Curbing Dog-Whistle Politics

The attacks on DEI programs are a threat to the democratic purposes of higher education.
By Lynn Pasquerella

Escalating culture wars, fueled by deepening ideological divides and burgeoning levels of polarization and partisanship in the United States, have included targeted attacks on higher education by those who view college campuses as bastions of liberal progressivism. The result has been a flurry of legislation culminating in educational gag orders restricting discussions around issues of race, racism, gender, LGBTQ+ identities, and reproductive rights; the banning of books from public libraries that address these topics, even in historical contexts; efforts to eliminate tenure and terminate tenured faculty appointments; legislative overreach into the appointment and removal of campus leaders; the imposition of ideologically driven civics institutes and general education curricula “rooted in the values of liberty and the Western tradition”; the elimination of critical race theory, gender studies, and ethnic studies courses from the curriculum; and mandates to measure the economic value and opportunity costs of academic programs that would require public colleges and universities to prioritize graduating students with degrees leading to high-paying jobs. Each of these moves constitutes a monumental threat to the distinctively American tradition of liberal education—grounded in the principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and the unfettered pursuit of the truth—essential to our nation’s historic mission of educating for democracy.

While this is certainly not the first time that state-ordered ideology has been used to undermine academic freedom on college and university campuses, the current proliferation of efforts by legislators, governors, and governing boards is alarming in its nature and scope. The cause for concern is heightened by an understanding that the strength of American higher education is derived in part from the fact that what is taught inside and outside of our classrooms is protected from direct government control and undue political influence. And yet, one of the most recent campaigns, which involves the removal of funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs at public colleges and universities, is a direct consequence of the politicization of higher education. Coinciding with the Supreme Court’s decision to disallow the use of race-conscious admissions, the elimination of DEI programs on our campuses threatens to further exacerbate the economic and racial segregation that already exists in American higher education.

The Anti-DEI Playbook

To effectively address the current attacks on DEI programs, it is critical to acknowledge that they are part of a larger, long-term, orchestrated crusade to transport colleges and universities back in time to their tweedy past—a time when white men of privilege dominated the ivory tower and the myth of meritocracy ruled the day. Indeed, Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s presidential bid, grounded in the positioning of his state—“the place where woke goes to die”—as a model for national reform, is taken directly from a conservative playbook developed at the Claremont Institute Center for the American Way of Life. In the center’s March 2023 publication, Florida Universities: From Woke to Professionalism, author Scott Yenor offers a “bold plan” designed to challenge DEI and calls upon DeSantis and other governors of red states to fulfill their patriotic duty by defunding DEI offices and programs and abolishing curricula that promote “anti-American DEI principles.”        

Premised on a false dichotomy between equity and excellence, the report’s recommendations include rescinding the state of Florida’s policy requiring universities to submit annual equity reports, citing equity benchmarks as a “dilution of merit”; passing the Colorblind Florida Act, which would legally proscribe the collection of data on the basis of race and sex, while challenging federal requirements under Title VI used to monitor the disparate impact of programs receiving federal funds to ensure they do not perpetuate past discrimination; holding individuals and institutions legally and financially liable for any preferential treatment based on race; defunding and disbanding all DEI offices, as well as releasing and not reassigning all DEI personnel; and prohibiting the use of DEI statements in faculty hiring and all aspects of university operations.

These and an additional set of proposals, aimed at controlling the curriculum, run counter to Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter’s admonition in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957) that “a free society [depends] on free universities.” Foregrounding the vital role universities play in a democracy and “the grave harm resulting from governmental intrusion into the intellectual life of a university,” Frankfurter contended that such freedom entails the right of each institution to determine who may teach, what can be taught, how it is taught, and who will be admitted. Yet, the Claremont report enjoins state leaders to violate these principles by ordering civil rights investigations of all university units in which women vastly outnumber men in the student body or faculty, particularly nursing and education, and in which any antimale elements of the curriculum and programming might exist; by imposing an undergraduate general education civics curriculum in which “academic departments and general education instructors must bend to the needs of the state”; and by subjecting university departments both to an economic analysis, weighing student costs and future earnings against one another using national data, and to a political analysis that scrutinizes, deemphasizes, or eliminates “DEI-infused disciplines,” leading to a reallocation of funds to the sciences.

