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.
|Access (% 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.