Chronicle: DEI erodes academic freedom

February 7, 2023 • 9:45 am

For a while I’ve been making the obvious point that free speech (or academic freedom) and “inclusivity” don’t always go hand in hand. In fact, that’s exactly what you should expect, for free speech and academic freedom guarantee that some people will be offended, and the offended are clearly not “included.”  Likewise, the compelled speech inherent in today’s versions of DEI is incompatible with freedom of speech and with academic freedom.  This is why the phrase “inclusive excellence”, which we see everywhere these days, is an oxymoron. “Excellence” is having academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Yet it’s taboo to mention this conflict, and universities and academics blithely float the notion of “inclusive excellence”. The recent incident at Hamline University, in which instructor Erika López Prater was fired for showing an ancient painting of Muhammad (with his face clearly in view) to her art history class, shows this tension clearly. López Prater was simply exercising her academic freedom, teaching what she thought was important in the history of Islamic art. Yet after Muslim students raised an uproar, saying that they had been “excluded” (as well as offended), the teacher was let go. López Prater jas filed a lawsuit, and she’ll either win that or will receive a generous settlement. Hamline has fallen into disrepute, a nationally notorious example of abrogating academic freedom; and the faculty has called for its president to resign.

We have other examples of professors fired for giving offense, but you can consult FIRE to read about them.

Now there are some construals of DEI that aren’t in potential conflict with academic freedom and free speech, but those aren’t the ones that universities are pushing. If “diversity” means “diversity of ideas”, if the “E” stood for “equality of treatment” rather than “equity” (proportional representation), and if “inclusion” meant “a university and workspace free from personal harassment,” then DEI would be okay, and wouldn’t conflict with any other freedoms. But of course that’s not what universities mean by DEI, as the authors note below.

But I digress: here’s an article by Anna Khalid (“an associate professor of history at Carleton College and host of the podcast Banished“) and Jeffrey Snyder (” associate professor in the department of educational studies at Carleton College”), who decided to say what nobody else dare.  What surprises me is that it’s in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Click to read:

In fact, the authors use the Hamline case, which I’ve discussed in detail, to outline the incompatibility of DEI and academic freedom.

Here’s the authors’ evidence for the ubiquity of the false claim that DEI and lack of offense are totally compatible:

The assertion that inclusion and academic freedom are not in tension is an article of faith for many of those dedicated to promoting campus inclusion. In 2018, the Harvard University Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging released an 82-page report stating that the “values of academic freedom and inclusion and belonging provide each other with synergistic and mutual reinforcement.” According to this report, the two should not be conceived of as “distinct values that must be accommodated to each other” or, worse still, as “antagonistic goals.” This view is central to the frameworks advanced in books such as Ulrich Baer’s What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth, and Equality on Campus, John Palfrey’s Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education andSigal Ben-Porath’s Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy.

And here’s the going version of DEI, which the authors call “DEI Inc.”:

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 asafety-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.

You can see that saying anything that contradicts this notion, for example criticizing Kendi’s claim that what is not “antiracist” is supporting racism, will cause offense.

Here’s how Hamline stated explicitly that academic freedom could cause “harm”—harm because it violated the rules of DEI Inc.

In December, President Miller and David Everett [Associate Vice President for Inclusive Excellence] sent an open letter to the campus asserting that “appreciation of religious and other differences should supersede when we know that what we teach will cause harm,”and in particular “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” After the news made national and international headlines, Miller doubled down, explaining that her decisions were guided by “prioritizing the well-being of our students,” especially by“minimizing harm.”

Miller’s comments at least had the virtue of offering an honest diagnosis of the tension between academic freedom and inclusion. This tension has only ratcheted up in recent years, as colleges make grand promises to create “environments in which any individual or group feels welcomed, respected, supported, and valued.” With institutions promoting such an expansive definition of “inclusion,” we shouldn’t be surprised when they become ensnared in their own rhetoric and policies. How will DEI administrators respond when a Chinese national complains that a political-science discussion about the persecution of Uyghurs is “harmful anti-Chinese propaganda”?Or when a Christian evangelical says her faith was insulted in a contemporary art class after seeing a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of two men kissing? The permutations are endless and, for professors who teach sensitive or controversial material, alarming.

