Last week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis unleashed a new salvo in the state-sponsored battle against diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts: banning Florida’s public colleges and universities from spending money on DEI. The goal is clear: to revert higher education, and as a result, America, back to an inequitable status quo that favors White dominance and comfort.
This came only days before DeSantis signed four anti-trans bills into law that criminalize trans people for going to the bathroom, ban gender affirming care, censor art in the form of drag shows, and expand the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” through high school.
The adoption of all of this deplorable new legislation was made possible, in part by one of Governor DeSantis most insidious skills: mischaracterizing reality to ignite people’s fear of the unknown. He has even come up with a catchy replacement for the DEI acronym: “discrimination, exclusion, and indoctrination.”
On the education front, I suspect that few people were truly concerned that kids heading into middle school were being indoctrinated by watching Disney movies in class. And even fewer, when asked, would be able to accurately articulate what university diversity, equity, and inclusion offices do. As a former academic, higher education administrator, and now DEI practitioner, I have unique insight into what university DEI offices can, and actually do, accomplish.
By design, colleges and universities were originally places for people of high status (often defined as White, Protestant, male, and wealthy individuals). However, as universities integrated, it became clear that the policies and practices that were commonplace didn’t truly serve everyone. At their most effective, DEI offices can help ensure that universities are living up to their commitment to provide quality higher education for all their students. Much like how corporate DEI positions help hold companies accountable for their inclusive values, university DEI offices exist to uphold the inclusive values and mission of the institution. What might that look like?
DEI offices exist to help provide equitable and consistent education.
One of the most common requests I got during my time as a higher education administrator was to provide professional development workshops for instructors (a broad group that includes full-time faculty, graduate students, adjunct professors, and more). These instructors are often asked to lead classes with hundreds, even thousands, of students, with little guidance on how to do so effectively. My workshops, grounded in peer-reviewed scholarship (the holy grail for academics), gave instructors concrete tools they could use to teach courses their students would enjoy and learn from. What are examples of such tools? Encouraging professors to communicate to their students that they believe intelligence is malleable, and designing courses in ways that highlight this (such as providing multiple graded assignments instead of a high-stakes midterm and final), to help all students perform at their highest potential. Or, including a diverse array of authors, cultural references, and speakers in class curricula, so that all students have a chance to engage with content that reflects their identities and experiences. Though simple, few instructors were aware of these actions they could take. And, while they may not have had time to search the literature for effective instruction practices, I, a member of the DEI office, could.
DEI offices exist to promote meaningful interaction among university inhabitants.
I’ve been affiliated with universities across the country — in predominantly White places like Indiana, and in more diverse places like Southern California. No matter where I go, the concern among faculty, staff, and students remains the same: how do I interact with people who are different from me? For many students, college is the most diverse place they’ve ever existed, especially if they are coming from hometowns that are especially homogeneous. Without any prior knowledge or experience, student interactions become understandably awkward, and sometimes harmful. During my time at Purdue University, I helped lead the Boiler Inclusion Project, an hour-long program delivered during orientation that demystified how to have positive interactions with peers from different racial groups. The funding for this project, and the resulting research, came from the University’s DEI office. Universities are a place for the exchanging of ideas and experiences, and DEI offices can help provide guidance for how to do so in a way that promotes meaningful learning.
DEI offices exist to identify and address policies and practices that yield inequitable outcomes.
In corporate settings, there’s much discussion about how bias can undermine equitable hiring and promotion practices. These biases also plague academic hiring and promotions. As in corporate settings, there can be a good deal of subjectivity involved in how criteria are evaluated. Unsurprisingly, this subjectivity yields inequity: for example, faculty of color are less likely to receive tenure than White faculty, despite plenty of evidence that faculty of color are held to higher standards of research production than their White counterparts and play an integral role in mentoring and developing future academics of color. DEI offices can help this by creating new practices for hiring and promotion committees to follow. At UCLA, the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion was involved in a system of checks and balances on the faculty search process. At multiple stages in the hiring process, faculty hiring committees had to demonstrate due diligence at maintaining an applicant pool that reflected the racial and gender diversity of their field. While some faculty balked at this level of oversight, the Office wasn’t the sole enforcer; the governing body for faculty (called the Academic Senate) also worked to enforce this rule.
I often say that, if I am successful at my job, my role as a DEI practitioner won’t be necessary anymore, because DEI won’t be an add-on to mainstream consciousness, but it will be integrated into the daily practices and policies that govern our behavior. We are far from that vision of the future, but Florida colleges and universities may be forced into thinking more creatively about what DEI can look like. Even if Governor DeSantis is successful, for now, at restricting funding for DEI efforts and showing that “DEI is coming to an end in the state of Florida.” I’m confident that universities will continue to make simple changes that maintain their commitment to inclusion.
May 23, 2023
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