Is DEI Good (Enough)?
Academic freedom has long been a right in the university; recently, this right got some competition. Championing the cause of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, Stacy Hawkins wrote an essay last month that attempts to highlight the tension between maintaining academic freedom and facilitating DEI on college campuses. In so doing, she claims that “rights cede to other values all the time,” suggesting that academic freedom is one set of values among others that may have equal (or sometimes) superior weight. This rhetoric of “rights” and “values” belies the real harm that DEI initiatives can facilitate against the very people groups they are supposed to protect.
Because I am responding to Hawkins’ argument, I shall consider DEI under the framework she uses and return to her words throughout my response. Note, however, that I intend to critique DEI initiatives more broadly than Hawkins as a pedagogue, specifically, does.
Hawkins defends DEI initiatives collectively as an “educational value” that should sometimes have more value than academic freedom. She writes that students are “entitled” to participate freely and fully in the classroom, adopting the legal language of inalienable rights, despite having also argued that certain rights must be superseded at times. In these rhetorical gestures, we see the beginning of an argument for DEI that depends on an economy of reverence: Academic freedom has been revered, as she notes, but we might benefit from demurring from this reverence in favor of extolling another value system: DEI.
In short, Hawkins presents DEI as a value system that (1) is stable and (2) consistently and effectively realizes the ideals it purports. In reality, DEI is neither.
Determining what these DEI-related values are, precisely, is hard. “Dignity” and “well-being” are words Hawkins uses as if their meanings are stable and obvious. Hawkins’ respect and concern for students is admirable, and I do not point out issues with her argument to cast doubt on her positive intention. Instead, I want to underscore that these ideas of “dignity,” “emotional well-being,” “psychological safety,” and “harm” are too vague to be helpful to the students we all seek to support. These concepts have such little meaning that they can convey almost anything depending on the needs of the argument. DEI initiatives are supposed to protect the “dignity” and even the very presence of marginalized students in academe, according to Hawkins. We can dig into an example of “harm” against the “emotional well-being” of these students to expose the difficulty of measuring this harm, whether actual harm was done at all, and how a DEI-informed approach would or wouldn’t ameliorate the situation.
As an illustration of “harm,” Hawkins cites a controversy in which a professor discussed a poem written by Jonah Mixon-Webster titled “Black Existentialism No. 8: Ad Infinitum; or Ad Nauseam.” When discussing the poem, the professor apparently quoted the work itself, which included saying the N-word as it was written in the poem. A Princeton student claimed that the administration’s refusal to censure the professor was the administration’s effort to “prioritize white professors’ interest in racial provocation over the well-being of its Black students.” Meanwhile, Princeton found that this incident was protected by free speech.
Because Hawkins cites this controversy as a moment in which academic freedom unjustly superseded DEI values, we should ask: In what actual way(s) is it harmful for Black students to study the unedited words of a Black poet? If it is harmful for Black students to hear the words of a Black poet, how can we know that there is harm? If one Black student is against hearing Black-authored use of the N-word, but the Black poet finds its use necessary, how do we measure the “harm” done to the Black community as a whole? And what does it mean to measure “well-being,” individually or corporately, when all we have to go on in cases like this are self-reported assessments of subjective feelings?
Hawkins vaguely describes this event at Princeton as a professor using “racial epithets.” I have to wonder whether, if the context of this situation were written plainly, this particular example wouldn’t seem as offensive as Hawkins wants to suggest. To be fair, however, we may adopt her viewpoint that this situation was harmful and was facilitated and protected by “academic freedom.” If we take issue with Princeton’s decision, if we object to studying Black poetry as it’s written, if we decide (by eschewing the text or amending its words) that we know better than the Black poet, then we have revered the values inherent to DEI and performed our commitment to Black equity and inclusion.
Is this an argument for the benefits of DEI? Is this a model for how to operate with a DEI-informed pedagogy? If so, what is the emotional well-being of students other than a sliding scale of offended posturing that too readily outweighs not just professors’ ability to instruct but the raw expressions of people groups that DEI purports to defend?
