An historic battle is waging over the future of higher education in the U.S. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. The presenting issues are critical social justice theory and freedom of speech. Back in the early 1980s, Jesse Jackson and Stanford University student protestors raised a few eyebrows when they chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go,” though many folks just shrugged it off as juvenile exuberance. Well, 40 years later, no one’s shrugging it off. Jackson’s catchy little chant is now the relentless drumbeat of mainstream academia.
How did this radical transformation occur? What’s behind it? As the Martin Center has explained:
Critical Social Justice (CSJ) begins with criticism or critical analysis, where activists unmask the supposed hidden realities of the world. America seems to be a place of equal opportunity or fair admissions, but through this critical lens, it is viewed as various structures of oppression built by the privileged to keep victim groups weak and unequal. […] Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is the mechanism whereby CSJ is applied to institutions like universities.
Thanks to the spread of these ideologies, gone is that pillar of Western thought that every individual is unique and should be valued as an individual. Instead, everyone is now seen as a product of race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, etc. Diversity is reduced to the balancing of various victim groups.
The average major university now employs 45 DEI administrators.CSJ has already been institutionalized in most universities in the form of DEI offices, which are firmly embedded in the educational bureaucracy. These DEI administrators have broad influence over university life and act as speech police. The Heritage Foundation reports that the average major university now employs 45 DEI administrators. Ideological loyalty oaths are required of faculty at many universities. Heckling and outright suppression of campus speakers are common on American campuses and often are supported by DEI offices, as in the recent episode at Stanford Law School.
The stated purpose of DEI programs is to make students feel more included. But growing evidence indicates they produce the opposite result. A Texas A&M study revealed that years of DEI supervision produced declines in the percentage of black, Hispanic, and white students who felt that they belonged at Texas A&M. Other universities are discovering similar results. A Heritage Foundation study confirmed that, as a result of DEI programs, students realize little benefit but are encouraged to conform to predetermined ideologies. As Marion Smith wrote in a recent op-ed, “Contrary to the name, these DEI statements eviscerate diversity by essentially requiring uniformity of thought. Wherever DEI statements exist, you can all but guarantee that intellectual freedom is in danger, since the only students admitted and professors hired are those that espouse or cower to woke doctrines.” The Wall Street Journal reached a similar conclusion: “DEI officials have a vested interest in ensuring that the grievances of identity politics continue lest the offices have no reason to exist. […] They promote racial division rather than redress it, and institutions need to rethink their value.”
A manifestation of DEI ideology is the suppression of free speech, which has become widespread on American campuses. As Heather Mac Donald notes, “[Diversity-related] victimology fuels the sometimes violent efforts to shut down speech that challenges campus orthodoxies.” The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) shared similar findings in 2022:
Alarming proportions of students self-censor, report worry or discomfort about expressing their ideas in a variety of contexts, find controversial ideas hard to discuss, show intolerance for controversial speakers, find their administrations unclear or worse regarding support for free speech, and even report that disruption of events or violence are, to some degree, acceptable tactics for shutting down the speech of others.
In the face of this DEI onslaught, a backlash is developing. Worried alumni are applying considerable pressure at both public and private universities, while political pressure is also being exerted on public institutions. Reactions of universities have varied. Some are doubling down on DEI, while others appear to be mitigating or even abandoning it. In general, public universities have appeared more likely than private institutions to move away from DEI policies. In FIRE’s 2022 study, which ranked the free-speech policies of 200 prestigious universities, four of the top five institutions were public, whereas all five of the bottom five were private.
Worried alumni are applying considerable anti-DEI pressure at both public and private universities.Perhaps the most decisive blows against DEI have been struck in Florida. Governor Ron DeSantis and the state legislature have led the way in charting a course to remove DEI from the state university system. Funding for all DEI positions has been terminated, with DeSantis predicting that DEI “will die on the vine.” At New College, a member of the Florida public university system with a strong allegiance to DEI, DeSantis replaced six trustees with conservative academics, who in turn replaced the woke president and abolished DEI. The trustees characterized the changes at New College as a renewal, not a takeover, but nonetheless the results were dramatic.
