Attacks on Diversity in Higher Education Threaten Democracy

Attacks on Diversity in Higher Education Threaten Democracy

The forced resignation of Harvard’s president provides a peek at the blueprint for the war against justice in the U.S., concludes a long-time observer of attacks on academia

Claudine Gay at desk during congesssional hearing.

Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University, during a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., in Dec. 2023.


Haiyun Jiang/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If a time traveler left the U.S. in the summer of 2020, and returned today, they well might conclude they had accidentally gone back in time, so drastically different is today’s national conversation about racism. The murder of George Floyd and the increased visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement had led to corporate and university commitments to “diversity, equity and inclusion.” More white people suddenly publicly recognized white privilege and structural racism. More took to the streets than previous Civil Rights demonstrations. More read and studied systemic racism and white privilege, while learning from diverse writers and educators. More corporations issued statements against racism and pledged to do better.

This racial reckoning threatened the billionaires, politicians and activists intent on protecting extreme free market capitalism and their own economic and political dominance. We can trace December’s House Education Committee hearings—attacking diversity on campuses nationwide—back to those moments three years ago. Three university presidents, all women including Harvard University’s Claudine Gay, a woman of color, were viciously grilled by Republican lawmakers about antisemitism on campus in response to the current war in Gaza. Christopher Rufo, widely recognized as one of the masterminds behind these attacks and many others, proudly proclaimed their real purpose “to eliminate the DEI bureaucracy in every institution in America.” Could this explain why we haven’t witnessed congressional outrage over hate crimes targeting African Americans, the most highly victimized group on college campuses for years?)

These hearings, which triggered Gay’s resignation, were meant to have a chilling effect. Not long after, the President of Colorado College, L. Song Richardson, also a woman of color and advocate of justice, resigned, feeling that she could no longer engage in these “deeply challenging conversations,” as a college president. Eliminating the “DEI bureaucracy” is about silencing the voices of those only recently allowed to enter the dialogue and censoring any discussion of inequality. The reality that racism and other forms of inequality even exist is being challenged.

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As a sociologist who who has studied white supremacy for decades, I am scared. It should scare you too. As I warned in my first book White Man Falling: Race, Gender and White Supremacy, mainstream and far right views fall along a continuum. Ideas once considered extreme have now engulfed the Republican party as part of a more ambitious goal of controlling the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of our government. And they are succeeding. Anyone committed to the dream of democracy must act now.

The antisemitism hearings followed years of attacks on DEI, expanding the range of educators, classes, programs, offices, and universities that could be targeted, forcefully reinforced at The Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Development’s Hearing on March 7, “Divisive, Excessive, Ineffective: The Real Impact of DEI on College Campuses”. Even funding for mental health is being denied, at a time when youth and college suicide rates are spikingand are much higher for students of color than white college students on the grounds that this care ”is priming students to learn critical race theory.” It is outrageous to see the politicization of teaching students to work “well with others.” What’s next? Will asking kindergarten students to use their “inside voices” be considered an attack on free speech?!

Fueling these attacks is an overarching myth of liberal indoctrination on campus, seen most clearly in a self-published 2023 report from a widely cited major right-wing think tank. The unscientific Manhattan Institute study would never hold up under peer review by an academic journal. For example, 18- to 20-year-old adults surveyed in the study who said they heard statements like, “white people have white privilege” from any adult in school is presented as proof of indoctrination. Even if we pretend that overhearing this observation represents indoctrination, at best this is a correlation, not to be confused with causality. One of the report’s farfetched and overtly racist conclusions is that black students are hurt by DEI because they will not learn from white students who no longer feel comfortable criticizing them. Personal criticism, not white people critiquing their work. This is their defense of harmful, racist microaggressions. Maybe that’s why discussions of microaggressions are also being banned!

Faulty research like this is being offered as proof that censorship is justified. As of November 2023, legislators have enacted 40 educational gag orders in 22 states, with scores more on the table. The Manhattan Institute even provides model legislation to make it simple. It is dangerously ironic that protecting white, as well as heterosexual and cisgender, students from feeling uncomfortable—dare we call them “snowflakes”—has led to actual, legal censorship, somehow conceived of as free speech.

These legal mandates build upon decades of attempts to censor faculty and curriculum via cyber-attacks and harassment, abuse and threats of violence. The harassment usually begins with an article in one of a handful of student “news” websites like Campus Reform, a program of The Leadership Institute, an organization that trains students to become the next generation of “conservative activists and leaders in the public policy process.” These sites have published thousands of pieces accusing faculty of liberal indoctrination. They pay students to find stories about “liberal” professors or curtailment of conservative students’ free speech. Many of the incidents are instigated by financially motivated students and are frequently inaccurate or taken out of context and misconstrued. These stories get picked up by other right wing media outlets, sometimes landing on Fox News. Social media trolls then coordinate cyber attacks, which can result in hundreds of venomous emails and social media posts, as well as doxing, many carried out robotically. They have had had devastating consequences for many victims, while foddering claims of liberal indoctrination on campus.

The student organizations behind the websites are given little attention, but the fact that The Leadership Institute ‘s 2022 net assets exceeded $33 million should raise eyebrows. These organizations do not disclose their donors and are enmeshed in a maze of dark moneyfunded by plutocrats desperate to maintain elite white male power in the U.S.

Institutions of higher education should follow the right-wing playbook to collaborate and become proactive. We should take advantage of the excellent resources provided by organizations like the AAUP, PEN America and the American Council on Education to become proactive, support faculty, and move out of the cycle of reaction. I believe these attacks will only worsen. We also need to recognize that these attacks are not new. This is one moment in the long history of politically motivated injustice in education. The majority of Southern states once had laws against teaching enslaved people to read or write, and free Blacks were denied public education in northern and western ones. Schools were legally segregated in this country in living memory. People of color and women were barred from white institutions of higher education and professional degree programs.

We must recognize that education is inherently political. Who can teach, who can learn, and what gets taught are ultimately questions about whose lives matter. The fact that we are still fighting over these questions is all the proof we need that racism still exists.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American, nor the University of Colorado Springs.

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