What Does DEI Even Mean?

People can’t agree on what college diversity offices should do.

New College protesters
Octavio Jones / Bloomberg / Getty

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

This week, Donald Trump was arraigned on 34 felony counts and pleaded not guilty to all. His indictment has sparked debates about the legal soundness and wisdom of the criminal charges against him, his future in politics, and how the press is covering it all. What do you think?

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Conversations of Note

In the past decade or so, many institutions of higher education have introduced or expanded administrative bureaucracies dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, a trio of concepts that many Americans understand to mean different things, in some cases without even realizing it.

Now the costs and benefits of those bureaucracies are being debated throughout the country. And although no two institutions are the same, many people talking about DEI are talking past one another.

I’ll give you two specific examples:

First, Compact magazine recently published an account by Tabia Lee, a DEI administrator who was fired from De Anza College in Cupertino, California. She wrote, in part:

On paper, I was a good fit for the job. I am a black woman with decades of experience teaching in public schools and leading workshops on diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism. At the Los Angeles Unified School District, I established a network to help minority teachers attain National Board Certification. I designed and facilitated numerous teacher trainings and developed a civic-education program that garnered accolades from the LAUSD Board of Education.

My crime at De Anza was running afoul of the tenets of critical social justice, a worldview that understands knowledge as relative and tied to unequal identity-based power dynamics that must be exposed and dismantled. This, I came to recognize, was the unofficial but strictly enforced ideological orthodoxy of De Anza—as it is at many other educational institutions. When I interviewed for the job in August 2021, there was no indication that I would be required to adhere to this particular vision of social justice … I told the hiring committee that I valued open dialogue and viewpoint diversity. Given their decision to hire me, I imagined I would find broad support for the vision I had promised to bring to my new role.

I was wrong.

Although Lee’s essay is filtered through her experience of the events that led to her dismissal, I wonder how many DEI staffers are hired with an understanding of the role that is completely different from, and even incompatible with, the understanding of the very people who chose to hire them.

The second example emerges from my own work. Last week, The Atlantic published a feature article I wrote on New College of Florida. The college’s new board of trustees, who were appointed in January by the Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, recently voted to abolish its DEI bureaucracy. In my interviews at New College, I found a mostly unspoken divide among faculty members with regard to DEI work: Some understood it to be ideologically neutral, such that anyone amenable to a diverse and welcoming community should have no objections to it. Others understood it to be highly ideological, presuming particular and highly contested understandings of what diversity, equity, and inclusion mean and how they ought to be pursued.

But no one made an argument as extreme as one I encountered last week in The Boston Globe, where Ya’Ke Smith, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, invoked New College as an example in an article that was headlined “DEI Denial Is the Modern Day Lynching.”

He wrote:

In these times, a traditional lynching is almost universally unacceptable. Most people can’t even fathom the barbaric act happening now; and they can’t believe that their ancestors may have participated in the carnage back then. However, modern day attacks on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies in higher education institutions are the equivalent of the tightened rope, and just as suffocating.

There is a perception among DEI opponents that the initiatives are about exclusion and indoctrination, but as someone who oversaw a DEI office for several years, I know it is neither. The primary functions of DEI are to make people think more deeply about how discrimination is baked into the structures of organizations, and to collectively find solutions to disrupt these inequalities and inequities. These initiatives are meant to provide tools for dismantling historically oppressive and violent systems—systems that impact everyone.

Most responses to Smith’s article focused on the analogy to lynching, but I was more interested in his claims that DEI in higher ed primarily (1) “make[s] people think more deeply about how discrimination is baked into the structure of organizations, (2) facilitates “solutions” to “inequalities and inequities,” and (3) aims to “provide tools for dismantling historically oppressive and violent systems.”

In my conversations with New College administrators, faculty members, students, and alumni, I heard a lot of frank critiques of the school. But no one told me that discrimination is baked into the structure of the organization, or that New College constitutes an oppressive or violent system that must be dismantled. Perhaps there is someone at New College who believes all that, but given what I know of its history, its structure, and its personnel, it would be tough to make a case for those propositions.

So I’m left wondering what, in particular, Smith thinks the dean of DEI was doing at New College. I emailed him to ask but haven’t heard back; in the spirit of this newsletter, I would love to hear him out and converse with him in response if he is ever up for some correspondence. Meanwhile, I’ll be thinking about a long conversation I had with Dr. Diego Villada, a theater professor at New College who was an outspoken faculty defender of DEI there.

“No one makes me take DEI training. The administration doesn’t force me to learn about DEI. I seek it out,” Villada told me, “because I want to be more respectful and inviting towards my students.” When the Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence at New College programmed events for heritage-history months, or developed an educational program about a particular religious identity, he tried to attend, and when the office sent an email that included guidance or links to outside resources or organizations, he filed them away in case they proved useful in a future situation.

“Looking back through my email right now, when there was a tragedy that targeted a specific type of people––in this case LGBTQ people––it explained that tragedy in a way that I could understand, and pointed me towards other resources that would help me expand in my understanding about sensitivities around these matters,” Villada said. To me, information of the sort that Villada values is potentially helpful, but could be compiled by one person for the entire system of public education in Florida and dropped onto an intranet of resources available to any educator. But to Villada, DEI infrastructure on campus is essential to being “as welcoming and inclusive as possible,” and cutting DEI programs is like saying “it’s too much trouble to try to make people feel respected.”

