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How DEI Is Supplanting Truth as the Mission of American Universities

An obsession with diversity, equity, and inclusion threatens students, professors, and the very credibility of higher education in the U.S.

One of the things The Free Press has been doing since its inception is documenting and exposing how many of our most important institutions—medicine, the media, the law—are increasingly being captured by an ideology that is hollowing out their core functions.

Today, John Sailer, a fellow at the National Association of Scholars, tells the story of how that’s happening at American universities across the country.

You don’t have to have ever stepped foot on a college campus to care about the revelations in today’s piece. Because as we’ve seen again and again, what happens on campus doesn’t stay there. It’s just a preview of what’s coming for the rest of us. —BW

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In June 2020, Gordon Klein, a longtime accounting lecturer at UCLA, made the news after a student emailed him asking him to grade black students more leniently in the wake of the “unjust murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.”

Klein’s response was blunt. It stated in part:

Thanks for your suggestion in your email below that I give black students special treatment, given the tragedy in Minnesota. Do you know the names of the classmates that are black? How can I identify them since we’ve been having online classes only? Are there any students that may be of mixed parentage, such as half black–half Asian? What do you suggest I do with respect to them? A full concession or just half? 

He went on:

Remember that MLK famously said that people should not be evaluated based on the “color of their skin.” Do you think that your request would run afoul of MLK’s admonition?

Thanks, G. Klein

Klein’s response enraged students. They organized a petition to remove him that quickly gained nearly 20,000 signatures, resulting in the professor being placed on leave and banned from campus. But the story got national attention, and a counter-petition signed by more than 76,000 people demanded his reinstatement. In less than three weeks, Klein was allowed to return to the classroom.  

Yet his encounters with what UCLA calls Equity, Diversity and Inclusion were far from over. 

Just under a year later, Klein, the author of a textbook on ethics in accounting, was up for a merit raise. For the first time in his 40 years at UCLA, Klein told me he had to submit a statement on equity, diversity, and inclusion. UCLA had adopted this as a promotion requirement in 2019, and now demands that all faculty members express how they will advance these principles in their work, and how their mentoring and advising helps those “from underrepresented and underserved populations.” 

Klein inquired of the EDI office just what groups of students they meant. When they failed to reply, he wrote a dissent he made available to me, which reads in part: 

“I find it abhorrent for the University to encourage faculty members to classify and prioritize students based on their group identities. I intend to continue helping all students equally, regardless of their backgrounds.”

Although his previous teaching evaluations were sterling, and he had received prior merit raises, this one was declined. Klein has brought suit against UCLA.

The struggle between Klein and UCLA represents a major shift in the mission of higher education in America. 

The principles commonly known as “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) are meant to sound like a promise to provide welcome and opportunity to all on campus. And to the ordinary American, those values sound virtuous and unobjectionable.

But many working in academia increasingly understand that they instead imply a set of controversial political and social views. And that in order to advance in their careers, they must demonstrate fealty to vague and ever-expanding DEI demands and to the people who enforce them. Failing to comply, or expressing doubt or concern, means risking career ruin. 

In a short time, DEI imperatives have spawned a growing bureaucracy that holds enormous power within universities. The ranks of DEI vice presidents, deans, and officers are ever-growing—Princeton has more than 70 administrators devoted to DEI; Ohio State has 132. They now take part in dictating things like hiring, promotion, tenure, and research funding.

More significantly, the concepts of DEI have become guiding principles in higher education, valued as equal to or even more important than the basic function of the university: the rigorous pursuit of truth. Summarizing its hiring practices, for example, UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering declared that “excellence in advancing equity and inclusion must be considered on par with excellence in research and teaching.” Likewise, in an article describing their “cultural change initiative,” several deans at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine declared: “There is no priority in medical education that is more important than addressing and eliminating racism and bias.” 

DEI has also become a priority for many of the organizations that accredit universities. Last year, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, along with several other university accrediting bodies, adopted its own DEI statement, proclaiming that “the rich values of diversity, equity and inclusion are inextricably linked to quality assurance in higher education.” These accreditors, in turn, pressure universities and schools into adopting DEI measures.

Much of this happened by fiat, with little discussion. While interviewing more than two dozen professors for this article, I was told repeatedly that few within academia dare express their skepticism about DEI. Many professors who are privately critical of DEI declined to speak even anonymously for fear of professional consequences. 

