D-Day for DEI at Universities? Not so Fast


The recent saga of university presidents called before Congress to answer questions about campus free speech plays a small role in a larger drama about conservative think tanks and legislators attempting to regulate campus diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs and policies. In the past year, 52 bills have been introduced in 24 states that would limit DEI efforts on college campuses. Most of those bills are based on playbooks prepared by the conservative Manhattan Institute, Goldwater Institute, and Claremont Institute and are designed to restrict DEI offices, training programs, personal statements, and hiring and admissions practices. Thus far, Washington is not among states that have proposed restrictions on DEI efforts in higher education.

Much of the recent media spotlight has been on Harvard’s now-resigned president Claudine Gay. Critics from the Manhattan Institute have suggested that she was appointed by the Harvard Board because she was as a black woman who was “nominally qualified” for the job and an “exemplar” of the DEI movement. Charges of plagiarism made Gay’s case more dramatic than that of University of Pennsylvania’s president M. Elizabeth McGill who also resigned after the Congressional hearings. 

While responses that presidents of three high-profile national private institutions gave at those hearings were sometimes legalistic and evasive, neither those leaders nor the institutions they led (Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) should be viewed as representative of all higher education. Nevertheless, characteristics and vulnerabilities of elite national institutions seem to be driving state-based efforts to limit DEI programs and services broadly. It’s a bum rap for many of these colleges.

James Piereson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, suggested that “The Harvard scandal has brought out the diversity regime into the open where Americans can see it in full—and what they see is a quasi-totalitarian operation that promotes propaganda and thought control ….” However, data suggest that Harvard and other elite institutions of higher education are different from other colleges and universities in important ways.

A quick comparison with Washington institutions illustrates how state-based colleges and universities differ from the three elite national universities that were on stage during the recent Congressional saga. I selected the flagship research university (the University of Washington), the land grant institution (Washington State University) which was created by the Morrill Act to serve working class citizens, and the largest community college (Bellevue College). The following table compares undergraduate education at these three institutions with Harvard, Penn, and MIT using the Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System which collects data from United States colleges and universities.

SchoolAccess (% of applicants admitted)Cost (tuition and fees for an academic year)Success (% graduating on time)Ethnicity (percent identifying as white)% identifying as male

Five key differences are clear. First, the elite schools are far more selective which means that admissions processes are far more important. Second, tuition and fees for private institutions can be more than ten times the cost of state-supported schools. Third, graduation rates generally go up as selectivity of admissions increases. However, high graduation rates among selective institutions are likely driven by the incoming preparation, ability, and financial resources of students who make it through the admissions process. Fourth, none of the elite schools is majority white. Finally, almost all these institutions (and most other institutions of higher education) are now majority female. 

From the founding of Harvard in 1636 until the mid 1800s, higher education in the U.S. was primarily available from a few private institutions and was almost exclusively white and male and originally meant to train ministers. The first public university was founded in Georgia in 1785. The move to diversify higher education began with the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 and continued with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Higher Education Act of 1965 which was amended in 1972 to improve access for low-income students and women.

Elite private institutions no longer serve most Americans, and about 72% of college students are enrolled in public institutions. Less than 1% attend the most selective institutions. Yet elite institutions are in the spotlight. Their exclusivity in the admissions process largely drove recent Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action. And their exclusivity and diversity profile has been a key plot point in the effort to overturn DEI programs and services broad-brush at the state level. 

Community college leaders and others who represent some of the most accessible and affordable schools in the country have signed on to a coalition that is dedicated to pushing back against anti-DEI legislation: “We believe that attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion through governmental overreach threaten the very mission of higher education and the democratic ideals of our country. Indeed, limiting what can be taught and learned about history, race, gender, sexuality, and each other marginalizes our citizens and limits our potential as a country.”

When nearly all citizens can access an affordable education, legislative and Supreme Court actions that focus on trying to make sure that race doesn’t play a role in admissions or campus programs and services are far less relevant. Perhaps the drama is less about DEI efforts and more about trying to return to an era in which elite institutions of higher education were the stage on which white men were the key players.

Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan, author of "Digital Immigrants and Media Integration," is a writer, academician, and organizational leader. She has been a high school teacher, book editor, non-profit leader, journalist, technology executive, university professor, academic administrator, and higher education consultant.


  1. Most interesting reporting, Sally. Just one quibble: there are two columns of Percent identifying as white; they don’t add up or make sense. Shouldn’t one read “not identifying”?

    • Thanks, Jean. In the original table, the last column is labeled “Gender (% identifying as male).” Somehow got scrambled before publication.