To my first point: No, DEI is not a coherent, consistent value system that makes sense when scrutinized. To my second point: What is the efficacy of DEI initiatives? Or, in a nod to Hawkins’ legal studies, we may ask: Cui bono?
Setting aside the dismissal of Black poetry that DEI enthusiasts might have wished to enact in the aforementioned Princeton controversy, let us consider another famous example of what DEI can do to marginalized communities on campus. A flashpoint for this conversation has been the recent faculty dismissal at Hamline University. Professor Erika López Prater, an adjunct instructor at Hamline, lost her job after students objected to the professor showing a medieval manuscript illustration of Muhammad receiving revelation from the angel Gabriel — a manuscript commissioned by a Sunni king, no less. This effective dismissal from her position was merely coincidental, according to the president of Hamline, and had nothing to do with student backlash. Members of the American Muslim community, including Heterodox Academy member Abdulrahman Bindamnan, have been vocal in their criticism of Hamline’s actions. Medievalist academics have condemned the firing as well.
The student who formally complained about the incident claimed, “As a Muslim and a Black person, I don’t feel like I belong, and I don’t think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member, and they don’t show the same respect that I show them.” As a remedy for this “harm” against the marginalized, Hamline administration promptly dismissed the Latina adjunct faculty member who contributes to the nuanced study of Islamic art (note that there is an ongoing legal dispute between López Prater and Hamline over her dismissal). We might consider this administrative move as an attempt to defend the “I” in DEI.
Who benefits from this prioritization of DEI over academic freedom? As Hawkins laments, ethnic and racial diversity is increasing among students but not faculty. How does firing a Latina professor of Islamic art help advance diversity in the American professoriate — or help the Black and/or Muslim communities at Hamline? Hawkins warns against the opponents of critical race theory who seek to “silence, further marginalize, and diminish the value of minority voices and experiences,” yet in the cases of Princeton and Hamline, we see the attempt to do all three to a Black poet and a Latina scholar of Islamic art, respectively.
Beyond these universities, who benefits from DEI-informed pedagogies? By acquiescing to the complaint of a student who reported feelings of not belonging, Hamline’s administrators implicitly warned that any scholar with employment precarity should avoid teaching anything that might infringe upon the “dignity” of students like those at Hamline. Even if López Prater wins her suit, DEI still triumphs over academic freedom: Any scholar who doesn’t have the wherewithal to pursue legal action for allegedly wrongful termination will avoid teaching material that could trigger accusations of “harm” against students’ “emotional well-being” — whatever that happens to mean.
I agree with Hawkins’ desire to defend students’ rights “to participate in the academic enterprise fully, equitably, and without fear of reprisal.” DEI initiatives, however, do not facilitate this kind of participation. Since student self-reporting of feelings has been taken as reliable data that should influence administrative action, we should consider the recent surveys and articles that indicate US college students’ proclivity to self-censor out of fear of reprisal from their peers. Significantly, the fear of reprisal disclosed by these students pertains to their ideological expressions, not their identity affiliations per se. DEI initiatives have only grown on campuses across the country. Reported self-censorship has not improved, and as some have argued, free-speech issues have worsened in recent years. I acknowledge that an ideological position might overlap with or even derive from a person’s identity affiliation, and that the fear of expressing the former may relate to the latter in some cases. It is because there may be identitarian and ideological overlap that I can confidently assert unwavering support for the principles of academic freedom. To support academic freedom is to support the full, equitable participation of all students in conversation, collaboration, and — yes — disagreement with one another and their instructors. The principles of academic freedom must be defended not irrespective of the diversity of identities or ideologies on campus but because of this diversity.
At a baseline, I believe at least a critical mass of higher education instructors want students to leave our classrooms not just with more knowledge but also with an ability to think with a little more consideration and complexity. I believe we all want that, and I see that sincere desire driving many supporters of DEI initiatives. In writing this essay, I do not ask those who endorse these initiatives to do away with their support altogether (though you might guess that I have some skepticism about these initiatives, and I am not alone in this regard). I do, however, invite us to consider asking whether these initiatives work so well and so consistently that we should entertain surrendering our freedom to speak, write, and think freely — even, if only, sometimes.
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