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In Defense of DEI
It's not indoctrination, it's about the students
As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m an evaluator for the Higher Learning Commission. I’ve chaired two visiting teams over the past four months. Looking at two institutions in depth1 and discussing their commitments with a variety of players within the universities has let me see how misguided the conservative attacks on DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) efforts really are.
I focused on DEI policies and practices because the accreditation standards ask about them. Within the context of the institution’s mission, universities demonstrate that they “provide opportunities for civic engagement in a diverse, multicultural society and globally connected world.” In terms of faculty and staff hiring, the institution demonstrates that they have appropriately credentialed faculty who meet the needs of the educational program and its students. In the section on retention and completion, the institution is challenged to ensure that its systems are effective for all subgroups of the student body, including gender, race, and ethnicity.
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In today’s conservative talking points, DEI is seen as being about “wokeness” (whatever they think that means). The critics see examples of indoctrination and re-education and political correctness. They suggest that DEI is really about a radical position that makes white people feel bad due to a privileging of race over all else.
Given those arguments (however hyperbolic), it was no surprise when Chris Rufo — newly appointed trustee at the New College of Florida — announced that they were firing the DEI staff.2 Actually they reassigned a couple, but others were just let go.
As always happens with these “woke” obsessions, other places were quick to follow suit. An initiative similar to NCF in Florida has already already been introduced in the Iowa legislature. It’s also been introduced in Texas.3
Here’s what the conservative critics miss. Universities are not pursuing DEI initiatives because they’re “woke”. It’s because dealing with the complexities of contemporary society requires more attention to these matters. Their mission statements point them to understanding what’s happening in the broader society, to prepare their students for addressing the challenges, and to equip those students to deal with a society that is rapidly changing demographically.4
Moreover, the institutions have within their history a deep commitment to justice. DEI is not a diversion from their core mission. It’s the embodiment of it.
Not only that, their commitment to DEI is related to their desire to see ALL students succeed. That means that when the institution attracts students of color, those students will naturally begin to ask where the faculty are that look like them. Not that students of color can’t have mentors who are white (I had many great relationships with students of all types), but that there must be some intentionality around hiring as schools approach “the demographic cliff”. As many administrators have said, there will not be enough upper middle class white kids to stay in business.
Concern over underrepresented groups forces schools to study the factors that inhibit success of students of those groups. Cynics may argue that the concern is about protecting a precarious bottom line, but conversations with administrators underscored that their concern is primarily a moral one. One administrator told me that any time a student leaves the institution feeling unsupported, it’s a university failure even if large percentages of others persist.
Missing the real value of DEI structures and programs has real consequences in the lives of students and faculty. It also misses out on important learning opportunities. I’ve come to believe the critics like Rufo or the Iowa and Texas legislatures really aren’t focused on that learning.5 They are making political points that fail the broader society.
Yesterday I saw a piece from Will Saletan of The Bulwark responding to the news that Scott Adams’ comic strip Dilbert was being pulled from comics pages across the country. It’s a different argument from my DEI defense, but Will clearly articulates what Adams didn’t understand (or chose not acknowledge) about race.
DEI structures and programs fit with broad university missions and are designed to assist students of all races, classes, genders, and ethnicity to thrive in their educational pursuits. Attacks on these programs leave these students at risk. We will pay a social price for those attacks for years to come.
I’m going to stay general because the institutions deserve their confidentiality.
Another important accreditation issue (at least at HLC, but I assume everywhere) is that board members focus on policy and leave operational issues (like personnel) to the administration.
I have deep suspicions that we will find that ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council) has developed draft bills where states can simply drop state specific language into boilerplate legislation. ALEC has been responsible for much of the most conservative state legislation in recent years.
One can complain about “the Great Replacement” all you want, but the demographic data doesn’t care. We’re headed to a majority non-white society in the next 20 years.
The same is true with their attacks on gender instruction.