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John Sailer: The DEI Rollback

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion offices are still deeply entrenched at our institutions—but the retrenchment is well under way.

When he took office in 2021, Utah governor Spencer Cox, a Republican, made advancing “diversity, equity, and inclusion” a key priority. He appointed a high-level diversity officer to his administration. His senior leadership was put through a “21-Day Equity Challenge,” which instructed them in microaggressions and antiracism.

The universities were on board. Utah State’s annual diversity symposium featured talks such as “Decentering Whiteness.” The university also required DEI statements from applicants to the faculty, explaining how they infused diversity and equity—a focus on race, gender, sexual orientation, and other categories of “marginalization”—into their work. Even for positions in fields such as insect ecology and lithospheric evolution. 

Then, in December, Cox announced a different priority: reversing the excesses of DEI. At a press conference he said, “We’re using identitarianism to force people into boxes, and into victimhood, and I just don’t think that’s helpful at all. In fact, I think it’s harmful.” So harmful that he announced his intention to bar the use of diversity statements in faculty hiring, condemning the practice as “bordering on evil.”

Spencer Cox is not alone. After what appeared to be an inexorable rise of the DEI bureaucracy through government, higher education, and business for the past few years, many now feel like Cox—and are taking action. Legislators have proposed and passed laws curtailing DEI practices. Businesses have trimmed their DEI positions. Some universities have voluntarily ditched mandatory diversity statements. DEI is still deeply entrenched at our institutions—but retrenchment is well under way.

Lawmakers in more than a dozen red states have either passed or proposed sweeping higher education reform packages curtailing DEI initiatives. Florida banned state funding for DEI programs. Texas banned DEI offices outright. Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt signed an executive order in December that prohibited funding DEI initiatives not just at universities but within all state agencies.

Elsewhere, university trustees and regents have played a pivotal role in reform efforts. Four years ago, UNC–Chapel Hill was fully committed to the DEI agenda. The UNC School of Medicine even created and adopted a “Task Force to Integrate Social Justice into the Curriculum.” Its recommendations included requiring that the faculty agree that “specific organs and cells do not belong to specific genders.” 

But by early 2023, the UNC Board of Governors banned compelled speech across the entire state’s university system, effectively ending the use of DEI statements in faculty hiring.

In some cases, the simple act of exposure has created serious change. In early 2023, I acquired documents through a public records request showing how Texas Tech’s biology department relied on the DEI statements of their candidates as a major criterion for hiring. I wrote the story for The Wall Street Journal, showing, for example, that one candidate was penalized for not properly explaining the difference between equality and equity. The response was instantaneous.

Texas Tech announced that it was jettisoning diversity statements in hiring. A day later, Governor Greg Abbott released a memo declaring the practice unlawful. Soon, other university systems in Texas followed suit and publicly scrapped the use of diversity statements.

These statements have also been banned throughout the University of Missouri system. And now Arizona, Wisconsin, Florida, and Georgia have seen the practice banned either by law or by university trustees and regents.

Things are different in blue America. But there are a few signs even in these states that the mood has shifted. For the fall 2023 hiring cycle, for example, the University of Massachusetts Boston quietly eliminated its diversity statement requirement.

And last year, after I filed a public records request at the University of Washington, the school conducted an internal investigation into its psychology department, concluding that it had flagrantly discriminated against white and Asian job candidates. This report is unprecedented: a university exposed and condemned the excesses of its own DEI policies.

Where progressive legislators won’t curtail DEI, courts might. In August, a group of California Community Colleges professors sued over the system’s policy requiring all employees—faculty, administrators, and staff—to be evaluated for their diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility competencies.

There is reason to think cases like these will be taken seriously in the courts. In a ruling decades ago on McCarthy-era loyalty oaths, the Supreme Court declared that the First Amendment “does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.”

“There’s widespread concern among Berkeley faculty, including liberal faculty, about the prevailing climate of self-censorship and political orthodoxy in academia,” Will Fithian, a professor of statistics at UC Berkeley, told me. “As more faculty realize they’re not alone, I’ve seen them become increasingly comfortable expressing their concerns to each other in private or semi-private settings.

“A few people I know who angrily dismissed concerns about political intolerance only a few years ago have changed their minds since then.”

John Sailer is a senior fellow at the National Association of Scholars. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @JohnDSailer, and read his Free Press piece “How DEI Is Supplanting Truth as the Mission of American Universities.”

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