Fire in Rome by Hubert Robert.

UNC Governing Boards Fiddle while Reason Burns

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles. Part I can be found here, Part II is here, and Part III is here.

The “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) paradigm is sweeping through academia. Its increasing use as an ethical basis for enacting university policies is no small matter. Rather, it is monumental: it signals a major change in academia’s underlying belief system from the open-minded pursuit of truth to a narrow, dogmatic, political fundamentalism.

This is a transition no less revolutionary than the philosophical shift that occurred in the 19th century, when the traditional Christian intellectual framework was pushed aside for the more “objective” measure of the scientific method.

Unlike that earlier transition which advanced academic freedom even though it unmoored our colleges from valuable traditions, it is hard to see how the current one brings anything of value to our universities—or to our society.

Implementing the DEI agenda enfranchises a collectivist, racialized political theory that goes against almost everything our nation has long stood for. Consider a letter sent by the dean of the North Carolina State School of Veterinary Medicine to his school’s faculty, which states:

We must commit to our Values and to being a Values-Driven culture. We must support the cause of Black Lives Matter with more than just words, this is the time to commit to anti-racism and to demonstrate that commitment through action.

It seems shocking at first that the head of a scientific institution would declare to his veterinary colleagues—members of a specific community of scientists with a specific culture centered on science—that “we must commit to” being a “Values-Driven culture,” before urging adherence to a radical political agenda. But perhaps the dean’s missive should not be so surprising, since the shift to allegiance to a new dogmatic belief system is well under way in academia.

One reason that this dogmatic system has already advanced quite far is that the process has not always been open and above-board. The people have not voted for such a monumental change in the basic philosophy of their intellectual institutions—nor have their representatives. But dogmatic standards are still surreptitiously entering into every facet of our universities.

The first article in this series discussed how the phrase “diversity, equity, and inclusion” amounts to linguistic trickery since the words’ meanings have quietly been altered from denoting general ethical principles to defining a specific political agenda. The second and third articles showed how this DEI agenda is rapidly proliferating throughout the University of North Carolina system, used as a standard for behavior and political compliance and even as a political test for faculty employment. This is happening even though DEI standards violate North Carolina’s Free Speech Act (FSA) on several grounds. One is that UNC schools, by demanding adherence to a dogmatic belief system, are actively demonstrating contempt for the principle of institutional neutrality that the FSA explicitly encourages. Additionally, DEI training and diversity statements compel students and faculty—either explicitly or implicitly—to “express a given view” of controversial political issues, which is explicitly forbidden by the FSA.

Especially troubling are the diversity statements required of applicants to faculty positions at a growing number of schools in the system.

While it may be difficult to prove that these statements compel specific beliefs in court—they do not demand that applicants state specific opinions—their mere existence implies prejudice against anybody who fails to support the DEI agenda. If these diversity statements are allowed to stand, they will serve as a political litmus test for employment, and the UNC system will gradually but effectively be “cleansed” of all dissenting opinions for the future. We will have handed total control over our intellectual centers to Jacobins who hold no goodwill toward this nation.

While court enforcement of the FSA may not be easy, there is no reason for the state’s leadership to sit idle.

The legislature can make the law stronger, and, even according to the law as it is currently written, UNC’s governing boards can take action to prevent the spread of DEI mandates. But neither legislators nor boards have shown any great sense of urgency to address the problem.

That reluctance to look out for the interests of the majority of North Carolinians raises some very basic questions. Why are the boards not up in arms when a disturbing political litmus test is imposed on the institutions they are sworn to defend? What human incentives are behind their inactivity: confusion, ignorance, cowardice, or corruption? Do they hold the rest of us in contempt and take us for fools?

The entire university is the board’s charge; it makes no sense that the highest level of governance stays away from the most important activities of the institution.

Or do they really not understand the importance of their mission and of the specific issues at hand? One reason why public university board members are so passive may be that politicians deliberately select those who are least likely to deal aggressively with fundamental issues. Another is the advice and training board members receive once they are on the board. They are frequently warned away from involvement in academic matters; they are told that curriculum and hiring are best left to the experts—the faculty—and to stay in their lane, which consists of budgetary matters, hiring and supporting presidents, fundraising, and getting more money out of the legislature. But the entire university is the board’s charge; it makes no sense that the highest level of governance stays away from the most important activities of the institution.

When an academic controversy arises, boards carefully avoid confrontations that could lead to adverse publicity or lawsuits, if at all possible. Their timidity is somewhat understandable, as they face a coalition of ardent opponents whenever they try to exercise their full authority: the coalition includes many faculty, student activists, administrators, politicians, and especially the media.

Yet, the reluctance to openly and directly confront this opposition reduces the board to weakness at the very time when strength is needed. The board becomes like parents who consistently give in to a misbehaving child for fear the child will throw a tantrum; such failure to take control will almost inevitably destroy the child for the future. And it is not hyperbole to suggest that, should UNC leadership fail to control the proliferation of the DEI philosophy, that public higher education in North Carolina will be essentially destroyed. That destruction may not be apparent for some time, since government and corporatist money will prop the system up as it decays. But eventually, public universities will no longer be seen as a source of reason and wisdom.

And, though any pushback against the DEI agenda will be opposed, all good things must battle opposition initially. An absence of opposition may even be a cause for alarm since the ranks of the powerful invariably include the overly ambitious and those with authoritarian tendencies. The agreement of such types with a policy or direction often signals that something troubling is afoot, as their compliance usually comes not from the goodness of the policy but from the desire for personal gain and advancement (which can include the advancement of one’s political goals).

All that is needed to stop the illegitimate advance of DEI is the will of the leadership: all of the necessary tools are in the current statutes and bylaws. And yet, they essentially “fiddle” while UNC burns.

If the state’s universities cannot muster the intellectual and moral passion and backbone to combat the intrusion of a way of thinking that will, without fail, influence society for the worse, then why have them at all?

Jay Schalin is director of policy analysis at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.