The Invention of DEI

How has this fundamental shift taken place? Gradually, then all at once.

For decades, university administrators have emphasized their commitment to racial diversity. In 1978, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell delivered the court’s opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, taking up the question of racial preferences in higher education. Powell argued that racial preferences in admissions—in other words, affirmative action—could be justified on the basis of diversity, broadly defined. Colleges and universities were happy to adopt his reasoning, and by the 1980s, diversity was a popular rallying cry among university administrators.

By the 2010s, as the number of college administrators ballooned, this commitment to diversity was often backed by bureaucracies that bore such titles as “Inclusive Excellence” or “Diversity and Belonging.” Around 2013, the University of California system—which governs six of the nation’s top 50 ranked universities—began to experiment with mandatory diversity statements in hiring. Diversity statements became a standard requirement in the system by the end of the decade. The University of Texas at Austin in 2018 published a University Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, which began to embed diversity committees throughout the university. 

Then came the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020. The response on campus was a virtual Cambrian explosion of DEI policies. Any institution that hadn’t previously been on board was pressured to make large-scale commitments to DEI. Those already committed redoubled their efforts. UT Austin created a Strategic Plan for Faculty Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity, calling for consideration of faculty members’ contributions to DEI when considering merit raises and promotion.

White Coats For Black Lives, a medical student organization that calls for the dismantling of prisons, police, capitalism, and patent law, successfully petitioned medical schools around the country to adopt similar plans, including at UNC–Chapel Hill, Oregon Health & Science University, and Columbia University. In some cases, administrators even asked White Coats For Black Lives members to help craft the new plans. 

All at once, policies that previously seemed extreme—like DEI requirements for tenure and mandatory education in Critical Race Theory—became widespread.

Saturate the Campus

The upshot is that the entire experience of higher education—from earning a college degree to seeking a career in academia—now requires saturation in the principles of DEI.

Many American college students are now required to take DEI, anti-racism, or social justice courses. At Georgetown, all undergraduates must take two Engaging Diversity courses. At Davidson College, the requirement goes under the title of Justice, Equality, and Community, which students can fulfill by taking courses like Racial Capitalism & Reproduction and Queer(ing) Performance. Northern Arizona University recently updated its general education curriculum to require nine credit hours of “diversity perspectives” courses, including a unit on “intersectional identities.” 

DEI is also becoming a de facto academic discipline. In 2021, Bentley University in Massachusetts created a DEI major. Last year, the Wharton School announced its introduction of a DEI concentration for undergraduates and a DEI major for MBA students.

Meantime, the open faculty position listings at universities across the country illustrate how a focus on race, gender, social justice, and critical theory can be crucial to landing a job. Last year, the University of Houston–Downtown sought an instructor in Early Modern British Literature, including Shakespeare, with a preferred specialization in “critical race studies.” At Wake Forest University, an applicant for assistant professor of Spanish should be someone “whose critical perspectives are linked to the experiences of groups historically underrepresented in higher education in ways that inform and influence their pedagogical approach.” Williams College recently sought an assistant professor of German who works “in the areas of migration, race and anti-racism, post- and decolonial approaches, disability, and/or memory studies.”

These imperatives often come from the top. In May, the Board of Governors for California Community Colleges (CCC), the largest system of higher education in the country, decreed that every employee—faculty, staff, and administrators—must be evaluated for their “diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility” competencies. Each district in the system ultimately decides how to enforce the new rule, but the Chancellor’s Office released a list of recommended competencies. It suggested faculty create a curriculum that “promotes a race-conscious and intersectional lens” and advocate for “anti-racist goals and initiatives.”

Ray Sanchez, faculty coordinator of the academic success centers at Madera Community College, sent me a document published by the system that describes how to incorporate DEI into curricula. “Take care,” the document declares, “not to ‘weaponize’ academic freedom and academic integrity as tools to impede equity in an academic discipline or inflict curricular trauma on our students, especially historically marginalized students.”

It is telling that the CCC system warns against taking academic freedom too far—especially for the sake of avoiding “curricular trauma.” After all, a successful liberal education inevitably involves challenging students’ unquestioned assumptions, an experience that is unsettling by design. Applying the language of trauma to this enterprise pathologizes learning itself. 