There’s the old trope of “harm” again, which really means “offense”.  And can you imagine this fracas occurring if, say, López Prater offended fundamentalist Jews (perhaps by showing a meal containing dairy and meat) or Christians (perhaps by showing Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ“)? I can’t. It’s Muslims who have the leverage to get a professor fired, for, unlike Christians and Jews, they are perceived as victims because they’re also perceived as people of color. DEI is not meant for Christians and Jews. But that’s really irrelevant: the point is that if your legitimate teaching in the classroom offends students, then it’s too bad for them. Art, of course, is particularly prone to this because a lot of art is designed to shock, offend, or shake people out of their complacency.

Firing someone for violating academic freedom abrogates a number of university regulations in schools that avow academic freedom, and can violate the law in government-funded schools and state schools. The AAUP states this explicitly:

The American Association of University Professors clearly states that students do not have the right to shield even their “most cherished beliefs” from challenge or scrutiny:

Ideas that are germane to a subject under discussion in a classroom cannot be censored because a student with particular religious or political beliefs might be offended. Instruction cannot proceed in the atmosphere of fear that would be produced were a teacher to become subject to administrative sanction based upon the idiosyncratic reaction of one or more students. This would create a classroom environment inimical to the free and vigorous exchange of ideas necessary for teaching and learning in higher education.

Khalid and Snyder also point out that it’s not just the Woke who try to overturn academic freedom because it causes offense. “Anti-CRT laws”, now being passed by right-wingers throughout the South, restrict a teacher’s right to teach about race and gender if that teaching makes “any individual. . . feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”  That’s a recipe for disaster, and I oppose such laws.

But let’s be clear. A teacher doesn’t have the right to teach anything in their classroom, especially in secondary schools. You can’t teach creationism, for instance, as it violates the First Amendment. And you can’t just go nuts and teach crazy stuff, for schools have prescribed lesson plans and material that must be covered. But if what you’re teaching fits well into your curriculum, and isn’t just a political or ideological harangue with no didactic purpose, they should leave you alone.

At the end, the authors call for a vigorous defense of academic freedom (that also goes for freedom of speech, which is not identical but related) and bring up the University of Chicago:

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.”

I should put that as the tagline on all of my emails!

Here’s “Piss Christ” (1987) a photo of a crucifix submerged in a beaker of the photographer’s urine. For many it’s a highly regarded work of art, for others an egregious and blasphemous offense.

27 thoughts on “Chronicle: DEI erodes academic freedom

    1. Thanks for the link. Wow that is a depressing view. I hope he’s wrong.

      “Ours is a culture in which the battle between feeling and reason [has] been lost; in which health and safety are fetishized…in which adults don’t want to grow up, and, in parallel, in which the feelings of children about themselves – above all, but not only about their gender identities – are thought to be dispositive; and…the whole of social life has been commodified, including feelings, including dissent…Vile though it is, and destructive as it is within the Academe, DEI is a manifestation of the collapse, not its cause.”

    2. Thanks for the link. This is the strongest echo of his father that I can recall hearing in David Rieff.

      As to the original article, I suspect that more academics will start speaking out as they increasingly fear state legislative action more than they fear their woke colleagues. One can hope.

  1. Good that the Chronicle published a counterargument to today’s inclusion ideology. Other outlets—including the formerly venerable Scientific American—have refused to do so. Academic freedom and “inclusion” do collide, as outlined here and elsewhere. It’s interesting that Harvard took 82 pages to argue that the two are compatible. If they really were compatible, a few sentences would have sufficed.

    I once had an undergraduate student who complained (repeatedly and disruptively) that she objected to having to learn about evolution in my History of the Earth and its Life course. I told her that she didn’t “have to” learn about it. If she didn’t want to learn about evolution she could drop the course. She did, and the entire class sighed a sigh of relief.

    1. Interesting story about your student, Norman, thanks. As a religious studies professor, I sometimes encounter Christian evangelical students who demand that I “accommodate” their revisionist versions of history (all 6,000 years of it). I always decline to be inclusive in that particular manner.
      A quick anecdote that is not directly related to the EDI topic: I was once invited as a guest speaker in a philosophy course taught by a professor who was theism-friendly. My assigned topic was to explain the history of ancient Near Eastern creation myths and the literary evolution of biblical creation myths. A tall order for a one-session presentation. I did the best I could and then took questions from the class. One young woman had noted my incidental comment that biblical scribes write of the sky as a solid dome with windows in it, from which can fall the waters beyond the sky. The young woman asked if there is any scientific evidence to show that the sky had been, in ancient times, a solid dome. She was disappointed by my answer.

