A Professor Gave a Woke Course and Nobody Came

The DEI revolution’s under-enrollment problem.

One of the seldom discussed aspects of the ongoing revolution in contemporary higher education is the problem institutions are having filling courses that are designed to impart the DEI message to students.

In the mediasphere, the conversation on DEI in higher ed is mostly about, e.g., the fear that conservative “politicization” will drive enrollments down. Students, it is claimed, just won’t stand for conservative reforms of the type instituted by Florida’s Ron DeSantis. This, of course, overlooks all the work that higher-education institutions have been doing for decades to politicize curricula and drive enrollments downward via their own politicized mechanisms.

Colleges have little incentive in the post-George Floyd Revolution days to linger over questions of enrollment.On occasion, there has been modest press reflection on the fact of under-enrollment in “Studies” and other highly politicized courses. Almost a decade ago, the Chicago Tribune ran a story noting that African-American Studies programs were facing defunding in Illinois state schools due to low enrollments. But colleges have little incentive in the post-George Floyd Revolution days to linger over questions of enrollment or even to report on the situation.

It is not easy to get data on this and other aspects of the consequences of DEI expansion on campuses, because institutions are interested in hiding inconvenient details. Yet those of us on college faculties are aware, for example, of how faculty recruitment has been altered in recent years to skew decision making away from scholarly productivity and promise and toward candidates’ identities and DEI politics.

Recently, John Sailer of the National Association of Scholars managed to get access to piles of documents from one school, Ohio State University, that describe precisely what is being done to revolutionize faculty hiring. There is voluminous evidence in these documents showing how hiring committees are decreasing their emphasis on the scholarly records of candidates and explicitly making hiring decisions in a discriminatory fashion along DEI lines.

The new marching orders are clear. You must hire people with the correct ideology on DEI, which in practice means active discrimination against any candidate who has not fully signed on to the anti-scientific ideology of antiracism/critical race studies.

This is the purpose of the DEI statements now being required by just about every American institution of higher education as part of the faculty hiring process. These statements are ideological vetting mechanisms to ensure that those who lack the right ideological faith are not brought on board.

And once colleges have hired these DEI true believers, what will they teach? Many contribute to the expanding number of courses that are more about activism than about learning a body of knowledge.

As previously hinted, information on DEI-intensive course enrollments is hard to come by. Schools don’t usually make course-enrollment data publicly available, and they are even more motivated to keep this information private when it reveals that courses designed to speak to DEI goals aren’t attracting many students.

Courses designed to speak to DEI goals aren’t attracting many students.I did a little research in my own institution, however, drawn by the fact that departments that are having enrollment problems have begun reaching out to the campus community in mass emails to try to stir up student interest.

The English department, for example, recently sent out a campus note that listed “a number of courses with space available.” All of the courses were, by their titles alone (“Latinx Theater,” “Sex, Sexuality, and Rape Culture in the 18th Century,” “Affrilachia: Regional Literature, Race, and Power”), identifiable as classes focusing on the obsession with identity politics that is presented by DEI offices as the new raison d’être of higher education.

That email got me exploring enrollment data (which are listed on our course-registration site) for the English department’s other courses. I discovered a number of other DEI-centered classes that had very few students in them. These included “Fiction and Reproductive Justice,” “Shakespeare’s Sisters,” and “Radicals and Renegades.”

Another department on campus, History, went even further in endeavoring to shore up faltering enrollments in identity politics-centered courses. They sent out a campus email inviting students to an “informational session,” lasting an hour, on several under-enrolled courses, among them “Black Women’s History” and “Brujas, Machos, y Travestis.” (The latter is in Spanish and means “Witches, Machos, and Transvestites.” “Machos” literally means “males,” but it is also used in slang to refer to male-presenting lesbians.)

This is the first time I can remember seeing this kind of intensive outreach by a department, aiming to recruit students to a class they had not chosen to enroll in.

A scroll through the course offerings in the “Studies” departments, as well as many of the humanities and social-science disciplines that conform to DEI ideology, showed similar enrollment concerns (in, e.g., “Whiteness/White Privilege,” “Intro to Critical Black Studies,” “Black Joy,” “Latina Feminisms in the US,” “Feminist Thought and Action,” “Feminist and LGBTQ+ Art,” “Doing Gender,” “Critical Theory: Antisemitism, Barbarism, Capitalism,” “Gender in Africa,” and “African Women & Social Action”).

Colleges change curricular requirements such that DEI courses fulfill university-wide “learning goals.”Another way in which schools are endeavoring to fill such courses with bodies is to change curricular requirements such that they fulfill university-wide “learning goals,” which all students must meet in order to graduate. A recent example from my campus is illustrative.

Previously, it was required that all students in the College of Arts & Sciences take a given number of courses with the designation “Diversity in the US” to graduate. The process by which a professor got his or her course that designation was distant from the course’s specific approach to diversity. There was, that is, no requirement to present diversity in any particular way other than descriptively. For example, a history professor might say, “The United States has a fair amount of diversity throughout at least its recent history (though the story is different earlier on).”

But that requirement came to be seen by our faculty as too unsubstantial in supporting the DEI regime, so the “Diversity in the US” requirement was eliminated and replaced with a straightforwardly ideological one. The new designation bears the far less subtle name of “Race, Power, and Inequality.”

To get that designation on your course, it is not sufficient that the class merely discuss the fact that inequality exists in human societies and that it frequently has racial dimensions. Instead, the “Race, Power, and Inequality” designation requires that a course “confront, critique, and seek to dismantle narratives and structures of power and privilege that deny the full human potential of minoritized and marginalized groups and individuals.” 

Such courses must “equip [students] with [the] critical perspectives necessary for analyzing and evaluating the intricate mechanisms that differently configure individuals’ and groups’ access to power and racial equity.” They must have an ideological perspective, not merely an intellectual one. They must “seek to dismantle” particular social orders. They must “build racial literacy.”

In other words, they must give students the official DEI perspective on race, which is that all inequalities existing between groups on racial lines must be the consequence of illegitimate structures of power. Thus are many students who would prefer courses that impart knowledge dragooned into politicized offerings.

Students who would prefer courses that impart knowledge are dragooned into politicized offerings.What this means in practical terms is twofold.

Ideologically driven courses like those listed above, which might otherwise face difficulties getting students into seats, have that task made somewhat easier by obtaining a university designation, since all students are required to take some number of RPI courses. It also means that those courses that formerly carried the “Diversity in the US” designation, but that cannot be RPI-designated because the professor insists on purely scientific and non-propagandistic treatment of the question of race and inequality, will suffer a hit to their enrollments.

Perhaps it speaks well of the common sense of many college students that they are not interested in spending time and money on “woke” courses. It certainly speaks poorly of college leaders that they insist on creating them, staffing them with ideologically screened faculty, then forcing them on hapless students.

Alexander Riley is a professor of sociology at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Scholars. All views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of his employer. Follow him on Substack here.