  2. So much hinges on how we define “DEI” and “anti-DEI.”

    It’s maddening to me how much of the mainstream media fixates on the loudest and crudest MAGA right anti-DEI voices – people who really do seem to motivated largely by an odious politics of white grievance – to dismiss as racist or reactionary any criticism of the increasingly rococo, ideologically driven, crudely racialist sorting regimes that now have taken institutional root at more selective colleges and universities (it’s not just the Ivy League) and that have made huge inroads in other progressive cultural spaces.

    I’m a non-white immigrant to this country (who grew up here). And a traditional liberal, who believes strongly in basic liberal values like tolerance, pluralism, secularism, rationality, and free speech. And who believes that colorblindness, however unattainable, remains an important goal, that merit isn’t just a chimerical mask for structural inequities, that individual freedom and autonomy matter but so too does individual responsibility and obligation to society. And yes, that diversity, equity and inclusion matter a lot too, albeit not to the point of taking precedence over all these other values.

    So when we discuss DEI, if we are saying (as Rufo and the hyperpolarized conservative think tanks seem to be) that we should end all campus efforts to promote racial diversity and support marginalized identities, then no, I’m very much not on board. But if we are saying, as many elite university administrations implicitly are, that only those who scrupulously adhere — or at least scrupulously pay public lip service to — to a narrow and highly contested set of intersectional identitarian precepts about race and identity (ones, btw, that are rejected by most Americans, including most non-white Americans) should be allowed to teach, work or speak on campus, well, I’m very much not on board with that either.

    I know that people like me who believe in these traditional cultural norms are numerous, and may even still constitute a majority on the left, the growing identitarian capture of culturally progressive institutions notwithstanding. We can embrace racial and identity diversity without compromising viewpoint diversity on campuses, and without rejecting basic principles around free speech and academic freedom. We can reject laws that attempt to restrict what is taught on our campuses, as we simultaneously dial back efforts by ever-proliferating DEI bureaucracies on campuses to enforce a rigid conformity on questions of race and identity. And so on. But that would involve rejecting the two extremes that currently act as the lead antagonists in this fraught debate. and focusing on the quieter, less polarized voices the media too ignores or mutes in this debate.

    • Sandeep, don;t forget the other elephant in the room as well…economic class. The dead giveaway being legacy admissions. De facto, here is how things go.

      1. Are you Donald Trump Jr? Messed up your interview because you were high on coke? No problemo! You’re a legacy with bonus points! Plus you don’t need financial aid, which will allow us to use your resources for equity! You don’t even need to have top shelf academic records! Welcome!

      2. Are you an interectionally oppressed minority? No problemo! We’ll give you a bonus points nudge over equally qualified people (NOTE: NOT more qualified…this isn’t Rufo here) to address those who have been farthest from educational justice and equity. BTW – If your parents are alumni, you get double points, no matter how rich/connected they are!

      3. Middle or working-class kid who doesn’t qualify for #2. Get yer shine box kid and get in the back of the line. Especially if you need financial aid. There are a million of you, piss off. Ever consider community college?

      You see this repeated everywhere. SPS and HC/AL. Meanwhile Lakeside and Overlake keep churning out Ivy admissions. Equity on the backs of the middle class, while the rich skate.

      No one should be shocked when the middle and working class see the scam and know the fix is in. This backlash was predictable.

        • Yep, but worse yet, in effect this willful blindness places the burden on equity on the middle class and lower. In effect, those rich kids shouting at Harvard for equity, Palestine, etc… are really saying:

          “We demand OUR unfair privilege be resolved by YOU giving up YOUR privilege.”

          I have met waaay too many well off leftist activists that operate this way.

  3. Thanks, Sandeep for the very thoughtful reply. I agree with much of what you say. However, in my experience as a faculty member, I never felt that I was forced into “rigid conformity” on DEI or any other issues.

  4. Thanks, Sandeep for the very thoughtful reply. I agree with much of what you say. However, in my experience as a faculty member, I never felt that I was forced into “rigid conformity” on DEI or any other issues.

    • I take your point that you haven’t experienced anything particularly constrictive on this front, but I would respectfully point out that your career in academia predates the (very recent) rise of the sorts of DEI sorting regimes that I referenced above. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I presume, for example, that you never had to offer up a DEI statement in order to be considered for an academic teaching job.