      1. Fascinating story. I never got a question that was so naive, but I was very sensitive to the fact that—where I was teaching—many students were the first in their families to go to college, and many did not have a good science background in high school. My way of accommodating naive questions was to kindly explain the science in a way that did not embarrass the student. One sad thing about the “harms” trope is that, for the most part, university professors are kind people who go out of their way not to harm anyone, least of all their students. Thank you for your reply.

        1. Mark,
          I would not call it a world of make-believe, but it is true that some of our students were raised in self-contained subcultures where the light of education does not shine. Years ago, I taught in the southern US “bible belt” region. Several of my students had been cut off by their families. Why? Because they dared to attend a liberal arts college and receive an education. I admired their guts and shared their pain at having lost their families.

  2. “Anti-CRT laws”, now being passed by right-wingers throughout the South, restrict a teacher’s right to teach about race and gender if that teaching makes “any individual. . . feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

    The ellipsis is important here. The eliipsis is the word “should”. This Texas law only prohibits teachers from teaching that students should feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, …”. (e.g. link.) It does not prohibit teaching an honest and accurate version of history that could or does make a student feel that way. CRT is telling students what ideology to adopt, and the anti-CRT laws (that I’ve seen) narrowly prohibit that. This distinction is important, and these laws are routinely misrepresented in mainstream media. (I’m not, of course, suggesting that PCC-E was aware that the quote had an important omission that changes its meaning, the misrepresentation of such laws is widespread.)

    1. The omission of “should” from the quotation of the Texas bill is a egregious misrepresentation of what the bill intends in its plain wording. Surely dishonest intent given the other clauses clearly intended to reduce racial discrimination but not credited in the selective quotation. Thanks, Coel.

    2. I think there is only one way that the Texas law you cite is fairly implemented and enforced. No law should be on the books if there is not an enforcement mechanism. Every class that is taught in Texas needs to be videotaped from kindergarten though college. An army of grand censors would review the tapes with the explicit purpose of ferreting out those teachers that made a remark that could be construed to violate the law. The fact that students may not complain about what is being taught is irrelevant. The violator would then be brought forward to confront the censors and be immediately fired or perhaps if the censors feel the teacher is redeemable, sent to a re-education camp. As an ancillary task, the censors would scour the school library for books that create discomfort and immediately burn them. The censors would pay particular attention to history classes since it is obvious to all that there is only one “true” way to understand history and if the teacher deviates from the path of truth (created and defined by the State of Texas) then the only reason for this is to indoctrinate the students with leftist anti-American propaganda. I believe that veterans of the KGB as well as unemployed diversity trainers are available as consultants. Naturally, every class should begin with a trigger warning: “Caution: what is being discussed in this class is not intended to imply that one race is superior to another, caused harm to another race, and currently its members should not feel guilty about what their ancestors may or may not have done.” Every class would end with a group singing of Kumbaya.

      1. That’s not what the Texas law says. You have completely misinterpreted the “discomfort” phrase that Coel has already explained.

  3. Philosopher Paul Viminitz predicts that attempts at censorship by the Right will follow from what he sees as the breaking by the Left of “The Deal” under which bitter political enemies who disagree about broad ends can nonetheless agree to forego censorship by and of each other. Not because they value free speech as some divinely endowed right that they will defend to the death even if they disagree passionately with what is said—in reality no one will do that—but rather because The Deal is the best mutually beneficial outcome under game theory that is stable to changes in political power. If the Left is seen to be cheating on The Deal, by saying “free speech except for what I call disinformation or something that really offends me”, the Right will conclude there is no Deal after all and will set about censoring speech it doesn’t like whenever and wherever it is its turn to take power.

    Unfortunately once a deal has been broken it’s very difficult to patch it up because another prediction of Game Theory is that we don’t make deals with untrustworthy opponents.

    1. Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle wrote after the fracas at Yale Law School in February 2022:

      “I’ve come to think we should talk less about free speech as a right, and more about free speech as a truce. As with any truce, it will not be honored in the breach; if you try to silence your opponents, expect them to silence you just as energetically. No matter how exquisitely logical your argument, you will never induce them to unilaterally disarm.”

      Tom Bartlett: What’s Going On at Yale Law School? A Lot of Drama. Chronicle of Higher Education, April 13, 2022

      1. I don’t think Megan’s framing as a “truce” helps anything, because if you feel that you are on the winning side, why would you want a truce? The very point of “rights”, from a materialist perspective at least, is that they are a kind truce, a peace treaty protecting individuals that can never be violated even in the event of total political victory. Movements which adopt a politics-is-everything framing inevitably end up annihilating individual rights, because (to use a pair of easy examples) if you’re the Nazis and you have the Judeo-Bolsheviks on the ropes or the Communists and you have the bourgeoisie on the ropes, why would you allow them a truce vis-a-vis individual rights? What’s the point in allowing your existential enemy to exist unless you accept some pre-existing metaphysical basis for “rights”?

