Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on college campuses, known as DEI, continue to be a popular punching bag for conservatives. In a recent congressional hearing, Republican lawmakers alleged that DEI offices are behind the rise in campus antisemitism. This year, both Florida and Texas banned DEI programs in public higher education in part because of fears that they are too divisive. At least 20 other states have introduced similar bills.
Bari Weiss, the editor of the Free Press, has similarly argued that it’s “time to end DEI for good,” calling it a dangerous ideological project that undermines the central missions of the institutions that adopt it. A similar call was raised at last month’s University of California Board of Regentsmeeting.
I too would be fearful of DEI if offices that oversee a wide range of those efforts were actually guilty of such serious charges. However, I find those fears to be more imagined than real, based on what I have experienced in my more than 30 years studying higher education and two years working in UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
DEI offices on college campuses do not have special superpowers that ensure transformative influence as claimed by critics. These offices have had a relatively short history and must operate within a context shaped by multiple competing internal and external forces.
In 2003, the American Council on Education convened what was arguably the first meeting of all those who led campus DEI efforts or served as chief diversity officers. The invite list contained only 30 names. As these positions and offices scaled up over the last two decades, they did so modestly, often without adequate resources or institutional support.
Even if those offices come to establish strong standing, they are limited by the structures, practices and cultures that have developed within higher education. As Brian Rosenberg, the former president of Macalester College, put it in his book “ Whatever It Is, I’m Against It,” higher education is notoriously resistant to change.
Moreover, Inside Higher Ed reported this year that there is a high turnover rate among chief diversity officers, and these positions can be isolating, emotionally taxing and not taken seriously. In the University of California system, I’ve found that only 20% of the chief diversity officers have served in this role — at their current institution — for more than five years. Half of us, including myself, have served for two years or less. This is hardly the ideal climate for sustained impact.
Even under better circumstances, chief diversity officers are spending their days mainly on administrative duties and functions, and not advocating their own political views.
For example, I have been working closely with fellow administrators and the faculty Senate to delicately balance campus safety and free speech, both of which are vital to a vibrant educational setting. A great example of this balancing act took place on Nov. 9 at UCLA. That day, Charlie Kirk, a conservative commentator who has made statements strongly in favor of Israel, gathered with a group on one side of Bruin Plaza, and about 20 yards away, a “Free Palestine” rally took place. The DEI work done behind the scenes across multiple departments and units on campus, especially by leaders in student affairs and public safety, made it possible to have groups with diametrically opposing viewpoints protest next to each other without major incident.
Universities must comply with civil rights legislation, and some diversity offices were established because of failures to do so. My office, for example, was established in 2015 primarily to improve policies and procedures at UCLA to prevent and address discrimination, including protection under Title IX and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Similarly, the UC Regents in 2016 adopted Principles Against Intolerance to address antisemitism and called on university leaders to apply those principles to combat all forms of discrimination and intolerance to the full extent permissible under the law.
It turns out that those duties also support other educational interests. I learned through my own scholarship that there are significant educational benefits to learning across social and cultural differences, including across religious differences. The success of those aims depends on an institution proactively protecting civil rights and supporting students in challenging themselves both intellectually and emotionally. Fostering such an environment enables universities to fulfill their mission.
As such, DEI programs can play a key role in strengthening the fabric of our democratic society, especially as the nation’s population becomes increasingly more diverse. While there is no consensus about how we should ground or pursue this work, opponents are quick to characterize it as a radical project tethered to a fringe ideology. Given the short existence of diversity and equity offices and their continued development, it is imprudent to pass judgment based on misleading claims about what DEI is or isn’t in higher education.
Mitchell J. Chang serves as the interim vice provost for the Office of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion and is a professor at the School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA.
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