      I found this report on such statements from Lee Jussum (who teaches at Rutgers) to be helpful in explicating some of the issues with the use of these statements in hiring decisions, which has become quite prevalent:


      “Notably, a recent audit of academic job postings during Fall 2020 found that 68% of job advertisements mentioned diversity, with 19% of the audited job advertisements requiring a DEI statement (Paul & Maranto, 2021). Interestingly, this audit also found that DEI statement requirements were much more prevalent at elite universities than non-elite universities—18-20 percentage points more likely—suggesting that the prevalence of DEI statements may continue to rise given the propensity for elite institutions to set higher education trends.”

      If these statements were judged according to a broader or relatively ecumenical conception of how diversity should be promoted that would be one thing, but as Jussum points out they are mostly graded according to a very specific conception of what he calls “progressive diversity.” So, for example, stating a belief that, say, “while we are a long way from attaining it, we should continue to strive towards the goal of creating a colorblind society” (which is something a huge number of Americans. myself included, happen to believe) would in many instances immediately lead to my job application being thrown onto the reject pile.

      The New York Times’ (quite damning) recent reporting on the proliferating use of these statements in hiring decisions also found clear indications that they are being used as litmus tests to screen out anyone not willing to state allegiance to a very specific set of ideas on race and identity issues:

      “An applicant who discusses diversity in vague terms, such as ‘diversity is important for science,’ or saying that an applicant wants to ‘treat everyone the same’ will get a low score.

      “Likewise, an applicant should not oppose affinity groups divided by race, ethnicity and gender, as that would demonstrate that the candidate ‘seems not to be aware of, or understand the personal challenges that underrepresented individuals face in academia.’

      “To argue that diversity statements politicize academia and impose a point of view is also a mistake, according to the faculty diversity work group at Santa Cruz. ‘Social justice activism in academia seeks to identify how systemic racism and implicit bias influence the topics we pursue, the research methods we use, the outlets in which we publish and the outcomes we observe.’

      “A cottage industry has sprouted nationally and in California to guide applicants in writing these statements. Some U.C. campuses post online reading lists of antiracist books and examples of successful diversity statements with names redacted.

      “The entire process has long troubled a number of senior faculty members at Berkeley. “’f you write: ‘I believe that everyone should be treated equally,’ you will be branded as a right winger,’ Vinod Aggarwal, a political science professor at the university, said in an interview. ‘This is compelled speech, plain and simple.’

      “Professor Soucek, at Davis law school, said ideological diversity is not the point.

      “’It’s our job to make sure people of all identities flourish here,’ he said. ‘It’s not our job to make sure that all viewpoints flourish.'”


      Reading how these statements are being used, and scored, it’s quite clear that Professor Aggarwal is correct in his assertion that this is a form of compelled speech with a specific ideological (left progressive) valence, and as such is antithetical to traditional norms of free speech and academic freedom, and has become a huge impediment to viewpoint diversity on elite college campuses. And that something like a fifth of all of the job openings in academia — and a significantly higher percentage of the teaching jobs at elite universities — use these statements is a huge indicator that there is a quite real, if also quite recent, illiberal turn within these institutions that deserves serious scrutiny.

      • Thanks from a middle class Democrat PCO. You hit all my points!
        Read, Where have all the Democrats gone? by John Judis and Ruy Teixeria.

        • I do need to read that! I am a big Teixeira fan; the alarms he’s been ringing for the last couple of years about how the Democratic Party is pushing away non-college educated voters of color merits a lot more attention. If the Democratic Party goes full cosmo elitist culturally, and the non-white working class continues its shift towards Republicans (and Trump), it spells disaster for the party — and for the country.

  5. Thanks, Sandeep. You provide some very good examples. I did have to provide diversity statements as well as research and teaching statements. And I reviewed plenty of these. I realize that experiences are very different at different institutions and you provide some examples of misuse. But all of these statements are ways for scholars to tell their potential colleagues how they will approach their job which involves research, teaching, and service.

    • Sally,
      would you care to publish some of your diversity statements? I’m very curious to see what you wrote.

      Having gone through job applications many times I’m skeptical that many diversity statements actually are honest and more than the worst sort of conventional go-along & get-along progressive pablum.

      I’m not suggesting yours wasn’t honest & incisve — that’s why I’m curious to read it.

  6. Sally,

    I think this is an appropriate diversity statement to ask all job applicants to sign:

    “I promise to treat all people in our organization, whether president or janitor, to treat them as I would be wish to be treated: fairly, according to my work, and without regards to my race, religion, sex, etc. and within the letter and spirit of our laws.”

    I’m sure there are some little fine points to add but I’m sure you get the gist and probably agree.

    What more needs to be said?

    If it’s a matter about expertise in terms of doing a particular job, that shouldn’t be part of a diversity statement, but simply a matter of examining the persons resume and interview.


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