        1. A deal is not the same as a truce. Under a deal, the fighting still goes on and on in the hopes of total victory. You just agree that during the fighting you won’t attack religious shrines (as long as the enemy doesn’t hide his artillery in them) and you won’t rape his soldiers when you take them prisoner, for no other reason than you don’t want him doing the same to yours. The only way you can get him to refrain from committing those atrocities is that you threaten (explicitly) to do the same to his if he reneges on the deal. If you have none of his prisoners, yours are at his mercy until you can capture some yourself, which you will want to set yourself to doing.

          As Viminitz says, both sides would prefer to censor the other and evade censorship itself, but that requires winning the struggle first. Only then does the winner get to censor the loser…..and then the next election or the next revolution, it’s your ox that gets gored.

          The beauty of game theory is that it requires no metaphysical source of rights. Of course in your existential struggle, a bourgeois right like freedom of speech goes out the window along with freedom to not join the army. We are settling for trying to prevent rape of prisoners and even then if one side smells ultimate victory, why stop at rape? But the Americans didn’t rape the Japanese even though the latter surrendered unconditionally because they had signed a deal saying they wouldn’t.

          For more ordinary struggles in civil society where victory would likely be temporary and no more cataclysmic than doing nothing about climate change versus pretending to do a little, freedom of speech can be the optimum game outcome even between players who share no concept of natural rights at all. Not being censored no matter who’s in power is more satisfying than alternating the smashing of each other’s printing presses. Witness how there is no common ground in rights language between those who believe in absolute bodily autonomy and those who believe in the rights of the unborn to life. Yet both can agree to indulge the other freedom of speech as long as neither side renegs.

  4. RE: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.”
    But Jerry, if I don’t feel comfortable, I cannot learn. (Just kidding. Go get some psychotherapy first.)

  5. Inside Higher Ed reports that the DeSantis measures follow model legislation drafted by the Manhattan Institute. They make the blindingly obvious point that the whole DEI shtick
    makes many members of the US population (citizens, students, and even some faculty outside of Grievance Studies) feel offended, therefore excluded and therefore harmed. As nice an example as one could imagine of DEI hung by its own petard. Career DEI bureaucrats may now have a real reason to feel unsafe. But not to worry. If their funding is abolished at publicly supported institutions, they can always retreat to expensive private campuses like Oberlin and the Fieldston School in NYC.

  6. And can you imagine this fracas occurring if, say, López Prater offended … Christians (perhaps by showing Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ“)?

    Jeez, Jerry, I’m not so sure “Piss Christ” is such a great counterexample. As I recall the photograph resulted in an effort to defund the National Endowment of the Arts (which had given Serrano a small grant and sponsored some exhibits), spearheaded by North Carolina Republican senator Jesse Helms. It also led to the cancellation of a showing at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC., and to a group of Fundies attacking and destroying a print of the photograph.

    Along with the similarly controversial photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, it eventually led to the big bruhaha at the Museum of Art in Cincinnati in which criminal indictments were handed up against the museum and its director, pushed along by Savings & Loan fraudster Charles Keating.

    All this strikes me as “cancellation” avant la lettre.

  7. Note that the Piss Christ isn’t anti-Christian or anti-Jesus. It’s commentary on how Jesus/Christianity has been corrupted by society, media etc. It’s a commentary on contemporary society not on Jesus.

    1. Indeed. According to Wikipedia:

      Sister Wendy Beckett, an art historian and Catholic nun, stated in a television interview with Bill Moyers that she regarded the work as not blasphemous but a statement on “what we are doing to Christ.” Beckett said that she was tempted to say that Piss Christ might be “comforting art” which she defined as art that was easy to have an opinion and react to. She said, ” … they’re not challenged in the slightest. Ninety percent of them think it’s blasphemous, and few like me think, well, it might not be. It might be a rather ham-fisted attempt, to preach about the need to reverence the Crucifix. Not a very gifted young man but he’s trying his best.” “Real art,” she continued, “makes demands.”

  8. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I practically camp out by the mailbox waiting for Diversity Officer Magazine to arrive each month. I can barely contain my excitement. /s

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