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Amid Extremist Attacks on Higher Ed, We Must Go Beyond Diversity and Inclusion

The framework of diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t radical enough to truly challenge the spheres of power.

A group of activists hold a rally and a protest outside the White House in Washington, D.C., on July 12 to demand that the charges be dropped against the Tampa 5, five activists who are facing felony charges after being brutalized by police for protesting against the removal of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on campus.

Part of the Series

In a single academic year, political and judicial leaders have escalated their anti-democratic, anti-educational movement aimed at dismantling higher education’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), initiating a furiously paced rejection of racial, sexual and ethnic diversity — as well as basic humanity. Multiple states have instituted curricular gag orders through “divisive concept” legislation and eliminated funding for DEI curriculum, offices or employees. Right-wing leaders and activists have worked to intimidate students and higher education experts whose identities and/or scholarship have traditionally been marginalized. And in June, the Supreme Court banned race-conscious school admissions entirely.

Nearly every state in the nation has anti-DEI laws or executive orders being implemented or proposed for the next legislative session. Leaders of higher education institutions, whether they acknowledge it or not, have entered into an entirely new context. This new paradigm potentially renders the systemically ingrained constructs of academic freedom, freedom of speech and institutional neutrality obsolete.

But these constructs have never truly benefited the marginalized. Instead, they are strategically weaponized as tools of the oppressor, not the educated. Educational leaders must consider new ways of examining the traditions upon which higher education has rested, or else watch the institutions themselves shift so seismically they will no longer be aligned with the aspiration of building a well-informed citizenship.

The Real Reason for the Assault on DEI

Under the guise of political expediency, or politeness, many institutional leaders are loath to state the obvious: Anti-DEI attacks on higher education stem from whiteness. Sociologists, myself included, understand whiteness (some call it white supremacy) as a flexible system of control that ensures power is continuously benefiting white, cisgender males, even if some identities may be oppressed under that system. In the context of a higher education system that has promised to focus on DEI, the tools we traditionally relied upon — whether rhetorical, systemically ingrained or policy-driven — are insufficient for the present and future. For these tools originated in eras when whiteness was normalized to such an extent that DEI was a fringe concept at best.

The legacy of power that is developed in elite higher education institutions creates a desire to ensure that power remains among the elite by disenfranchising the already marginalized. We see this dynamic reflecting in the highest echelons of political power. Eight of nine Supreme Court justices have degrees from Ivy Leagues; Congressmembers are now more likely to have attended elite colleges than at any time in the last 30 years; even some state governors at the forefront of anti-DEI attacks have attended Ivy League schools.

As a result, the powers of political, educational, juridical and social spheres continue such power because the origin of that power has not been deconstructed.

The current assault on DEI in higher education was foreseeable. Indeed, through 1970, which was 334 years since the first college classes took place on American soil, the high mark of Black enrollment was horrifyingly low at 9 percent.

Higher diversity levels only manifested after community colleges proliferated and as the second generation of students who benefited from the GI Bill began to attend college. By 2020, 48 percent of students attending higher education institutions were non-white.

Make no mistake, the increase in non-white students is the reason anti-DEI legislation is gaining momentum. There is nothing more concerning to a nation that has guaranteed the powerful are white and male than a seismic shift in who is being educated, and what they are being educated about. As I have shown in my book, The New White Nationalism in Politics and Higher Education, as non-white enrollment grew and curriculum began to significantly shift to include diverse identities, political and judicial spheres sought to limit funding and focus on DEI.

Moreover, as higher education diversified, those in political and judicial power remained overwhelmingly white, male and educated by elite institutions. But the higher education system was working against this trajectory. This is because while new institutions like community colleges and policies like affirmative action were created, the centers of power were not disrupted.

Nearly every state in the nation has anti-DEI laws or executive orders being implemented or proposed for the next legislative session.

Still, as higher education writ large diversified and the other political and judicial spheres resisted this tendency, the contestation for power in higher education gained in intensity over the years. Even prior to 2016, we have seen legislative attacks on multiculturalism, threats of violence against those teaching DEI and paltry funding for institutions focused on minoritized identities.

The history of such attacks and tactics are repressed from discourse, partially because many of us in higher education have been placed in a reactive position of defending against the most current controversy. Likewise, higher education’s posture cannot be monolithic in nature: Where one state is facing anti-DEI legislation, another is not; where one college’s Board of Trustees may defend DEI, another may not; where we are careful not to speak out for fear that we will place other colleges in precarious positions, the anti-DEI efforts escalate. These are all worthy concerns. However, the origin of our current moment does not result from a single policy or decision. We are facing a constellation of singular policies and actions that are geared toward reducing educational access for (and education about) diverse groups. From book bans to curricular gag orders, we see that the imagination, honed and developed through learning, is the cultural battlefield of this moment.

Additive vs. Disruptive

This is why states like Florida, Texas and Wisconsin’s attacks on DEI not only established blueprints for other states to follow in legislating away critical curricula, systems and resources for students and employees at colleges; they also illustrate how and why higher education’s traditional DEI tools may need innovative reshaping.

