DEI Inc. v. Academic freedom

Reflecting on Hamline University’s disgraceful decision to fire an adjunct professor for displaying a painting of Muhammad in an art history class, Anna Khalid and Jeffrey Snyder discuss in Chronicle of higher education that DEI, as it has taken root in many universities (what they call “DEI Inc.”) may pose a threat to academic freedom.

What is DEI Inc” Here’s how they describe it:

DEI Inc. is the logic, jargon and set of administrative policies and practices. The logic is this: education is a product, students are consumers, and campus diversity is a customer service issue that needs to be managed from the top down. (“Chief Diversity Officers”, according to the article in Journal of the Diversity Officer,”best defined as ‘change management experts'”) DEI Inc. offers a highly harm-aligned model of safety and security learning that combines respect for minority students with unwavering affirmation and valuing.

A lived experience, the gap between intention and impact, microaggressions, activate alerts, including excellence. You know the language of DEI Inc. when you hear it. It’s a combination of management consultant buzzwords, social justice slogans, and “therapy talk.” DEI Inc.’s standard administrative “initiatives” package. it should also be known, from anti-racism training to bias response teams and mandatory diversity statements for hiring and promotion.

Note their emphasis on how DEI programs are structured and managed, rather than the purposes such programs purport to serve. Khalid and Snyder are not opposed to genuine efforts to diversify college campuses and encourage greater inclusion of those from different cultures or backgrounds.

As they talk, what happened at Hamline is a natural consequence of the creation and empowerment of DEI Inc within the college campus. This is a consequence of policies and practices, not ultimate goals.

But lest anyone think this is a “right-wing” complaint against diversity as a goal, Khalid and Snyder also criticize the right’s “anti-woke” efforts:

Censoring ideas because students with certain political beliefs might be offended is exactly what is happening across the country with legislation against critical race theory. The notion of harm is central to these “divisive concepts” laws, which used Trump’s now-revoked Executive Order 13950 of 2020 as a template. Among the things prohibited in this EO was that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anxiety, or any other form of psychological distress because of his or her race or sex.” That white students can shut down discussions of “white privilege” and “structural inequality” because it makes them uncomfortable is the gravest affront to academic freedom. Laws such as Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” emphasize that policies aimed at avoiding harm in the classroom impasse in education.

Any plan, ideology or institutional assumption that students should be protected from ideas they might find uncomfortable is a threat to academic freedom.

As they conclude:

To protect high-quality teaching that powerfully and accurately communicates our disciplines and fields, academic freedom must be vigorously defended. Students, DEI administrators, and other campus stakeholders should understand that faculty they have the right to decide what and how teach based on their academic expertise and their pedagogical goals. They should also know that there are no academics freedom without academic responsibility. Academic freedom is not a license to speak or teach any material that suits us. Moreover, when sensitive issues related to classroom instruction arise, we have a responsibility to listen to students’ concerns and take them seriously. This does not mean, however, that students should be able to dictate the curriculum.

The Hamline case should serve as a wake-up call to all who care about classroom instruction, critical thinking, and the future of higher education. Some might see this controversy as an exception or exception. It’s not. This is an indication of how DEI Inc. erodes academic freedom. Let’s not forget that it took Hamline an outpouring of sustained, high-profile resistance, not to mention a lawsuit, to tone down his charge of “Islamophobia” against the Prater and reaffirm his commitment to academic freedom.

When institutions proclaim that academic freedom and inclusion coexist in some kind of synergistic harmony, they are trading on PR-driven desires. In the most difficult cases, there is no way to support an “everyone is welcome here” brand of inclusiveness while simultaneously defending academic freedom. Instead, we should turn to the wise words of Hanna Holborn Gray, former president of the University of Chicago: “Education shouldn’t be meant to make people comfortable, it’s meant to make them think.”

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