“Affirm and guarantee . . . that the institution will not use a diversity statement or any other assessment of an applicant’s commitment to specified concepts in any hiring, promotions, or admissions process or decision.” So reads Senate Bill 83, recently introduced in the Ohio Legislature. Its sponsor, Senator Jerry Cirino, remarked in our interview: “This bill is about what is best for students. It is about the quality of their education and about enabling them to become independent thinkers, ready for citizenship in a free society.”
In the current legislative session, five state legislatures will review bills that seek to limit or abolish offices on public university campuses known by the catch-all acronym “DEI.” (The initials stand for “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” though the exact titles vary from campus to campus.) Another 15 state legislatures will review bills that seek to ban or limit functions related to DEI offices. Such functions include diversity trainings, soliciting statements from candidates for faculty jobs or faculty promotion that show commitment to diversity, or admissions and hiring practices focused on the racial or gender identity of the applicants.
That diverse perspectives foster breakthroughs in our understanding is undeniably true. That successful enterprises already understand this is made evident by the title of Scott Page’s Princeton University Press publication, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. In an interview with social scientist Glenn Loury, Sylvester James Gates, the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland and founding president of the National Society of Black Physicists, cites Albert Einstein’s dictum that imagination is more important than knowledge. He views his work in theoretical physics as akin to music, both of which thrive when people of different cultures and demographics bring their special perspectives to the table.
Much more controversial are the practices of DEI offices to advance the diversity of race, ethnicity, and gender. The case against DEI offices (and the sizable bureaucracies they spawn) almost always holds that their operations restrict free speech and encourage divisiveness, rather than the open-minded pursuit of knowledge and understanding that one typically finds in college mission statements.
That tension has a long history. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who cast the deciding vote in Grutter v. Bollinger, the University of Michigan case concerning race-based admissions, agonized over the gap between her desire to see greater racial diversity in higher education, and her loathing for identity politics. A 2019 piece in The Atlantic recalled the shock Justice O’Connor once registered, during a visit to the University of Michigan’s Law School, when she saw hallway walls plastered with notices for various race- and gender-based groups. “She was appalled,” then-dean Kent Syverud recalled. “Is this what diversity is going to be all about?” she asked.
Fast forward from that 1996 conversation to 2023, and the paradoxes continue.
The home page of the University of California–Berkeley’s Division of Equity & Inclusion includes the Latinx Thriving Initiative and the Office for the Prevention of Harassment & Discrimination. Its website has pages for Anti-racism Resources, the African American Initiative, the Gender Recognition and Lived Name policy, and it lists committee councils for Chicanx and Latinx, Native Americans, the Undocumented, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The school’s DEI budget stands at $36 million with a staff of approximately 152 full-time employees.
And what does the university have to show for all that expenditure and effort? Shockingly little. Federal data reveal that in 2010 the percentage of African American undergraduates at Berkeley stood at 3.0; in 2021, that percentage dropped to 2.0. A macroeconomic study of the effects of tuition increases on minority enrollment shows that a $1,000 increase in tuition correlates with a 4.5% decline in ethnic and racial diversity. The return on investment for schools seeking a more diverse student body would most likely rest in greater need-based scholarship assistance.
Pending legislation focuses less on the ROI of DEI offices than on the perception of harm that they do to academic standards and the quality of campus life.
Berkeley’s Office for Faculty Equity & Welfare, for example, provides advice for faculty search committees. It uses a rubric for judging a candidate’s potential for advancing equity and inclusion, below which Berkeley’s interest in that scholar would end, regardless of qualifications in research or teaching. The bar recommended by the Office for Faculty Equity & Welfare is high: As an example, the hypothetical answer, “I always invite and welcome students from all backgrounds to participate in my research lab, and in fact have mentored several women,” could end the applicant’s eligibility for a faculty position.
DEI offices are often the parent organizations for “Bias Response Teams,” campus investigative teams that follow up complaints, sometimes anonymous, about incidents that allegedly violate campus norms of inclusiveness and sensitivity. A 2016 article in the New Republic on this phenomenon bore the subtitle, “Colleges across America are creating shadowy groups to handle complaints. Will they end up muzzling students instead?” Several federal courts have deemed their work at public universities to have a chilling effect on free speech, contrary to the First Amendment. Lawsuits against the University of Central Florida, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas, the University of Illinois, and Iowa State University have ended the operations of their bias response teams.
A relatively new aspect of DEI offices is the use of technology for tracking alleged infractions against diversity and inclusion. Stanford University’s Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI) was intended to include “financial rewards for finding/reporting” the forbidden words, but facing public backlash, Stanford terminated the initiative. EHLI originated in Stanford’s Information Technology office. Secret reporting of students and faculty still continues through the Protected Identity Harm Reporting system that Stanford’s Office of Inclusion, Community and Integrative Learning oversees. The website says the process exists to address “situations involving real or perceived incidents” and even encourages students to report incidents that “may involve constitutionally protected speech.”
In the aforementioned interview, Professor Gates, while emphasizing the inestimable value of diverse perspectives for the world of science and mathematics, was dour about DEI and its “industry.” He challenged the erosion of standards that too often attends DEI initiatives and the charges of racism placed on the pursuit of excellence, describing the developments as “profoundly disturbing and worrisome.” Professor Gates has good reason to worry. It would be a terrible and destructive irony if the DEI “industry” were to prevail in obstructing the real benefits of diversity.
This article appeared on Forbes on March 29, 2023