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December 5, 2023+Kevin Wallsten
+Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)+Campus Climate+Viewpoint Diversity

Is DEI Causing the ‘Crisis of Free Speech’ on Campus?

Universities are making increasingly expansive commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Effectuating these commitments has necessitated the hiring of a vast new cadre of costly bureaucrats dedicated to advancing DEI at every level of the university. To take just one example, the Equity & Inclusion division at the University of California, Berkeley grew from 110 employees in 2017 to 170 in 2022. In total, Berkeley now spends more than $25 million each year on DEI-related activities.

It is often unclear, however, how DEI principles and the personnel required to implement them are supposed to assimilate into an institutional context that also prioritizes truth-seeking and free expression. Some DEI offices are attempting to harmonize DEI and free speech imperatives by explicitly highlighting areas of conflict and consonance in their public-facing communications. For instance, the UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’s website explains that although “freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry form bedrock principles central to our mission to pursue knowledge and understanding … freedom of speech is … limited by other rights and values, such as equality.”

"It is often unclear, however, how DEI principles and the personnel required to implement them are supposed to assimilate into an institutional context that also prioritizes truth-seeking and free expression."

Yet other universities are more reticent about potential trade-offs between DEI and free expression. This reticence, coupled with a relentless stream of high-profile controversies centered around DEI-based objections to campus speech, has led many to conclude that DEI and free expression are incompatible. In a widely circulated Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “How ‘Diversity’ Turned Tyrannical,” for example, Lawrence Krauss argued that DEI stifles free expression by creating “a climate of pervasive fear on campus.” As Krauss puts it, “The DEI monomania has contributed to the crisis of free speech on campus.”

These sentiments are fueling a fierce backlash against university DEI initiatives. According to one recent count, more than 30 state governments are taking steps to regulate, reform, or abolish DEI programs, with most justifying their efforts on free speech grounds. But there’s no solid evidence—only speculation and anecdotes—guiding the movement to “end DEI.” To date, there have been no systematic, empirical studies assessing the relationship between DEI initiatives and campus speech climates.

Correctly diagnosing the effects of DEI programs is a necessary condition for devising effective and appropriately targeted solutions to the campus “free speech crisis.” The analyses below are an initial attempt to provide such a diagnosis. Combining a novel measure of a university’s DEI bureaucracy with university-level survey data, I show that universities with larger DEI bureaucracies are less tolerant of conservative speakers and more supportive of disruptive actions to prevent campus speech. While the magnitude of DEI’s negative effects on campus expression are not large enough to validate the policy prescriptions endorsed by DEI’s harshest critics, the fact that larger DEI bureaucracies are correlated with more illiberal student attitudes toward speech should invite reflection about whether DEI bureaucracies are approaching their work in a way that most effectively promotes the indispensable values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Measuring University DEI Bureaucracies

There is no centralized database archiving information about the size of university DEI programs. The only cross-campus study of DEI bureaucracies to date was produced by Jay Greene and James Paul for the Heritage Foundation. Their study, summarized in a report titled “Diversity University: DEI Bloat in the Academy,” examined 65 universities from the “Power Five” athletic conferences: the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 10, the Big 12, the PAC 12, and the Southeastern Conference.

To identify the number of DEI employees at each of these schools, Greene and Paul conducted keyword searches of university websites. Specifically, they searched for terms such as “diversity,” “Multicultural Affairs,” “Women’s Center,” and “LGBTQ Center.” Staff and interns identified through these searches were added to their university’s count of DEI personnel.

The 65 schools Greene and Paul selected were “mainstream institutions.” Their data cannot be used, therefore, to assess the impact of DEI bureaucracies at small liberal arts colleges or highly selective, elite universities. The latter limitation is particularly troubling given that highly selective, elite universities produce a disproportionate share of future leaders and serve as role models for lower-ranked universities.

For these reasons, I expanded on Greene and Paul’s work by applying their search-based method to a larger group of universities. Specifically, I recorded the number of DEI personnel at the top 20 ranked liberal arts colleges and the top 50 ranked “national universities,” according to US News and World Report’s 2022 rankings. When combined with the 65 schools in Greene and Paul’s report, this approach produced a sample of 109 universities.

The resulting data shows wide variation in the number of DEI employees across universities, with 15 schools that have fewer than one DEI employee for every 1,000 undergraduates (e.g., Baylor University, Auburn University, University of Alabama, University of Florida, West Virginia University) and 17 schools that have more than six DEI employees for every 1,000 undergraduates (e.g., Harvard University, Stanford University, Georgetown University, Duke University, Williams College). Generally speaking, however, private universities have more DEI employees than public universities, and highly ranked universities tend to have more DEI employees than lower-ranked universities (Figure 1).

Picture1

Figure 1. Average Size of DEI Bureaucracy by Type of University


The Relationship Between DEI and Intolerance of Controversial Speakers

In 2023 the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) conducted a nationwide survey of more than 55,000 students at 254 universities. FIRE’s survey asked students a series of questions to assess how tolerant they were of controversial speakers. Specifically, students were asked whether three speakers who had previously espoused the following controversial liberal ideas should be allowed on campus:

  • The Second Amendment should be repealed so that guns can be confiscated.
  • Structural racism maintains inequality by protecting white privilege.
  • Religious liberty is used as an excuse to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Students were also asked whether three speakers who had previously espoused the following controversial conservative ideas should be allowed on campus:

  • Abortion should be completely illegal.
  • Transgender people have a mental disorder.
  • Black Lives Matter is a hate group.

