The Next Front in the Fight to Dismantle DEI on Campus

Arizona’s higher-ed reformers are not resting on their laurels.

[Editor’s note: The following article continues the Martin Center’s series on the status of higher-ed reform in states of interest to our readers. Please read our reports on Tennessee, Florida, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.]

As a battleground state in our national political contests, Arizona is also ground zero in the fight over the future of higher education in America. Higher-ed-reform advocates have notched several victories in Arizona recently, but the forces in favor of the status quo have stubbornly resisted many of these efforts, leaving much still to be done. Effective and lasting reform will require either a significant course correction by the state’s universities themselves, or else the direct intervention of the Arizona legislature or the Arizona Board of Regents (or both) to exercise more aggressive oversight, especially regarding curriculum and employment.

For instance, the forces of reform are close to achieving an important win in the battle against racial preferences in higher education. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s clear rejection of the use of race in college admissions last year, conservative and free-enterprise groups in Arizona are seeking to ensure that state universities and all other levels of government cannot sidestep the ruling when it comes to employment, contracting, and operations. Like the constitution of several other states, the Arizona Constitution explicitly prohibits the state from discriminating “on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.” But—also as in other states—this provision contains a potential loophole that allows any actions that a government unit can link to remaining eligible for funding from federal programs. In short, racial discrimination is banned unless a public entity simply points to pressure from the federal government to engage in it.

Free-enterprise groups in Arizona are seeking to ensure that universities cannot sidestep the Supreme Court’s racial-preferences ruling.Fortunately, a ballot referendum that would close this loophole is making its way through the Arizona legislature. Having already passed the House and earned committee approval in the Senate, the referendum will—if ultimately approved by both bodies—go before Arizona voters in the November 2024 general election. This ballot measure amends the Arizona Constitution to make clear that the state cannot, under any circumstances, discriminate on the basis of race when judging a pool of applicants in employment or operations. To comply with federal regulations on equal opportunity, the state can engage in “outreach, advertising or communication efforts” to recruit applicants from underrepresented backgrounds, but it cannot use racial preferences when judging the candidates who choose to apply. This referendum would thus undeniably prohibit racial preferences in admissions and hiring at state universities and other government entities. Moreover, the referendum would enshrine a state constitutional protection against forcing candidates to endorse racial discrimination or “diversity, equity, or inclusion” (DEI) through the use of DEI statements or related tactics.

If placed on the ballot and approved by the voters this fall, the referendum would represent one of the most significant legislative victories for higher-ed reform this year. Yet the Arizona legislature, which has very narrow conservative majorities in both houses, has advanced a host of other bills relating to higher ed, as well. Among these is legislation seeking to enhance academic transparency by requiring public universities to post on their websites a current syllabus and a list of materials for each course, along with a curriculum vitae for the instructor. Another measure prohibits any public entity, including state universities, from spending money on DEI programs, requiring an employee to participate in DEI programs, or taking an “official position” on such theories as “group marginalization, anti-racism, systemic oppression,” and many other DEI-related concepts. This bill follows similar efforts to abolish DEI in Texas and Florida. Unlike the state’s referendum effort, however, all of these bills face potential gubernatorial vetoes.

Beyond the legislature, the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR)—which oversees the state’s three public universities and whose members were mostly appointed by former Gov. Doug Ducey—remains perhaps best positioned to address the infusion of politics and DEI in Arizona’s public universities, given the state’s currently divided government.

Last year, ABOR ended the use of diversity statements in hiring for faculty and staff positions following a report from the Goldwater Institute, the conservative policy organization where I work. The report found that up to 80 percent of faculty job openings at Arizona public universities required applicants to submit statements pledging fealty to DEI and related concepts such as “intersectional personal identities.” Goldwater successfully argued that these statements operated as little more than ideological screening mechanisms designed to eliminate any candidate who dissented from progressive orthodoxy.

Simply bringing what universities are doing to light may help reformers gain ground.Although faculty hiring committees will almost certainly attempt to exclude dissenters through other means, the speed of ABOR’s response suggests that board members found the ubiquity of diversity-statement requirements highly objectionable. This success thus suggests that it is a worthwhile approach to seek reform outside of the legislative arena alone. Indeed, reform-minded citizens can use publicly available information (and formal public-records requests) to expose the excesses of the DEI regime and prompt such boards to act. Simply bringing what universities are doing to light may help to gain ground in the fight to renew and restore higher ed.