Florida is not alone. At least 25 states have considered legislation to limit the teaching of CSJ in the classroom and the reach of DEI administrators in state universities. A bill under consideration in Iowa would require the state system to disband its DEI program. A proposed Missouri bill would prohibit the use of DEI statements by universities in admissions and faculty hiring. The governor of Texas has warned state university officials that the use of DEI in hiring is illegal. The North Carolina and South Carolina legislatures have demanded data on what their state university systems are spending on DEI in an apparent first step toward reigning in these programs.
Illustrating the fact that reform is easier at publicly controlled institutions than at private ones, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a longtime center of progressivism, has taken a number of promising actions. The UNC Board of Governors recently voted to prohibit the use of DEI statements in admissions and faculty hiring. UNC has also announced the formation of an entirely new “School of Civic Life and Leadership.” This school is expressly chartered to provide a counterbalance to the leftward drift of higher education. Howls from many leftists on the UNC faculty underscore the wisdom of this announcement.
Though the public, acting through its elected representatives, has had its say, UNC alumni have played their own part in bringing about these reforms. Strong alumni support for dismantling DEI has resulted in the formation of the UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance. Declaring that its mission “is to support and defend free speech, viewpoint diversity, and academic freedom at UNC-Chapel Hill,” UNC ASFA has fought for and applauded the university’s adoption of free-speech policies that have earned Chapel Hill FIRE’s green-light rating. Despite this rating, and as the Martin Center recently reported, UNC-Chapel Hill currently employs some 35 DEI administrators at an annual cost of over $3 million. These DEI positions, along with those at the other UNC colleges, appear likely to be targets of the legislature. Moves such as these represent much-needed leadership—and provide cover to other public universities.
Private colleges are ultimately subject to pressure from their alumni donors.Sadly, most private colleges appear more resistant to this anti-DEI reform. They are not subject to the political pressures that have influenced the discussion at public universities. But they are ultimately subject to pressure from their alumni donors. There are now signs that private college alumni are awakening to the need to demand change at their alma maters. Such an example is Washington & Lee University, a private liberal-arts college with a long, rich history; a loyal, distinguished, and well-heeled body of alumni; and a very woke president. In recent years W&L’s administration, with the complaisance of its trustees, has wholeheartedly embraced DEI. The college’s current website proudly trumpets an enumeration of “New Positions,” “Recent Success,” “Initiatives,” and “Training” that almost all relate to DEI objectives. Some eight or so DEI administrators now have a pervasive influence on setting the university’s story. Although W&L has officially adopted the Chicago Principles, its policies have earned it a cautionary “yellow light” rating on free speech from FIRE. Incidents involving free speech in recent years have not elicited strong support from the university president. The names of several historic buildings, including Lee Chapel, have been erased as a concession to DEI.
An organized response from W&L alumni, The Generals Redoubt (TGR), has emerged to offer students, parents, and alumni an opportunity “to advance W&L’s unique history of honor, civility, and classical liberal arts education.” TGR has a substantial alumni donor base, supports a variety of speakers and campus initiatives, and has called for the resignation of the current university president. The group’s most dramatic proposal was an offer to raise $80 million to fund a new 800-seat convocation center and university museum in exchange for the restoration of Lee Chapel. Doubling down on its commitment to DEI, the university rejected TGR’s offer.
While TGR has been frustrated in its efforts to promote real reform at W&L, its example has spread to other private colleges, including Davidson, Cornell, and Princeton under the banner of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance (which also includes public universities such as UNC and the University of Virginia). If these alumni groups develop as cohesive, well-organized, and well-funded organizations, their respective private-university administrations will ultimately have to listen to them. Alumni have a unique ability to restore common sense to their alma maters by speaking out and by withholding their donations.
Universities have long been places where students encounter and learn from civilization’s greatest works. It has been on our campuses that students have learned to appreciate the centuries-old efforts of mankind to create stability and foster human flourishing out of a chaotic world. Today, the burgeoning efforts to eradicate DEI from higher education are essential to securing this freedom of academic inquiry. If these efforts are not ultimately successful, America’s colleges will continue to drift towards becoming indoctrination centers, controlled by intellectual elites. America’s future is at stake.
Garland S. Tucker III is a graduate of Washington & Lee University and Harvard Business School, the retired Chairman/CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation, and the author of Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Shaped America, from Jefferson to Reagan.