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Yes, DEI Can Conflict with Academic Freedom—and Academic Freedom Should Win

“We affirm both academic freedom and our responsibility to foster an inclusive learning community. Importantly, these values neither contradict nor supersede each other.” So declared a Hamline University faculty resolution asking President Fayneese S. Miller to resign given her handling of a now-infamous controversy over the display of the Prophet Muhammad in an art-history class. While we applaud the faculty for taking a stand against administrative overreach, we think its position on the relationship between academic freedom and inclusion is mistaken. In our view there will inevitably be tensions between these two values. And when those tensions arise, academic freedom must prevail — at least, if we want to ensure a college education worthy of its name.

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 and Sigal Ben-Porath’s Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy.

When campuses are facing a controversy like Hamline’s, it’s important to recognize that students, faculty, and administrators don’t have the time for careful, philosophical deliberations about the meaning and value of inclusion. Rather, they find themselves in the grip of a system we 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 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 teams and mandatory diversity statements for hiring and promotion.

In many ways the Hamline debacle is the ideal case study for laying bare the unavoidable tensions between academic freedom and the DEI Inc. approach to inclusion. The incident has received considerable attention, but allow us to rehearse some of the key events and the language used by the various people involved.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education