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Ideology meets modern campus politics

The bureaucratic bloat and alarming agenda of DEI

Students walk on the Stanford University campus in Stanford, Calif. Associated Press/Photo by Ben Margot, file

Ideology meets modern campus politics
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Judge Kyle Duncan would seem, at first glance, to be an unsurprising choice as a speaker at an elite institution such as Stanford Law School. Duncan has served in many prestigious academic, legal, and jurisprudential positions, including his current role as a judge on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

That résumé did not matter, however, when Duncan appeared at Stanford Law School on March 9 at the invitation of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization. Progressive student protesters vilified Duncan for his involvement in cases such as U.S. v. Varner (2020). The appellant in that case, Norman Varner, had been convicted for attempting to obtain child pornography. Meanwhile, Varner had personally transitioned to a female identity. He asked the court to refer to him by female pronouns, a request that Duncan and the court denied on jurisdictional grounds. This case and similar ones made Duncan a persona non gratis at Stanford.

Over the past decade, the “canceling” of undesirable speakers has become a familiar storyline in campus life. When pro-life advocates, or those who hold traditional views of sexuality and marriage, attempt to speak on many campuses, they are shouted down or menaced into terminating their talk. Stanford protestors constantly interrupted Duncan, and one even screamed, “We hope your daughters get raped!”

What made the Stanford episode unusual was the role of Tirien Steinbach, Stanford Law’s associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Amidst the venomous uproar, she approached the judge, asked to address the crowd, and delivered a prepared lecture suggesting that tolerating speech by people such as Duncan wasn’t worth the damage caused by his views. Steinbach concluded by saying she was “glad that this [protest] is going on here.”

Most colleges of any size (public, private, or religious) now employ DEI administrators. Large schools sometimes have hundreds of them. They reflect major bureaucratic bloat over the past three decades, during which administrative positions have grown at more than double the rate of faculty positions.

The reasons for this costly trend are complex. It is connected to a related surge in federal regulations. Most institutions of higher learning receive direct or indirect federal assistance. Government money comes with a mind-boggling array of requirements, from endless paperwork to time-consuming “trainings” for employees and students.

Rare cases of dissent against DEI doctrine are often met with threats of discipline or even termination.

Title IX regulations alone, ostensibly designed to prohibit sex discrimination in education, have spawned whole curricula on how (for example) to affirm and include people of various gender identities. Title IX also requires extrajudicial investigations of people accused of sexual harassment or gender discrimination. DEI offices are often an institutional response to those regulatory demands as well.

As historic concepts, “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” are wonderful ideals. They draw partly on Christian principles of human equality before God and the belief that representatives “of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” will worship the Lamb of God (Revelation 7:9). But in modern secular culture, powerful people often repurpose good ideas toward other ends.

Starting in the early 2000s, educational theorists began to distinguish between “equity” and “equality” and to push DEI rhetoric to promote the burgeoning LGBTQ+ movement. It was a brilliant move. Who wanted to be seen as opposing diversity, equity, and inclusion? DEI advocates also insisted that racial disparities in education, whether in faculty/staff representation or in learning outcomes for ethnic minority students, meant that a school was systemically racist.

Driven by political pressures and understandably fearful of being labeled racist or bigoted, colleges apparently determined that a DEI bureaucracy was, if nothing else, a symbol of earnestness. If a school was deficient in any DEI-related matters—and absolute compliance with ever-changing goals is the DEI standard—they were at least working to create a more DEI-friendly community.

To be fair, some DEI administrators do help ensure that schools prioritize hiring job candidates who enhance actual diversity (such as faculty from underrepresented ethnic groups, or from atypical economic backgrounds). For some administrators, the classic connotations of diversity, equity, and inclusion still carry weight.

Since the majority of university faculty and administrators are politically progressive, however, they are unlikely to raise questions about potential problems that DEI bureaucracy can cause, such as suppressing the free exchange of ideas. Rare cases of dissent against DEI doctrine are often met with threats of discipline or even termination. In other words, dissenters are disciplined for having a diverse view of diversity.

Other than generating content for curricula and trainings and crafting senior administrators’ proclamations of DEI-affirming sentiments, DEI administrators often have fairly vague job responsibilities. But the episode at Stanford suggests that some DEI administrators wish to embark on a truly alarming project: collaborating with militant students and faculty to entirely silence unfashionable minority views. Just ask Judge Duncan about his visit to Stanford Law.

Thomas S. Kidd

Thomas S. Kidd is research professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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