solutions to society’s problems like climate change are derived from a diverse pool of individuals working together, providing their individual experiences and knowledge and their insights into how different people will behave and respond.

“The LGBTQIA+ community is a community within the diversity that we have in society,” said Silwick.

“ABET accredited programmes are graduating individuals to go out there and address the major challenges of our time. They’re going to have to work with very diverse people from all over the world to get ahead of those challenges.”

Early foundations

ABET was founded in 1932 by five engineering societies, including the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and American Institute of Chemical Engineers. Today, it accredits more than 4,500 STEM programmes at 895 colleges and universities in 40 countries around the world.

ABET provides best practice tools and resources to teachers designed to help them assess student learning and develop an environment of continuous improvement. Its programme evaluators use the same criteria to evaluate similar programmes wherever they are taught.

ABET’s support for the LGBTQIA+ community is not limited to supporting Pride events in June. “We don’t look at it as a once-a-year or a month-long event. This is embedded in our culture. We embrace it so that others will see us as a role model,” said Mel Cossette, executive director and principal investigator of the National Resource Center for Materials Technology Education based at Edmonds Community College and a member of ABET’s IDEA Council.

Accordingly, one of the committees she and Olawoyin sit on has changed the wording of the competency models that are used to evaluate programmes to include ‘inclusivity’ in all its forms. For example, on-site interviewers “are now going to be aware that when they interview students, faculty and others, they will have to be aware if anyone they are interviewing requires a special accommodation”.

As are all 501c3 (not-for-profit, tax exempt) organisations in the United States, ABET is forbidden from devoting a substantial part of its activities to lobbying politicians. Still, ABET’s position on promoting diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility is at some remove from the laws that have recently been passed in Florida, Texas and several other US states that are designed to make it easier to fire professors who teach diversity, equity and inclusion of marginalised groups, including Blacks and LGBTQIA+ community.

The restructuring along conservative lines of New College of Florida, the only public liberal arts college in Florida, for instance, will make it easier to fire professors teaching LGBTQIA+ issues and make the college a much less welcoming place for LGBTQIA+ students.

According to Olawoyin, tenure ensures the continuity of knowledge and expertise within universities. By offering job security, tenure encourages professors to invest in their institution, fostering long-term commitment and stability. This commitment contributes to the creation of safe spaces for the exploration of ideas and the promotion of inclusive environments.

A respectful approach

Organised in 1970, a year after the Stonewall Riots that began with a police raid on a gay bar in New York City, Pride Month was officially recognised by President Bill Clinton in 1999. In 2011 President Barack Obama extended it to the entire LGBT community. President Donald J Trump initially refused to recognise it in 2017, though later issued a proclamation recognising it. Some 15 countries, including Canada, Britain, Australia, Armenia, Germany, Italy, and Germany, celebrate some version of Pride Month.

How does ABET square the circle between its efforts to promote LGBTQIA+ rights and weave this ethos into everything the organisation does with the fact that, in a number of countries in which ABET operates, members of the LGBTQIA+ community suffer severe repression?

According to Silwick, even in the United States (presidential proclamations aside) there are a number of faith-based institutions that do not celebrate Pride.

“They’ve publicly announced that they will not hire gay or lesbian individuals to teach at their university because that’s in direct conflict with their mission. Those are their beliefs that they were created upon. We respect every single programme we accredit and every single institution where our programmes reside.”

The flip side of this, however, is that “while they may not like the fact that ABET is supporting Pride Month, we are not going to change. This is who we are. We are inclusive”.

ABET’s practices, she said, rest on the nation’s founding principles of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

“You have the freedom to be who you are and universities have the responsibility to ensure safety. You have the right to speak your mind but no one has the right to impact who you love or want to love. LGBTQIA+ students have the same rights and the right to enjoy those rights as anyone sitting beside them, regardless of their race, religion, occupation or socio-economic status,” she said.

Turning to the thorny question of countries with very different legal regimens, and mentioning one where members of the LGBTQIA+ suffer severe repression and where ABET has accredited institutions of higher learning that are segregated by gender, she said: “There’s a deep-rooted history and culture there. We are not going to say we won't accredit you because you won’t allow women to attend school with men. Doing so would be doing an injustice because it would be preventing the only option women have for quality education.”

Olawoyin emphasised that ABET’s role was not prescriptive. “We do not want to go against anyone’s moral or religious beliefs. That is why when we developed a definition of diversity, we left it open, that is, we did not define it for institutions.”

He acknowledged that while LGBTQIA+ events would not be accepted in some countries at this point, ABET believes in dialogue as a means of achieving change.

“What we can do is provide information for people to engage in dialogue [and] to begin to break down stereotypes and misconceptions. And we see in some cases,” said Olawoyin, “it’s been working. And though it will take time, we believe that is the best approach.”

Beyond rights; towards inclusion

Silwick, Olawoyin and Cossette believe universities and colleges should be ‘safe spaces’ for LGBTQIA+ and, as Olawoyin emphasised, spaces where students “can acknowledge and live out their intersectionality of identities, which can include being Black or [part of] another marginalised group”.

These physical spaces, with their own police and regulations, thus become “incubators for new thoughts, for innovation for new experiences”, said Silwick.

“In the majority of our universities, the rights are there,” she said. “The ability to be who you are is there and diversity is welcomed. But Pride is more about the inclusion aspect. There’s a saying, ‘You can be invited to the party. But are you asked to dance?’”

This article is promoted by ABET.