The Volokh Conspiracy

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DEI Inc. v. Academic Freedom

Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder argue that we should not kid ourselves about the threat university DEI bureaucracies pose to academic freedom, but is there a better way?


Reflecting on Hamline University's disgraceful decision to fire an adjunct professor for showing a painting of Muhammad in an art history class, Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder argue in the Chronicle of Higher Education that DEI, as it has become ensconced in many universities (what they call "DEI Inc.) can pose a threat to academic freedom.

What is "DEI Inc" Here is how they describe it:

DEI Inc. is a logic, a lingo, and a set of administrative policies and practices. The logic is as follows: Education is a product, students are consumers, and campus diversity is a customer-service issue that needs to be administered from the top down. ("Chief diversity officers," according to an article in Diversity Officer Magazine,"are best defined as 'change-management specialists.'") DEI Inc. purveys a safety-and-security model of learning that is highly attuned to harm and that conflates respect for minority students with unwavering affirmation and validation.

Lived experiencethe intent-impact gapmicroaggressionstrigger warnings, inclusive excellence. You know the language of DEI Inc. when you hear it. It's a combination of management-consultant buzzwords, social justice slogans, and "therapy speak." The standard package of DEI Inc. administrative "initiatives" should be familiar too, from antiracism trainings to bias-response teamsand mandatory diversity statements for hiring and promotion.

Note their emphasis on how DEI programs are structured and administered, rather than the purposes such programs ostensibly serve. Khalid and Snyder are not arguing against genuine efforts to diversify college campuses and foster greater inclusion of those from different cultures or backgrounds.

As they discuss, what happened at Hamline is the natural consequence of creating and empowering DEI Inc within a university campus. It's a consequence of the policies and practices, not the end goals.

But lest one think this is a "right-wing" complaint against diversity as a goal, Khalid and Snyder also criticize "anti-woke" efforts from the Right:

The censorship of ideas because students with particular political beliefs might take offense is precisely what's happening across the country with anti-critical-race-theory legislation.The notion of harm is central to these "divisive concepts" laws, which have used Trump's now-revoked 2020 Executive Order 13950 as a template. Among the things prohibited in this EO was that "any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex."That white students could shut down discussions of "white privilege" and "structural inequality" because they make them uncomfortable is a most egregious affront to academic freedom. Laws like Florida's "Stop WOKE Act" underscore that policies oriented around harm-avoidance in the classroom are educational dead ends.

Any agenda, ideology, or institutional assumption that students need to be protected from ideas that may make them uncomfortable is a threat to academic freedom.

As they conclude:

To safeguard high-quality teaching that powerfully and accurately communicates our disciplines and fields, academic freedom must be vigorously defended. Students, DEI administrators and other campus stakeholders should understand that professors have the right to decide what and how to teach based on their academic expertise and their pedagogical goals. They should also know that there is no academic freedom without academic responsibility. Academic freedom is not a license to mouth off or teach whatever material suits our fancy. Moreover, when thorny issues arise pertaining to classroom instruction, we have a responsibility to listen to students' concerns and take them seriously. This does not mean, however, that students should be able to dictate the curriculum.

The Hamline case should serve as a wake-up call for anyone who cares about classroom teaching, critical thinking, and the future of higher education. Some may see this controversy as an exception or an outlier. It's not. It's a bellwether of how DEI Inc. is eroding academic freedom. Let's not forget it took an outpouring of sustained, high-publicity resistance, not to mention a lawsuit, for Hamline to soften its charge of "Islamophobia" against Prater and affirm its commitment to academic freedom.

When institutions proclaim that academic freedom and inclusion coexist in a kind of synergistic harmony, they are trafficking in PR-driven wishful thinking. In the hardest cases, there is no way of upholding an "all are welcome here" brand of inclusion while simultaneously defending academic freedom. Instead, we should turn to the wise words of Hanna Holborn Gray, former president of the University of Chicago: "Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think."