Wherever this agenda is allowed to take root, free expression and academic integrity are doomed.
The first object of government, James Madison tells us in Federalist 10, is the protection of “the diversity in the faculties of men.” By diversity, Madison meant different opinions to be encouraged to preserve liberty. Equity is an ancient legal concept of justice in particular cases, developed over centuries of English common-law practice. Inclusion simply means to make a part of, as in defining a mathematical set by what it does and doesn’t include.
All good words with respectable origins. Yet in true Orwellian fashion, they have been redefined.
Diversity is no longer a term to describe the breadth of our differences but a demand to flatter and grant privileges to purportedly oppressed identity groups. Equity assigns desirable positions based on race, sex and sexual orientation rather than character, competence and merit. Inclusion now means creating a social environment where identity groups are celebrated while those who disagree are maligned.
“Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”—the compound form of these modern concepts—is especially toxic. It divides us by social identity groups, ranks those groups on privilege and power, and excludes those who fail to honor the new orthodoxy. Rather than being equally endowed with innate dignity and fundamental rights as human beings—best judged by our character and not skin color—we are supposed to discriminate and confer status based on race, sex and cultural affinity.
This isn’t merely a conceptual problem. DEI initiatives have proliferated in higher education. There are offices, deans and vice presidents of diversity, equity and inclusion at most colleges and universities, such as New College of Florida, where I have recently been appointed a trustee. One review of top universities found an average of 45 DEI staff members at each school (about one DEI staffer for every 30 professors). Another study found that 20% of academic job postings require DEI statements as a requirement of employment or promotion.
College is a partnership between faculty and students focused on learning and pursuing knowledge. It’s ultimately about the enduring question of human flourishing. Freshman orientation shouldn’t be a re-education session. DEI may be the heart of the woke movement, but it deadens the academic mind.
A recent report from the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education speaks of “creating a framework for diversity officers to advance anti-racism strategies, particularly anti-Black racism, at their respective institutions of higher education.” How? Through curriculum and pedagogy for sure, but also through admissions, campus culture, institutional structures, policies, hiring, promotions and employee training. In short, everything.
To be clear, we aren’t talking about a particular department or faculty here, or the departments doing scholarly research or teaching classes as part of the curriculum. Nor is this about the regular practice of assuring compliance with civil-rights laws or creating reasonable outreach programs. One can disagree and debate those within the collegial context, where different views are encouraged and protected under the aegis of academic freedom. But DEI is an effort within the administrative authority of the college to shape the whole institution and all its activities consistent with its ideology.
When coming from the college’s administration, DEI practices essentially gatekeep entry to college faculty, staff and students. Requiring DEI statements as part of the faculty employment process dissuades those who think otherwise from even applying. It stifles discourse by keeping dissenting viewpoints from campus in the first place.
College DEI training programs discourage the open and candid discussion necessary for intellectual growth. They exacerbate divisions between groups, creating an environment of tension, fear and one-mindedness, and they have the pernicious effect of closing minds and shutting down thoughtful debate even before classes begin.
DEI attacks the integrity of the academic project. Instead of listening to divergent voices, ears are shut. Instead of the free expression of contrary opinions, chilling self-censorship takes place. Instead of a campus open to all, one finds a narrow doorway through which only an approved few may enter. If the right pieties and homilies aren’t made, ostracization and exclusion become the norm rather than the exception. Unanimity, inequality and exclusion—Orwellian indeed.
Mr. Spalding is vice president of Hillsdale College and dean of its Van Andel Graduate School of Government in Washington.
Appeared in the February 11, 2023, print edition as ‘DEI Spells Death for the Idea of a University’.