Diversity, equity, and inclusion are admirable things. We’re quite fond of diversity and inclusion, in principle, and equity sounds a lot like equality, which we rather like. Unfortunately, in higher education, “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)” has taken on an Orwellian aspect—becoming a tool of “groupthink, censorship, and exclusion.” At too many colleges and universities, DEI administrative units now pose a profound threat to free inquiry and academic integrity.
More than a few reputable observers have suggested that we’ve reached “peak woke” and that the stifling threat to free thought is no longer ascendant. But the status quo is not acceptable. Unless the DEI infrastructure is rolled back, it will continue to quietly distort higher education.
Given the relatively recent provenance of campus DEI bureaucracies, many readers may be unfamiliar with just what they do. After all, they are not academic units (like gender- or ethnic-studies departments). Nor are they legal-compliance staff charged with overseeing civil-rights laws (as with Title IX officials). In fact, because DEI staff are not charged with conducting research, teaching classes, or avoiding lawsuits, they enjoy an amorphous charge and remarkable leeway.
In practice, DEI staff operate as a political commissariat, articulating and enforcing a political orthodoxy on campus. The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education describes itself as “a leading voice in the fight for social justice” and lays out its plan for political action by “creating a framework for diversity officers to advance anti-racism strategies, particularly anti-Black racism, at their respective institutions of higher education.” They emphasize that this effort “requires confronting systems, organizational structures, policies, practices, behaviors, and attitudes. This active process should seek to redistribute power in an effort to foster equitable outcomes.”
Universities have expanded the ranks of this DEI political commissariat at an extraordinary rate. A review of 65 universities in the Power Five athletic conferences found that the typical institution has 45 diversity-staff members on its payroll. That is more than four times as many employees as are devoted to supporting students with special needs (even though accommodations for disabilities, unlike DEI, is something institutions are legally required to provide). In fact, the typical university has roughly one DEI staffer for every 30 tenured or tenure-track professors.
The ostensible purpose of DEI is to provide programming and training that will make universities more inclusive, welcoming, and supportive. As the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education puts it, “We know students, faculty, and staff build a stronger sense of identity and belonging, which lead to better outcomes, when their diverse strengths, abilities, interests and perspectives are understood and supported.”
Again, this sentiment is admirable in theory. In practice, there are big problems. For starters, there’s little credible evidence for the claim that DEI staff strengthen identity and belonging in a way that promotes better outcomes. In fact, surveys of all students (as well as of minority students) which ask about how welcome they feel on campus tend to show worse results at universities with larger DEI staffs. What’s going on? It’s not complicated. A bigger, more aggressive DEI staff is better able to operate as an ideological commissariat, sowing division and distrust as it enforces campus orthodoxy.
This is exactly what Ryan Mills and Isaac Schorr found when they took a deep dive into DEI at the University of Michigan (U-M). As U-M more than quadrupled its DEI staff over two decades, from 40 in 2002 to 167 in 2021, the campus climate deteriorated: “Rather than make U-M a more tolerant place, there’s evidence that its DEI push has instead created a more culturally rigid campus, the kind of place where woke students and staff are forever on the lookout for offenses against the politically correct orthodoxy.” By signaling what views were “problematic” while helping to organize and amplify the voices of campus radicals, DEI staff stifled free inquiry and robust scholarly discussion among students and faculty.
At many campuses, the DEI bureaucracy started out as a humble “multicultural center,” one which was later joined by a host of organizations focused on racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identity. Over time, universities created centralized diversity offices to support all these entities and now have increasingly replicated these infrastructures across multiple academic units.
This has fueled bureaucratic bloat and rising costs. For example, Northwestern University’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion boasts an “Assistant Provost of Diversity and Inclusion,” a “Manager of Diversity and Inclusion,” and a “Vice President & Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion & Chief Diversity Officer.” There is also an Assistant Director of Campus Inclusion & Community, an Associate Director of Multicultural Student Affairs, an Assistant Director of Native American and Indigenous Initiatives, and an Associate Director of the Women’s Center. . . . Well, you get the idea. Similar positions are then replicated in the medical school, business school, and so forth.
It’s far from clear that the agendas of all these DEI staff members actually make campuses more inclusive or tolerant. For example, a systematic review of the social-media accounts of DEI staff showed that those officials have an obsessive and highly critical view toward Israel. In other words, DEI staff are boosting the rabid anti-Israel activism found on many college campuses—a stance guaranteed to make many students feel less welcome and less safe.
Meanwhile, DEI staff are looking for ways to feel active and to demonstrate their worth, so they have incentives to assert themselves. This can mean uncovering ever more micro-aggressions, discovering hitherto unknown reasons to rename buildings or dismantle artwork, or finding opportunities to launch new initiatives. Allowing DEI bureaucracies to become permanent fixtures is to cede higher education to the agenda-driven speech police.
A proper regard for free inquiry and healthy communities dictates that, as the “woke” moment recedes, these DEI bureaucracies be pared back, reined in, or even dismantled. What to do?
First off, state legislatures have the authority to restructure the bureaucracies of state agencies, like state universities. If they believe that DEI bureaucrats are waste of public funds and a threat to the educational mission of these institutions, they can simply choose to eliminate those offices.
Such a move would not represent interference with academic freedom. Remember that DEI staff members are not faculty engaged in teaching or research. They are support staff. Moreover, curtailing ideological activism by taxpayer-funded state employees is merely prudential stewardship. If DEI staff are deemed unnecessary or their efforts unproductive, a legislative response is wholly appropriate.
If abolishing DEI units is a bridge too far, state legislators could consider capping the size of DEI bureaucracies. There are various formulas that might be employed. Legislators might stipulate that total DEI staff at an institution should never exceed the number of staff dedicated to supporting students with special needs. Or they might stipulate that institutions should have no more than one DEI employee for every 150 or 200 tenured faculty members. This would at least reverse the steady growth of these staff members and ensure that they don’t exert disproportionate influence on institutional affairs.
State legislators should also move to prohibit colleges from requiring job applicants to submit “diversity statements.” These statements require would-be employees to demonstrate their faith to the reigning creed. The modern incarnation of the loyalty oaths of the ’50s, mandatory diversity statements are proliferating on campuses and now accompany something like one in five academics positions. Such requirements strengthen the hold of the DEI officialdom, allowing universities to discriminate on political grounds when hiring faculty and staff.
At private institutions, potential responses are less straightforward. Congress could certainly adopt provisions related to higher-education research or funding which limit the amount of money that eligible institutions can spend on DEI staff. Advocacy groups and think tanks should do their best to expose the amounts spent on DEI and to expose examples of pernicious impact.
Adopting any of these reforms will require overcoming stiff opposition from the college cartel and its boosters. But at least in red states, where the political disconnect between the DEI lobby and the average voter is most stark, this is a winnable fight. Failing to engage in it will ensure that the woke moment will have left higher education less tolerant, less free, and less inclusive.
This piece originally appeared in The National Review