In higher education, academic freedom is sacrosanct, a vital tool for facilitating the pursuit of truth. But now the CCC treats academic freedom with suspicion. “If we need to be culturally responsive in the classroom, well, what does that look like? We have it right here,” Matthew Garrett, professor of history and ethnic studies at the CCC’s Bakersfield College, and a rare public critic of the system’s new policy, told me about the document. He added, “You can’t weaponize academic freedom.”

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A Radically New Definition of Racism

Some DEI initiatives seem almost designed to create distrust, especially between faculty and students. In an article last year for City Journal, I wrote about the “cultural change initiative” taking place at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine. When describing their work, the program’s creators asserted that it’s important to accept that “if we are White, we are a big part of the problem. We are part of the reason that structural racism imprisons and oppresses people of color every day, everywhere they go, and no matter what they do.”

The program’s creators also emphasized that when anyone on campus reports a concern about racism and bias, “We unconditionally accept that what they are describing really happened and needs to be explored, addressed, and resolved.” They acknowledge there can be multiple versions of a story, but assert that “someone’s lived experience of racism and bias is all we need to know about its impact on them, whether intended or not.” They followed up this initiative with the Anti-Racist Transformation in Medical Education training program to help other medical schools emulate Mount Sinai. The first adopters included top schools such as Duke and Columbia.

The Mount Sinai program underscores a point that came up repeatedly when I spoke with faculty members for this article: Some claims, especially about race and racism, are treated as unassailable.

Jonathan Haidt, the coauthor of The Coddling of the American Mind and a professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has warned about this redefinition of racism—and about the rise of ideological groupthink in academia and in his field of social psychology in particular. Twelve years ago Haidt gave a keynote address at the annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), pointing out the trend toward groupthink and arguing it was bad for science.

Fast-forward to September 2022, the month Haidt announced his departure from SPSP, citing the organization’s new diversity statement policy. For scholars to present their work at SPSP’s annual convention, they now must submit a statement explaining how their talk advances the “equity, inclusion, and anti-racism goals” of the society.

“When SPSP specifically used the word ‘anti-racism,’ that’s when I had to act. Because I read Ibram Kendi’s work,” said Haidt, referring to the author of 2019’s How to Be an Antiracist. Kendi’s work is the basis of much employment training both in academia and business. It popularized the notion that “anti-racism” requires embracing race-conscious policies and asserts that all racial disparities are, by definition, racist. “Kendi demands a totalizing approach that means everything must be actively anti-racist, and if you’re not actively anti-racist, you’re racist,” Haidt told me. 

In other words, SPSP—one of the organizations where Haidt first expressed his concerns about ideological conformity—now mandates ideological conformity.

‘Fake Research and Fake Standards’

It’s easy to imagine that DEI would find its natural home in the humanities. But disciplines such as engineering, medicine, and physics quickly are becoming bastions of DEI as well. Leaders from the Association of American Medical Colleges recently proclaimed that DEI “deserves just as much attention from learners and educators at every stage of their careers as the latest scientific breakthroughs.”

The federal government also is doing its part to infuse DEI into the sciences. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the nation’s largest sponsor of the physical sciences. It recently announced that all new research proposals must include its Promoting Inclusive and Equitable Research (PIER) Plan. To get a grant, scientists must describe how equity and inclusion are “an intrinsic element to advancing scientific excellence in the research project.”

One medical researcher at an elite institution who requested anonymity told me that grants for medical research increasingly use veiled ideological language that focuses on issues such as health equity and racial disparities. “The answer is preordained: The cause of disparities is racism,” he told me. “If you find some other explanation, even if it’s technically correct, that’s problematic.” 

This fixation can have a stultifying effect on medical research, and eventually medical care, the researcher told me. “We’re abdicating our responsibility. We’re creating fake research and fake standards, aligning ideology with medicine, and undermining our basic ability to engage in meaningful sensemaking.” 

Another physician-scientist at a top medical school also pointed out that an all-out focus on research that documents racial disparities crowds out other, more consequential areas of scientific research. “In general, science is a zero-sum game with a relatively limited pot of resources,” he told me. “And therefore, it means that biological discovery, mechanisms of basic science, new insights, new molecules, don’t get discovered because you have this other type of research going on.”