When I suggested that many people contest how best to help everyone in a diverse community to feel respected, and that varying and sometimes contradictory answers can be found among people of all identities, he argued that the particular approach advocated by the new trustees at New College “is detrimental to the fabric of the community” because treating everyone the same regardless of their identity is, as he sees it, a wrongheaded approach to education.

Of course, he was speaking for himself, not the college or his colleagues––to my point, any two faculty members are likely to have different understandings of what DEI means, because there is neither an official nor a generally agreed-upon definition of the terms––but his opinion is relevant to his understanding of DEI, how he implemented it in his capacity as a faculty member, and what he wants to conserve when he voices opposition to abolishing DEI on campus.

For example, he said:

I highly respect the religious beliefs of my students. So let’s say that I have a Muslim student and it’s a woman, and her religion does not allow for her shaking hands with men... So if I go to shake her hand like I would anybody else in class, I might tell her, ‘Oh, well, this is just how we are in a professional setting. Everybody shakes hands.’ And that would not be welcoming or respectful. That would be me treating everybody the same—and completely disregarding that person’s religious identity. Instead, what should happen is that I shake the hands of the students that feel comfortable, and I use a consent-forward way of asking that student, ‘I see that you are wearing a hijab. May I ask, hey, are you a Muslim and are you okay with me shaking hands with you? And if they tell me no, I won’t do it.’ The idea that everything needs to be merit-based with sameness negates the fact that there are sociocultural, political, racial, and gender differences people bring with them through the door.

On the theme of talking past one another, two things strike me about Villada’s comments: first, as someone who is concerned that DEI is too often invoked to justify ideological discrimination or bias in hiring, infringements on academic freedom, free-speech violations, and bloat, I have no objections to `Villada’s diligent efforts to make all of his students feel welcome and believe he should be able to conduct his classes as he sees fit regardless of whether I agree or disagree with a particular judgment he reaches about what being inclusive means; second, note that what Villada describes as the utility he got from actual DEI efforts at New College was very different from (for example) tools for dismantling an oppressive or violent system.

The DEI debate undoubtedly includes lots of substantive disagreements, but I suspect it would be somewhat less polarizing and intractable if everyone involved clarified their views with more specificity and concreteness rather than debating the matter in terms of abstract generalities.

An Underdiscussed Threat to Free Speech

In The Popehat Report, the attorney Ken White describes a speech-chilling tactic that he sees regularly in his legal practice:

There is a vast amount of “practical censorship” operating below public notice. By “practical censorship” I mean censorship that happens not by state action or court procedure, or through public pressure, but by non-public threats to invoke our thoroughly broken civil justice system through a defamation claim. I get one or two requests a week for pro bono help in situations where someone has been threatened with litigation over their speech. In the vast majority of these cases, the potential defendants lack the resources to get good legal advice about their rights, let alone litigate the case. Most of the potential defendants are not lawyers, do not have the training necessary to evaluate the threats and their rights and potential defenses, and don’t even know the right questions to ask.

The ones who reach out to me are few and lucky because they at least have an idea of how to start to seek help. The much more common result is that people with the right to speak stop speaking, delete online content, and withdraw from the fabled marketplace of ideas. This is a rational response to a system that is completely unaffordable and incomprehensible to most Americans. Is your free speech worth your financial ruin? Most people would say no, at least about most topics. Lawyers know this, and unscrupulous lawyers use it to make meritless threats and demands. They bluster about the law while misstating it, invoke completely irrelevant legal principles, make demands they have no legal or ethical right to make, and invoke potential consequences that they can’t actually inflict. They do it because it’s often effective.

How much speech protected by the First Amendment gets “practically censored” this way?

There’s no way to keep track, but I see it constantly.

White goes on to allege that Whittier College is a bad actor in this regard––for the particulars, see this colorfully written letter that he sent to the liberal-arts institution’s legal team on behalf of one of his clients.

Provocation of the Week

This past winter caused my colleague Elizabeth Bruenig to meditate on a perennial part of the human condition:

Winter is over, and what a wretched one it was. There came a point in the season when everyone in our house was sick. I stood at the top of the stairs one cold morning, gazing down blearily at the pile of mail and magazines that had accumulated by the door, knowing there were dishes dumped in the sink to match and laundry heaped in the hampers as well. I thought of Henry Knighton, a medieval cleric who witnessed the Black Death’s scouring of Europe. I once read his firsthand account of the sheep and cattle that went wandering over fields where the harvest had rotted on the vine, crops and livestock returning to wilderness amid the great diminishing of human life. I now reigned over my own plagued realm, having lost this latest confrontation with nature.

As winter passes and (God willing) this long season of sickness fades into memory along with the public-health emergency that preceded it, we seem to be entering an era of the retrospective and the speculative: While some news agencies are looking back on the lockdown days of early COVID to try to understand what lessons our public-health policies taught us, others are bracing for the next pandemic … All of these avenues of exploration provide potential room for discovery … But they seem as yet insensitive to the very basic and animal fact of the pandemic and the winter it gave us this year: People get sick.

There is a profound helplessness to falling ill, even in cases of ultimately mild and transient illness—which nevertheless can take the form of long, grueling, raw struggling against mucus and body aches. There is even greater helplessness in caring for another in their time of sickness—especially a child, when you have been up to this point the source of every imaginable comfort. If the pandemic ought to have given us anything, it should have been a more universal empathy toward the condition of illness, of being susceptible to getting sick. It should have been a more urgent will to enact policies that would give people—all people—time to rest and recover when stricken with illness. It should have left us with the impression that the foundations of our society aren’t terribly different from those of Henry Knighton’s, and are subject to the same disruption by pathogens.

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