March 7, 2023 - 3:55pm

Last week, the Chancellor of the Texas A&M University system announced a ban on requiring diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements for admissions and faculty hiring. The next day, the Chancellor of the University of Houston system followed suit, noting that the system stands “against any actions or activities which promote discrimination in the guise of diversity, equity, and inclusion”.

DEI has long been a lodestar of American university policy — but is the tide turning? The term DEI often carries ideological baggage, as countless university racial literacy toolkits and diversity action plans demonstrate, but until recently little has been done to curtail the growth of the university DEI bureaucracy. Rather, a commitment to DEI has been increasingly baked into the very job descriptions of university employees. In a 2021 survey, 19% of faculty job listings asked for diversity statements. In a 2022 survey, 45.6% of large universities included some assessment of DEI in their tenure policies, a proportion that is mirrored even in medical schools.

These overt requirements — and the accompanying sense that they enforce a kind of ideological conformity, especially on issues of race, gender, and social justice — help explain why DEI has become a major political issue across the United States. While conservative states such as Florida and Texas have led the legislative charge, even some decidedly centrist and progressive groups have voiced their concerns over DEI requirements. A few university leaders seem to be listening.

In July of 2022, the Academic Freedom Alliance, a nonpartisan group of university professors, called for an end to required DEI statements in an open letter co-authored by the former dean of Harvard Medical School. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech group that has challenged Ron DeSantis’s policies in court, has released its own model legislation that would outlaw DEI statements at public universities. Even Jeremy Young of PEN America, a more progressive free speech group, recently noted that the organisation is “concerned about the free expression implications of mandatory diversity statements in university hiring processes”.

In other words, mandatory diversity statements are one of the most controversial DEI policies, and a few universities are now pulling back. Last month, I published documents showing how Texas Tech University assessed job applicants’ diversity statements. The documents show the university punishing job candidates for espousing race neutrality while praising others for using progressive catchphrases. Texas Tech quickly responded by saying it would no longer support the practice. Simultaneously, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a memo saying that the use of diversity statements in hiring was already prohibited by law. Texas A&M and the University of Houston are following explicit political orders.

Meanwhile, the University of North Carolina (UNC) Board of Governors, which governs the public universities in North Carolina, recently adopted a motion banning “compelled speech.” The policy never uses the term “DEI” — it will require the leadership of individual colleges to follow through with more focused enforcement — but it lays the groundwork for ending DEI statements across North Carolina. 

At first glance, the DEI regime might seem to be cracking up. No doubt, the news from Texas and North Carolina certainly marks a major development — and attests to the efficacy of political pressure. But the pressure on universities to embrace DEI is still ultimately far greater. The United State Department of Energy, America’s largest funder of the physical sciences, now requires all grant applicants to submit a plan describing how equity and inclusion will be “an intrinsic element to advancing scientific excellence” in their proposed projects. The National Institutes of Health is giving out nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in grants to universities for faculty hiring — with the explicit condition that the new hires demonstrate “a strong commitment to promoting diversity and inclusive excellence.” 

For most universities, DEI remains a guiding principle. The battle over American higher education has only just begun.