A James Madison University training video developed for student affairs student employees and volunteer student staff drew national attention after a story published by Fox News on Thursday.
The training included a slide that had three rows showing that able-bodied, heterosexual, white Christian men are privileged agents juxtaposed to oppressed peoples including women, transgender people, non-heterosexual people, those with various types of disabilities and non-Christian beliefs.
JMU has since removed the video from YouTube. The training is under review until next fall, according to JMU.
Local alumni of the school expressed anger at the school for the content of the video and the fact that student employees were made to watch it as part of training.
State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said his office has received “hundreds” of calls about the training from constituents, alumni and parents of current students since the story was first published on Thursday evening.
“This is woke nonsense and for a university that many believe is a flagship in our state college and university system to be embracing it in this fashion is deeply disappointing and undermines the confidence in exactly what JMU is teaching in terms of the culture here,” Obenshain said. “I think that people are deeply disappointed and offended by this, and something needs to be done.”
JMU President Jonathan Alger released a letter Friday, accompanied by a video from Tim Miller, vice president of student affairs at JMU, in response to the national news story.
“I want to reassert my commitment, and that of all of us at James Madison University, to develop and foster an inclusive environment,” Alger wrote. “Everyone has a place at JMU, and we will continue to strive to create a climate in which everyone feels welcome and respected. That includes people of all racial, gender, socioeconomic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.”
He said the difficult work and conversations dealing with diversity, equity and inclusion are “necessary” and “demand a lot of thought and care.”
“The ongoing work of the university can, and must be, to seek to have such conversations in ways that honor and respect all members of our community,” Alger said. “We all have a lot to learn, and we all have a lot to contribute.”
Miller also spoke about the importance of inclusivity in his 90-second video about the training.
“I believe that privilege is a reality and we have to talk about it in setting the context for helping our students learn to connect with and welcome diversity at JMU,” he said.
He added JMU will meet with a variety of groups with different perspectives to discuss future trainings before they are implemented, and he apologized for the training’s impact on members of the JMU community.
“The work is challenging and we won’t always get it right and the responsibility for this training falls on my shoulders,” Miller said. “Please know everyone is welcome at JMU.”
JMU declined further comment Monday.
Obenshain said JMU’s response to the conflagration has been lackluster and consists of “completely vacuous statements.”
“It just sounds like they’re waiting for this story to die down before hitting the play button again, which I find troubling,” Obenshain said.
There are some who support the training video.
An online petition in support of it had over 300 signatures by Monday evening.
“Apologizing for white fragility will never make this campus safer for marginalized identities, including students/staff who identity as people of color, LGBTQ+, religious minorities, and other social identities,” petition organizer Katie van den Berk wrote on the petition webpage. “This administration has weakened our stance on diversity, equity, and inclusion work in higher education as well as created distrust among [its] alumni, staff, and students who support this work.”
On the other side of the issue, Jeff Bolander, 63, of Massanutten, a Marine Corps veteran and JMU graduate of 1980, said he was “repulsed” student employees were required to undergo such training.
Bolander said he was struck by the labeling of Christians as privileged juxtaposed to the oppressed, which included other faiths such as Buddhism, Judaism, Paganism and Islam. He said followers of the Christian faith were among the first to rail against slavery.
“I understand there are people who have grievances and certainly there are people who have been treated horribly in our nation’s history, but to label Christians as oppressors? That’s over the top,” Bolander said.
He said it’s good that the training was paused, “but it doesn’t come close to what the administration should be doing.”
Fellow JMU alumni Walter Curt, owner and founder of Power Monitors Inc. in Mount Crawford, also said more needs to be done by the administration. Curt graduated from JMU in 1983.
“I’d like to see something more tangible, but I think the odds of that are zero because the people internally who are forcing these kinds of issues really believe in them and their belief structure is so out of touch with what the rest of the country is like in reality,” Curt said. “The only reason they’re reviewing this is because they caught heat.”
He said it goes against what schools are for — expanding the minds of students through open learning.
Instead, students are “being told what to think and how to think it,” Curt said.
“It’s just the antithesis of what should be happening in the university system,” he said. “I don’t mind if critical race theory is a class that could be taken. That’s what universities are for. But to force staff to be trained to look at white students differently than Black students is completely wrong.”