To that end, Goldwater has just released another such report that exposes the continued pervasiveness of DEI in Arizona public institutions. Through public-records requests, Goldwater obtained the syllabi and online course materials for a required course at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Titled “Diversity and Civility at Cronkite,” this course instructs students in the nuances of progressive identity politics, including the various flavors of “microaggressions” and the crucial practice of using preferred pronouns. An assignment in the course requires students to draft a public-relations plan for a hypothetical “nonbinary” popstar who uses “they/them” pronouns.

The “Diversity and Civility at Cronkite” course represents only a single example of how graduation requirements force students to endure DEI-laden classes that add little or nothing to their education. Eliminating DEI offices and prohibiting diversity statements are positive steps, but they go only so far. Higher-ed reformers in Arizona and elsewhere cannot afford to exempt the curriculum in their attempts to roll back the DEI regime on campus. Professors rightly have a large measure of academic freedom to teach their courses in the way they see fit. But state legislatures and boards for public universities also have a role to play in ensuring that universities provide students with a rigorous and useful education.

There is no reason why the public must simply accept that students at public universities are forced to take courses that promote the dismantling of our system of constitutional government. DEI takes many of its principles from Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related movements. CRT not only provides a questionable academic framework for understanding race, but it also seeks to transform the legal system and society itself to achieve greater “equity.” As prominent CRT scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic put it in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, “The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power” (emphases added). And this movement is hostile to the American system of constitutional government. “Critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law,” Delgado and Stefancic write.

Academic freedom does not oblige students to take courses with a clear activist mission.Perhaps there is an argument based in academic freedom that professors should be free to teach these concepts or even advocate for societal transformation in their classrooms. But surely the principle of academic freedom does not oblige us to accept universities’ forcing students to take courses with such a clear activist mission. Would higher-ed administrators tolerate for a single moment a graduation requirement that forced students to take courses based on concepts from the integralist movement that seeks to align civil law with the teachings of the Catholic Church?

Fortunately, there is a way to prevent universities from requiring courses of dubious value while protecting academic freedom. The Goldwater Institute and Speech First have developed the Freedom from Indoctrination Act, a model policy to ensure that no student is forced to take courses promoting DEI concepts like microaggressions and intersectionality. This model policy may be adopted by state legislatures or boards of state universities (or both).

The policy prohibits universities from requiring students to take a course promoting DEI concepts as a general-education or major requirement. Furthermore, universities under the policy cannot force students into DEI courses by failing to provide enough seats in other courses that fulfill university and major requirements. The model policy ensures academic freedom by preventing the university from requiring faculty to include DEI content in their courses. It clearly defines DEI content as that which relates certain concepts to contemporary American society, among them microaggressions, gender identity, and intersectionality. The policy would therefore prevent entities such as the Cronkite School from requiring “Diversity and Civility” for the completion of its programs.

At the same time, the Freedom from Indoctrination Act protects academic freedom in several ways. First, the model policy does nothing to control content within an individual course. Faculty members are still free to teach their courses in the way they see fit, subject to general university and departmental requirements. The model policy places responsibility on academic administrators to ensure that students can progress through the university without taking DEI courses. Second, the policy makes clear that the study of the history of racial hatred and discrimination does not count as DEI content. Under this policy, courses on slavery in America, the civil-rights movement, and the Holocaust could continue to fulfill university and major requirements. Studies of “microaggressions” and “preferred pronouns,” in contrast, could not. Finally, the policy exempts certain academic departments, such as gender studies and ethnic studies, from the requirements discussed so far. If a student decides to major in gender studies, for example, courses with DEI content could fulfill requirements for that degree. This provision ensures that students who want to take DEI courses can still do so, while not forcing all students into DEI courses.

Addressing the curriculum and discriminatory employment practices at public universities are the next fronts in the fight to roll back DEI on campus. Higher-ed reformers in Arizona and around the country cannot afford to simply cede all decisionmaking about the curriculum at state institutions of higher education to the progressives who dominate the faculty and administration. Nor can they rest on the partial victories delivered by the Supreme Court over narrow segments of university operations. Instead, they must actively pursue robust policy reforms, as those of us in Arizona are currently in the battle to do.

Timothy K. Minella is a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute’s Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy. He advances policies and ideas that promote constitutional principles in education and public life.