Our philosophy in higher education, especially in relation to DEI, has been additive, not disruptive. As we included offices, staff and curricula as add-ons to institutions already power-laden with whiteness, that whiteness was left unchallenged. The result is that politicians associated with The New White Nationalism could easily lop off offices, curricula, funding and admissions practices associated with diversity, equity and inclusion.

To be sure, adding on rather than disrupting has been a reasonable approach to reshaping a higher education system that is notorious for being slow-moving and requiring “buy-in” from multiple constituents. However, appeasing the slow-moving processes that have characterized our institutions for centuries ensures just that: slow moving institutions. Shared governance systems that operate slowly need significant reimagination in a context of external, quickly legislated ideologies that strike at the core of our missions — and not only for this moment. They also need reimagination because their origins are rife with racial animus. How many times have we been told about the need to gain “buy-in” for DEI projects — to which we must ask: buy-in for what? To legitimize the notion of someone’s existence? Is the need for DEI “buy-in” not similar to the white clergy telling Dr. King that his protests were “unwise and untimely”?

For truly transformative education of the sort that also impacts, at scale, racial oppression outside of academia, our DEI work inside of it cannot be additive. It must be radically subversive to the original power-centers that solidified whiteness as a central construct of citizenship in our American institutions. And some of that subversion must happen quickly, by building strong coalitions throughout and across institutions.

They also must occur in a moment when, as Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt shows, mantras of “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom” are actually sabotaging rather than supporting DEI efforts.

In a recent piece in Inside Higher Ed, John Warner illustrates how the constructs of academic freedom and freedom of speech can be weaponized to repress the actual freedoms themselves. Summarizing the famous Chicago Statement on institutional neutrality, Warner shows how in the context of DEI, “we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking this statement [supporting academic freedom and freedom of speech] is effectively neutral.” Warner later argues that if anti-DEI voices spout hateful rhetoric and silence the marginalized, the very constructs of academic freedom and freedom of speech are being used to strike fear in those interested in social justice.

In this way, institutional neutrality in the name of freedom of speech and academic freedom runs the risk of being leveraged not for a more just society, but to reinforce problematic power structures both within and external to our institutions. We must recognize the norms of our political and social spheres impact the voices of our employees and students in the hallways.

For truly transformative education … DEI work … cannot be additive. It must be radically subversive to the original power-centers that solidified whiteness as a central construct of citizenship.

Indeed, the mantra of the 1990s was “tolerance” for “others.” But this framework revealed an overwhelming power dynamic. Whites preached the necessity of allowing marginalized people and thoughts into their meetings, committees, clubs and social circles. But they did not have to like the presence of those they minoritized. Nor did they have to validate claims that challenged the very power structure they held authority over and benefited from. Further, queer and trans speech has been legislatively and socially repressed for decades. What more explicitly exhibits the silencing of LGBTQIA+ identities than the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” legislation of the 1990s? The compulsory silencing of voices and dismissal of people’s humanity was and is a major characteristic of our educational and social institutions. As such, free speech was assumed to exist, but was predicated on the absence of speech from certain groups. That is not free speech.

How to Be Proactive

We must remember that each legislative assault on oppressed groups, especially in higher education, is a message that some students and faculty do not belong. Our maintenance of institutional neutrality and academic freedom implicitly legitimates the idea that higher education is only for a few — that some people’s equality can be legitimately debated. This understanding of academic freedom and free speech does not align with our espousal of DEI and commitment to welcoming all.

Rather than accepting the debates regarding DEI on the terms dictated by right-wing forces, we should begin to recast all of those attacking DEI in higher education with a reformed framework focused on the future. Some examples:

  • Instead of accepting that diversity statements limit free speech, institutions should ask why an academic institution would hire professors who equate DEI and good pedagogy for all students to a political stance? There is nothing political about wanting professional teachers to hone their craft in a way that invites all students into academia.
  • Rather than accept that DEI does not belong in certain disciplines, we must hold fast to the notion that knowledge is always constructed in a context. Since this is true, we should not accept the oft-used argument that certain academic areas, like science or math, are free from a historical past informed by power, race, gender, sexuality, and the like.
  • In discussing which books, curricula, offices or trainings are legitimate, we should ask why minoritized identities are always the ones whose legitimacy is being debated. What kind of diversity of thought is there in the notion that what has been tradition is always right?
  • In accepting the racialized hierarchies of institutions, do we put “innovation” and “discovery” over people’s lives as a result of our funding models? Put another way, we must ask why funding for state four-year colleges outpace those colleges with a greater focus on transforming generational poverty and systemic racism.

Reframing the Debate

While defending ourselves against anti-DEI legislation is an urgent need, we in higher education must also see a horizon beyond the waves coming at us. That horizon is not piecemeal justice for the oppressed. Nor can it be to survive a legislative session. Our horizon must be justice for all through education for all.

In a country that promises all are equal and that a successful life is part of the American way, DEI is not the solution. It is the bare minimum. We cannot lose sight of that fact. So, while we must protect DEI, we must also think beyond it.

For, as Audre Lorde once told us, “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”