Zealous DEI Programs Land a University in Court

A Penn State Abington professor’s “hostile work environment” lawsuit is under way.

For the last 20 years or so, many colleges and universities have embraced the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) ideology by hiring administrators to promote it throughout the school. Although DEI might sound benign, its fundamental beliefs are not; they’re hostile to the foundations of Western civilization, including individualism, private property, free enterprise, and logic. Moreover, many people who are drawn to DEI positions are steeped in racial hostility.

That toxic brew has landed Penn State Abington in federal court.

Zack De Piero was a professor who taught English and composition courses. He had been with Penn State Abington since 2018, each year receiving an “excellent” faculty evaluation. He is no longer on the faculty, however. Due to repeated hostile treatment from his superiors, he was driven to resign in 2022.

To achieve “equity,” Penn State Abington professors were encouraged to incorporate race into their grading.What had started as a good relationship with the school began to sour with “professional development” meetings for faculty members where administrators addressed racial issues in broad terms. To achieve “equity,” for example, professors were encouraged to incorporate race into their grading. Rather than grading students purely on the quality of their work, they were admonished to give elevated grades to minority students.

To make the point more emphatic, the chair of the English department emailed De Piero (and two white colleagues), stating, “Racist structures are quite real in assessment … For me, the racism is in the results if the results draw a color line.” To avoid trouble with her, De Piero had to abandon his colorblind approach to grading.

Matters got much worse following the death of George Floyd in 2020, when Damian Fernandez (at the time, the university’s chancellor) insisted that all faculty and staff join a Zoom meeting, a “Conversation on Racial Climate.” Among other things, the “conversation” leader, Alina Wong (assistant vice provost for educational equity), led participants in a “breathing exercise” where whites were told to “hold their breath longer—to feel the pain.” De Piero did not see why white faculty members should be treated as if they were guilty.

Another administrator, the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, sent an email to all employees that called upon white people “to feel terrible about their internalized white supremacy” and told them that, to atone for it, they should “hold other white people accountable.”

The racial hostility was building.

In subsequent “professional development” meetings, facilitators presented examples of “problematic comments” that an instructor might make to a student, and every example involved a white instructor saying something deemed hurtful to a student from a minority group. That was followed by a training video entitled “White Teachers are a Problem,” another sweeping attack on white faculty members simply because of their race. The English department chair then required faculty members to sit through a “dialogue” about critical race theory and antiracism that slammed the ideas of “race neutrality, equal opportunity, objectivity, colorblindness, and merit.” It also condemned “white self-interest.”

White professors were told to “hold their breath longer—to feel the pain.”De Piero felt very uncomfortable with Penn State’s racial stereotyping and antagonism.

The school’s DEI enforcers continued to push their views in 2021. A departmental meeting in January was devoted to “antiracist pedagogy,” where the message that professors should have different grading standards based on the race of the student was again trumpeted. That was followed by a training session on the harms of “White Language Supremacy.”

By April 2021, De Piero was fed up with the hostility directed at white faculty and decided to file complaints with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and Penn State’s Affirmative Action Office (AAO). That did not turn out well. The associate director of the AAO responded to De Piero’s complaint that he felt humiliated and discriminated against with the line “there is a problem with the white race” and the claim that he should “broaden his perspective.” She told him to attend more antiracism workshops “until you get it.”

As for his complaint that the “White Teachers are a Problem” training was offensive to him, she brushed it off, declaring that it did not constitute discrimination and did not violate any university policy.

Obviously, “diversity” is a one-way street at Penn State.

De Piero then decided to take his case public by writing an opinion piece that was published by several media outlets in Pennsylvania. In it, he argued that Penn State would harm minority students and widen the achievement gap by failing to teach them key academic skills and lowering its standards for them—exactly what he saw at his school.

That article fell on deaf ears, of course.

The administration continued its antiracism “trainings.” One required reading was “The Myth of the Colorblind Writing Classroom: White Instructors Confront White Privilege in Their Classrooms.” It asserted that white faculty members “reproduce racist discourses and practices,” but when De Piero asked for specific examples of that, he received no answer.

On the crucial “hostile work environment” complaint, De Piero had set forth a sufficiently compelling argument.At this point, Penn State struck back, filing a complaint against De Piero that alleged him to be guilty of “bullying and harassment.” Those are the go-to charges college officials now rely on when they want to find an excuse for sacking someone they find objectionable. When De Piero sought to find out exactly how he had done that, he was told that he had employed “intimidating body language.” Eventually he received a letter informing him that he had (as he summarizes the language) “bullied and harassed his colleagues during the meeting by asking questions that challenged Penn State’s race-based orthodoxy.”

Thin-skinned race commissars can’t tolerate challenges to their orthodoxy. Asking questions is “bullying.”

In August 2022, De Piero resigned his professorship. In doing so, he explained to his superiors that the university “must strongly reconsider whether its recent emphasis on antiracist programming ultimately has students’ best interests in mind, from their academic training to their psychological well-being.”

De Piero then filed a lawsuit against Penn State, making four arguments, the key one being that the school’s policies created a “hostile work environment” in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The case was assigned to Judge Wendy Beetlestone of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania—an Obama appointee. Penn State probably thought she would side with the university when it moved to have the case dismissed.

Judge Beetlestone decided that three of De Piero’s four complaints were not legally well-founded and dismissed them, but on the crucial “hostile work environment” complaint, she ruled that De Piero had set forth a sufficiently compelling argument to allow the case to proceed.

Allowing the case to go forward was unquestionably the right decision. The Civil Rights Act was written in racially neutral terms. It protects white workers against harassment and discrimination just as much as it protects black workers. De Piero will get his chance to show that Penn State has violated the law with its continual berating of white people.

What is so illuminating about this case is the window it gives us into the mentality of higher education’s DEI commissars. The leadership at Penn State is obviously imbued with hostility against white people in general and emphatically against a white professor who dares to question its tropes about “white privilege” and “antiracist” education. They are the sorts of closed-minded zealots who would rather lose a good professor than listen to his arguments against their cherished beliefs.

If De Piero were still around the campus, I would suggest that he give each of the defendants a copy of Erec Smith’s book A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition, which I wrote about here. Maybe someone else who cares about educational standards will do so.

The case probably has a long way to go, but it could (and should) set the important precedent that the overwrought diversity “training” regimes in place at many of our colleges create a hostile work environment for white faculty members and are therefore illegal under the Civil Rights Act.

George Leef is director of external relations at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.