No Resting On Our Anti-DEI Laurels

The fight to defund and ban racist campus bureaucracies is not yet over.

To recite again the arguments against “diversity, equity, and inclusion” borders on condescending. The nation watched late last year as three university presidents refused to condemn quasi-genocidal chants on their campuses. The dogmas of DEI culminated for all to see in ethical reversals, self-evident contradictions, and moral vacuity.

Thus, I come here neither to praise nor to blame DEI but to bury it. The case against it is strong, but less clear is how to roll back its seeming ubiquity in, and control of, our institutions of higher learning. Thankfully, there are courses of action administrators and state policymakers can take to limit its influence and spread on university campuses.

The dogmas of DEI have culminated in ethical reversals, self-evident contradictions, and moral vacuity.The most high-profile piece of legislation along this line came last year when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that prohibited public universities and colleges in Florida from using “state or federal funds to promote, support, or maintain any programs or campus activities that advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, or promote or engage in political or social activism.”

It’s worth noting that this bill not only forbade expenditures on DEI specifically but political activism more broadly. Today’s “diversity” may very well be tomorrow’s “belonging.” Last century’s “critical legal studies” became this decade’s “critical race theory.” Words change. This bill targeted the ideas, not the nomenclature, so conservatives need not spend political capital banning an ever-mutating hydra of progressive platitudes.

But it’s all well and good that a red-state governor with unified control of its legislature can pass a bill limiting indoctrination in public colleges and universities. What about the rest of us?

The speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, Robin Vos, is charting a course even in a purple state with a Democratic governor. Beginning last May, Vos and Wisconsin’s governor, Tony Evers, clashed over the Badger State’s budget, with Republicans predicating general funding increases on DEI cuts. Evers signed the bill and used his line-item veto power to protect DEI positions. Even so, Vos refused to approve any pay raises for university employees until Democrats accepted retrenchments.

With pay-raises frozen, Democrats caved, and Vos garnered substantial wins. The university system agreed to freeze new hires, reassign DEI employees to other positions, prohibit DEI statements on student applications, and abolish affirmative-action policies for faculty positions in return for salary raises and the construction of new buildings on campuses. That the university systems mounted so little real defense in Wisconsin and Florida is testament to the fact that, hearteningly, these DEI bureaucracies are not as robust as many conservatives fear.

Heritage senior fellow Jay Greene has argued, rightly, that the support for such radical politics is shallow. Surveys confirm that the majority of professors still prefer academic freedom to social justice and foundational texts to inclusivity. The outsized presence in the media of DEI administrators and a handful of protesting undergraduates has created a paper tiger. Greene likens university administrators themselves to senior leaders in communist regimes before the fall of the Berlin wall—more ruthlessly ambitious than ideologically committed, mouthing fashionable shibboleths to advance their careers and abandoning them as soon as risk arises. The ingenuity of Vos and DeSantis is simply their willingness to call a bluff.

In addition to DEI prohibitions at the university level, policymakers could target state and federal departments themselves.Yet, in place of prohibitions at the university level, policymakers could also target various state and federal departments themselves, prohibiting appropriations towards ideological research, departments, or bureaucracies.

For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosts the WeiLab, a laboratory of research dedicated to the advancement of equity and inclusion. Last year, this research shop received a $1.25 million federal grant to advance their “Inclusive Professional Framework for Societies,” a set of standards for “changing mental models” in professional organizations in science, technology, and engineering. These organizations have the potential to host a “national level discourse” and advance the principles of DEI. In other words, the framework uses gussied up language to essentially suggest that professional organizations could be a lynchpin for systemic thought-reform.

The broader Wisconsin Center for Education Research receives funds from a number of public institutions: the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the Institute of Education Sciences, the Wisconsin Department of Education, and several others. Other “groundbreaking” research has included, for example, the paper “The Power of Language: Exploiting Foundations of Neoliberalism in Federal Financial Aid Policy,” a critique of financial-aid policies through a framework of critical race theory. And this is from the school of education that famously introduced CRT into the broader field of education.

Like the appearance of Haley’s Comet, every few years Republican presidential hopefuls declare their ambitions to abolish the Department of Education; the proposal lights up headlines and quickly disappears. It’s not a serious proposition. That being said, reformation of the department’s budgets and expenditures is a mechanism through which legislators could stymie the growth of DEI.

Why are governmental institutions funding our own executioner? Like policies at the university level, laws could prohibit the National Science Foundation or Department of Education from bankrolling research that’s explicitly political or that’s merely glorified activism.

Opponents of these policy pathways—limiting funds and banning noxious practices—raise concerns about academic freedom. But these critiques misunderstand the ideal and the governance of universities. Professors are still free to pursue their preferred research and to receive grants from private institutions. Plenty of non-governmental foundations and affluent individuals were happy to bankroll Ibram X. Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research despite its complete lack of scholarly production.

It’s incumbent to support scholarship that will advance our national interest, not actively dismantle it.But so long as we use our public institutions to fund academic research, it’s incumbent on our legislators to bolster and support the kind of scholarship that will advance our national interest, not actively seek to dismantle it. What’s more, much of the DEI industrial complex is not thoughtful professors examining laws or practices to shrink racial disparities but university-level bureaucrats imposing noxious policies by fiat. They have no claim to academic freedom.

If anything, conservatives have found themselves in this position because they’ve provided too much deference to an overextended definition of academic freedom—not just that academics should study without fear of sanction but that they must receive carte blanche from the public purse to do so. There’s been unilateral disarmament on the part of the Right. Progressives have been happy to underwrite institutions like the WeiLab at UW-Madison but would understandably keep funds from a professor who sought to advance the cause of white supremacy or “Lost Cause” ideology. Conservatives can and should use their governing power to, well, govern—to steward public institutions towards the common good.

Of course, none of these efforts will mean much if conservatives don’t concurrently focus on reinvigorating a robust liberal-arts education in our universities, as has been thoroughly documented in these pages before. As any lawn enthusiast will tell you, a lawn requires both plucking weeds and planting healthy grass. DeSantis paired these actions well, establishing the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education even as the law prohibited public expenditures on DEI practices.

At its root, the prevalence of DEI at our nation’s colleges represents the apotheosis of the 1960s radical push to shift the very telos of our universities from institutions of academic training and the advancement of human knowledge to centers of societal reform and political revolution. Conservatives have been in retreat for decades, and these reforms and measures represent the beginning of a Gramscian countermarch. It begins with defunding the excesses. Several policymakers have demonstrated how this can be done. It’s imperative that others follow suit.

Daniel Buck is a former English teacher and the author of What Is Wrong with Our Schools?