Figure 2 plots the average intolerance (i.e., the percentage of students saying speakers “probably” or “definitely” should not be allowed on campus) for liberal speakers (y-axis) and conservative speakers (x-axis) at all 254 universities included in the 2023 FIRE survey. The dark gray “line of equality” running at a 45-degree angle through the plot indicates where a university would fall if its students were equally intolerant of liberal and conservative speakers. Universities positioned above the “line of equality” are more intolerant of liberal speakers than of conservative speakers. Universities falling below the “line of equality” are more intolerant of conservative speakers than of liberal speakers.


Picture2

Figure 2. Intolerance of Controversial Speakers by University


Only two schools in the FIRE survey—Hillsdale College and Liberty University—were more intolerant of liberal speakers than of conservative speakers. Further, the differences in tolerance for liberal and conservative speakers at most universities were often quite large, with intolerance averaging 34.6% for liberal speakers and 66.8% for conservative speakers.

Figure 2 provides a broad sense of cross-campus variation in tolerance, but it doesn’t reveal anything about the role of DEI bureaucracies in producing it. In order to identify the impact of DEI bureaucracies on political tolerance, I conducted a series of OLS regression models predicting university-level tolerance for controversial liberal and conservative speakers. In addition to the aforementioned measure of the size of a university’s DEI bureaucracy, these models also included a number of variables intended to capture other influences on a university’s speech climate; namely, the amount of diversity in the university’s student population (racial, ethnic, gender and political/viewpoint), the permissiveness of the university’s “speech codes,” and whether the university is a public or private institution.

Figures 3 and 4 present the predicted levels of intolerance for different sizes of the DEI bureaucracy when holding all other variables in the models at their means. As Figure 3 indicates, the size of a university’s DEI bureaucracy is not significantly correlated with more (or less) intolerance of any of the controversial liberal speakers. The estimated percentage of students opposed to allowing each of the three liberal speakers mentioned in the FIRE survey on campus is roughly the same at universities with small and large DEI bureaucracies. In other words, having more DEI employees on a campus does not influence how tolerant students are of controversial liberal speakers.


Picture3

Figure 3. Intolerance of Liberal Speakers


The size of a university’s DEI bureaucracy is, however, strongly correlated with how students feel about allowing controversial conservative speakers on campus. As Figure 3 shows, universities with a larger number of DEI employees also have a larger percentage of students who say that controversial conservative speakers “probably” or “definitely” should not be allowed to speak on campus. For example, support for preventing a speaker who once said “Black Lives Matter is a hate group” is predicted to jump from 66% at universities with the smallest DEI bureaucracies to nearly 80% at universities with the largest DEI bureaucracies.

"The size of a university’s DEI bureaucracy is, however, strongly correlated with how students feel about allowing controversial conservative speakers on campus."

Picture4

Figure 4. Intolerance of Conservative Speakers


The Relationship Between DEI and Support for Disruptive Action

FIRE’s survey also asked students about the acceptability of “shouting down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus,” “blocking other students from attending a campus speech,” and “using violence to stop a campus speech.” Once again, there was tremendous variation across universities. Students at Grinnell College, for example, were five times more likely than students at Hillsdale College to say that it is “rarely,” “sometimes,” or “always” acceptable to shout down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus. Similarly, Oberlin College students were five times more likely than Brigham Young University students to say that there are circumstances in which it is acceptable to use “violence to stop a campus speech.”

Even after controlling for the other variables discussed above, the size of a university’s DEI bureaucracy is significantly and positively correlated with student support for disruptive action. To be more exact, compared with universities with the smallest DEI bureaucracies, universities with the largest DEI bureaucracies are predicted to have student populations that are 19% more supportive of shout-downs, 10% more supportive of blockades, and 12% more supportive of violence (Figure 5).

Picture6

Figure 5. Support for Disruptive Action


Conclusion

There’s congealing conventional wisdom among critics of higher education that DEI bureaucracies are “cancers that stifle free speech.” These critics assume a zero-sum relationship between diversity, equity, and inclusion and free expression. Empirically speaking, these assumptions are not completely unwarranted. Larger DEI bureaucracies are correlated with reduced tolerance of conservative speakers and increased support for disruptive action. And, there’s no evidence in the data analyzed here that having more DEI employees fosters healthier speech climates on college campuses.

None of this should be taken, however, as an endorsement of recent calls to “end DEI.” DEI bureaucracies are not exclusively (or primarily) designed to serve as caretakers of a university’s speech environment, and they may produce a host of benefits beyond free speech that universities now deem central to fulfilling their core missions. What’s more, the analyses presented above are limited in that they rely on imperfect data (e.g., the measure of DEI personnel is imprecise and was collected for an unrepresentative sample of only 110 universities, the measure of student attitudes was derived from a single year of survey data, the regression models may have left out important but unmeasured influences on campus speech climates, etc.) and cannot be used to definitively identify the direction of causality (i.e., they cannot tell us whether larger DEI bureaucracies produce more censorious students or more censorious students produce larger DEI bureaucracies). Even taking the findings at face value, the impact of DEI bureaucracies is not large enough to believe that eliminating them would single-handedly solve the campus “free speech crisis.” Illiberal inclinations among college students clearly have deeper origins.

Instead, these findings should simply serve as an invitation to begin the process of reimagining DEI so that it might function in ways that are less antagonistic to the university’s “truth-seeking” telos.

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