In a March 3, 2020 letter to the University of Oklahoma’s board of regents, Paycom CEO Chad Richison wrote that the university’s “previous diversity training efforts failed because they assured free speech protection.” He announced Paycom was yanking advertising from the school and called for OU to “put inclusion and diversity at the core for all Oklahomans, including the state’s flagship institution.”
Since then OU has mandated new—and controversial—“Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” training for all students and staff at the University of Oklahoma.
In that training, students have been told the phrase “Boomer Sooner” is steeped in racism and can represent a form of oppression, and that OU remains a place of discrimination where students may literally fear for their lives. They have been told that support for racial equality is wrongheaded and that “equity” measures that can involve different treatment for different groups based on individuals’ race and other characteristics should be embraced instead. The training also told OU staff to embrace “political correctness” in their communications.
Paycom, a $22 billion tech company, is just one of many large corporate entities to use its financial influence to try to reshape both academia and broader society to conform to such concepts. It’s a trend that worries many citizens, including those working in higher education across the country.
“All of this ‘woke’ business started first in the academy, and at one time you would not have felt that corporations would be the place to do it, but the larger they are the more eager they seem to be to jump on the bandwagon with all this,” said Glenn Ricketts, public affairs director for the National Association of Scholars. “There’s a lot of what’s called ‘virtue signaling.’ They can maybe buy themselves some insurance. They can say, ‘See, we’re not racist!’”
An OU spokesman said the new diversity-and-equity training was not implemented directly in response to Richison’s demands.
“The university has long-maintained non-discrimination training for employees and made the decision to revamp those training modules prior to Mr. Richison’s outreach on that topic,” said Kesha Keith, OU director of media relations.
Yet much of the new training appears to align with views Richison included in his letter.
In his letter, Richison said he decided to pull Paycom advertising because of the “disheartening response by the University of Oklahoma’s leadership to its second racial comment in less than a month.” Richison said there had been five instances over five years where OU made news for alleged racism.
“After each occurrence, you have stated you are rolling out diversity training, but to no avail,” Richison wrote.
Richison’s letter came after two faculty members used a racial pejorative (typically referenced today as “the N-word” to avoid its direct use) during class. In one instance referenced by Richison, a journalism professor told students they were using the word “boomer” as a pejorative against older generations in a fashion similar to the use of the notorious racial pejorative. In the second instance, OU history professor Kathleen Brosnan read aloud comments made by a U.S. senator in 1920 that contained the racial pejorative. Brosnan subsequently wrote that her “goal was to display the depth of racism that existed in the United States in 1920 when the US Senate debated the League of Nations.”
In his letter, Richison said that OU officials’ responses to those incidents showed the OU Board of Regents had opted to “choose to hide behind free speech over deterring discrimination.”
However, the university’s subsequent decision to mandate diversity training was seen by many students as heavy-handed suppression of free speech and open, reasoned debate.
The 2020 College Free Speech Rankings report—compiled by College Pulse, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and RealClearEducation—rated schools on a “comprehensive comparison of the student experience of free speech on their campuses” based on surveys of 20,000 currently enrolled students at the 55 colleges surveyed.
The University of Oklahoma fared poorly, ranking 38th out of 55 top national universities in its support of free speech, according to the report.
Of the 267 OU students who participated in the survey, several implicitly or explicitly referenced the school’s response to the alleged racism of the two professors.
“When a history professor was attacked for reading aloud a historical document in class that showed the racism from 100 years ago, and the interim president decided to punish all faculty and staff for it, and agreed with the Black Emergency Response Team with their totalitarian policies and campus-wide graffiti, and did not give any weight to reason, or common sense, or perspective, or personal civil rights, it became clear that the administration was firmly on the side of totalitarian politics with regards to free speech rights,” wrote one OU student from the Class of 2023. “There are many similar examples of this, but that was a more public and recent one. It is not safe to speak publicly on campus.”
Ricketts, a professor of political science and U.S. history at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey since 1982, said lack of respect for open debate on college campuses ultimately harms students.
“This has a really dampening effect on student learning,” Ricketts said. “There’s a lot of students who privately indicate that, look, there’s an awful lot of stuff you just can’t say here anymore.”
He noted faculty members must now fear retaliation if they make comments that don’t perfectly align with the political zeitgeist, and students feel the same.
“Time and again you find somebody’s getting called on the carpet, and students, I guess they kind of get cynical,” Ricketts said. “They figure, ‘Okay, I’ll spit out: Yes, America is a racist society and it’s worse than ever, etc., etc. Good, I got an A. Now let me get the hell out of here.’”
Even with the change in OU’s diversity and equity training, it appears Richison has not yet resumed Paycom advertising at the school.
“Paycom did not directly advertise with the university, but rather with Sooner Sports Properties, a third-party that manages Athletics Department multimedia rights and sponsorships,” Keith said. “It is the university’s understanding that Paycom is no longer an SSP sponsor.”
Paycom did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The National Association of Scholars describes its mission as working to “uphold the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship.”
Ricketts said many college officials’ opposition to those values has now bled over into corporate America, which is in turn pushing for college officials to take ever-more extreme positions, creating a vicious cycle.
“All of this really toxic stuff that took root so long ago in the university has now established itself at the corporate management level,” Ricketts said, “and they in turn don’t have much tolerance—even though that’s the buzzword—for places that might not conform.”