The physician-scientist was concerned that an obsession with equity has shifted attention away from pursuing groundbreaking scientific breakthroughs that will benefit everyone. “We are distributing more equitably therapies that largely don’t work. We’re still rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he said. “It’s a very foolish tactic when the death rate from cancer is still as high as it is.”

‘Morally Wrong and Incompatible with Scientific Inquiry’

A growing number of universities, such as UCLA, where Gordon Klein ran into trouble, now consider their faculty members’ contributions to DEI as a criterion for hiring, promotion, and tenure. UC Berkeley’s rubric for evaluating DEI contributions, which is used by universities around the country, dictates a low score for a candidate who professes a desire to “treat everyone the same.”  

Diversity statements—short essays on job candidates’ past efforts and future plans to advance DEI—have long been in vogue for hiring. And according to the American Association of University Professors’ 2022 survey of tenure practices, 45.6 percent of large institutions surveyed had DEI criteria for tenure, and 35.5 percent were considering adding them. Only 18 percent didn’t have and weren’t considering them.

To boost faculty diversity (explicit racial preferences in hiring are illegal), many universities are resorting to a practice known as “cluster hiring”—that is, hiring multiple professors at once, across multiple departments. To increase the likelihood of hiring minority faculty members, cluster hiring initiatives often assess candidates’ contributions to DEI as the first criterion. 

In 2018, UC Berkeley launched a cluster hire across several life sciences departments. Of 893 qualified applicants, the hiring committee narrowed the pool to 214 based solely on the candidates’ diversity statements. Finalists then were asked to describe their DEI efforts during their interviews. The initiative yielded eyebrow-raising results: The initial applicant pool was 53.7 percent white and 13.2 percent Hispanic. The shortlist was 13.6 white and 59.1 percent Hispanic.

In 2020, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began a $241 million cluster hiring grant program—specifying that the faculty hired must have “a demonstrated commitment to promoting diversity and inclusive excellence.” So far, it has awarded grants for hires at twelve institutions, including the University of South Carolina, Cornell University, and Florida State University.

One humanities professor told me that after his department creates a final group of candidates, “a lawyer in the DEI office will make a determination as to whether this slate of candidates is diverse enough. If it’s not diverse enough in their estimation, they can kick the slate back to the search committee.” Professors across multiple disciplines told me this is standard practice. One said DEI officers have the power to simply cancel searches.

“If we’ve got this gaming of the hiring process across the board, so that the new generation of professors are that much more ideologically pure, these are the people who believe that dissident research shouldn’t be given a voice at all,” Adam Ellwanger, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Houston–Downtown, told me. He pointed out that these professors go on to conduct peer review and decide what scholarship gets published. 

Little is being done to halt the intrusion of DEI into higher education. Academic jobs are perilously scarce for many disciplines, which encourages graduate students and young scholars to avoid rocking the boat at all costs. “There’s just a general fear that, if you push back, you’ll be marked for being on the wrong side,” one professor told me. “There’s no way to guard against how your colleagues will evaluate you for tenure in the future.”

And as allegiance to DEI has become a formal job requirement, even many senior faculty members remain silent out of a sense of self-preservation. As former dean of Harvard Medical School Jeffrey Flier told me, “It is considered politically and socially tenuous to bring up the subject.” 

Still, some are pushing back. In August, the Academic Freedom Alliance released a statement, coauthored by Flier, calling for an end to the practice of mandatory DEI statements.

“It is one thing for schools to take action against wrongful discriminatory conduct; institutions are under a legal as well as moral and pedagogical obligation to do that,” the statement read. “A very different and disturbing thing is monitoring beliefs by demanding pledges of allegiance to an array of policies that are often vague, frequently ambiguous, and invariably controversial.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has also issued numerous statements opposing DEI requirements that violate the First Amendment. The organization I work for, the National Association of Scholars, frequently publishes reports on DEI, serving as a watchdog on the issue.

NYU’s Jonathan Haidt hopes his resignation from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology will be a wake-up call for his fellow academics, but his outlook is pessimistic.

“It is morally wrong, but it’s also incompatible with scientific inquiry, which requires total fidelity to the truth,” Haidt told me of the DEI requirement that prompted his decision to leave. 

“The way that institutions collapse is that they become structurally stupid. That means people can no longer object, they have to go along with the orthodoxy.” Haidt said this isn’t an issue just in his field of psychology. “It’s about the biggest problem facing our country—the collapse of our institutions.”

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