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The academic left’s proselytizing zeal

Diversity, equity, and inclusion statements threaten higher education

iStock/Dzmitry Dzemidovich

The academic left’s proselytizing zeal
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The number of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices has proliferated at American colleges and universities in recent years. On higher education job boards and websites like LinkedIn, institutions regularly post searches for chief diversity officers. Some observers have raised an alarm about “DEI bloat” in higher education, suggesting it is an ideologically motivated form of bureaucratic expansion at many institutions. While DEI overstaffing may be a valid concern in some contexts, the more troubling issue is the role DEI statements are playing in many institutions.

Increasingly, DEI statements are being used as a litmus test for faculty recruitment, promotion, or tenure. In such cases, the university has normally codified a particular understanding of DEI that faculty are expected to affirm, or at least conform to, as part of their employment or professional advancement. The sanctioned understanding of DEI, what I call “DEI-as-orthodoxy,” typically reflects concepts rooted in left-wing identity politics such as antiracism and white fragility, or progressive popularized versions of scholarly concepts such as Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.

When DEI statements are used to enforce the boundaries of acceptable thought, they function like secular confessional statements. Stepping outside the bounds of DEI-as-orthodoxy results in coerced indoctrination through diversity training or excommunication through termination. In some contexts, DEI heretics are also shunned through cancellation.

It remains a relatively rare occurrence for faculty members to publicly criticize DEI statements, since doing so would damage their reputation, jeopardize their careers, and perhaps even incur the mob wrath of student activists. Fortunately, someone is raising the alarm on behalf of dissenting faculty members who are being coerced by such statements. Last summer, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) released a statement criticizing DEI statements. FIRE claims to have “heard from hundreds of faculty members concerned that their university’s DEI statement policy violates the First Amendment, principles of academic freedom, or both.”

Fortunately, someone is raising the alarm on behalf of dissenting faculty members who are being coerced by such statements.

The Academic Freedom Alliance released a similar statement last fall that rightly argues, “Academics seeking employment or promotion will almost inescapably feel pressured to say things that accommodate the perceived ideological preferences of an institution demanding a diversity statement, notwithstanding the actual beliefs or commitments of those forced to speak.”

I support confessional statements in appropriate academic contexts. My own institution requires faculty and administrators to affirm one or more confessional statements. Those statements reflect our school’s heritage as well as the ongoing convictions of our sponsoring denominational tradition. Our confessional documents are not used as coercive clubs to demand conformity on every minor point, but they do define our boundaries and inform our vision for Christ-centered higher education. Of course, we are not a secular institution but rather a private Christian university. As such, we are well within our First Amendment rights to embrace a confessional identity that informs our approach to academic freedom.

Unfortunately, the DEI movement is largely captive to progressive (and sometimes transgressive) worldview assumptions and driven by a proselytizing zeal to compel adherence. Thus, when a university imposes DEI as a test of institutional orthodoxy, it puts some faculty in the position of either rejecting their sincerely held religious convictions or endorsing policies they honestly believe undermine better understandings of diversity, equity, or inclusion than those offered by left-wing thought leaders and activists. DEI-as-orthodoxy is a threat to academic freedom—even in secular and non-sectarian institutions.

Universities should never promote or even tolerate racial animus or any other form of bigotry. Furthermore, it is often a virtuous goal to cultivate greater diversity in academic institutions. In my own context of Christian higher education, which is predominantly white, many schools need to do a better job of developing minority leaders and scholars. But this must be done while also having honest conversations about debatable matters rather than simplistically and coercively imposing faddish ideologies as quasi-religious norms. DEI-as-orthodoxy may well advance the cause of progressive identity politics and further politicize institutions of higher education. But it neither represents some of the core values of higher education nor arguably best serves the very populations that DEI initiatives claim to represent.

Nathan A. Finn

Nathan A. Finn is professor of faith and culture and directs the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C. He is a research fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is senior editor for Integration: A Journal of Faith and Learning. He also serves as teaching pastor at the First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C.

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