All of these maneuvers are components of an overarching effort, made explicit by Yenor, to position the University of Florida as a “shining light of academic freedom and meritocracy for the country” by transforming it into what Berkeley was in the 1950s. The report’s identification of the Berkeley of more than half a century ago as aspirational for today’s universities is attributed to its former status as “the preeminent scientific institution in the American part of America.” The report fails to note, however, that this was also a time when the student body was 90 percent white, men outnumbered women by two to one, and all University of California employees, including those at Berkeley, were forced to sign loyalty oaths disavowing any ties to Communism.

However, none of these facts is inconsistent with the positions proposed by its author in the report and elsewhere. Indeed, Yenor, a political science professor from Boise State University who is no stranger to controversy, has accused today’s college campuses of being “citadels of gynocracy.” In an October 2021 address at the National Conservatism Conference held in Orlando, Florida, he proclaimed that women should be excluded from law, medicine, and engineering and be encouraged to pursue “feminine goals” like homemaking and having children. And earlier this year, in an American Reformer article titled “Higher Ed Reform in Red States: More of the Same Is Not Enough,” Yenor argued for a return to an 8 percent enrollment rate in colleges and universities, rather than the current 46 percent.

Moreover, despite decrying what conservatives consider forced ideology arising from mandated DEI statements from candidates in faculty hiring processes, the recommendations from the Claremont Institute incorporate their own political litmus test. In this case, the report suggests more careful selection of members of the governing board, to be accomplished by vetting candidates for their endorsement of “a professional, reasonably patriotic curriculum in support of our civilization” and for their opposition to DEI.

Governor DeSantis eagerly adopted the game plan that the Claremont Institute set out for him, and on July 1, 2023, Senate Bill 266 went into effect in Florida, prohibiting public colleges and universities from spending money on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts for students, faculty, and staff. The law also places limits on what can be taught, banning the espousal of “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.”

 The elimination of DEI programs and initiatives at public academic institutions in Florida was immediately followed by the introduction of new legislation, the Fairness in Higher Education Act, proposed by Republican senator Marco Rubio. Aimed at preventing what Rubio characterized as “a politicized Department of Education from further forcing diversity, equity, and inclusion policies into higher education,” the law, if passed, would prohibit higher education accrediting agencies from considering DEI in their accreditation processes. Florida already has a law in place mandating that public institutions change accreditors periodically—a rule widely seen as retaliation against the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools for questioning state overreach into university hiring practices and infringements on the faculty’s academic freedom. Nevertheless, conservative activists regard this additional step as necessary, given that the nation’s six major regional accreditors all have DEI requirements to which institutions must adhere in order to fully meet the standards for accreditation.

Though Florida is the leader in passing anti-DEI legislation, other states are not far behind. A bill in Texas, for instance, would empower anyone “to seek an injunction against a public university that supports or sponsors DEI activities,” opening the door to a deluge of citizen lawsuits. As of July 2023, there were forty bills pending in twenty-two different states focused on dismantling DEI programs, policies, and practices. The proliferation of these proposals is aided by model legislation, drafted by scholars from the Goldwater and Manhattan Institutes—both conservative think tanks—who maintain in an introductory brief that their objectives are to “abolish DEI bureaucracies; end mandatory diversity training; curtail political coercion; and end identity-based preferences.” Thus, they are ideologically aligned not only with the Claremont Institute but also with the Heritage Foundation, the CATO Institute, the Federalist Society, the Judicial Crisis Network, the Independent Women’s Forum, and the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, each of which is pouring dark money into the anti-DEI cause.

Diversity and Liberal Education

While these efforts to frame antiracist reforms as racist are troubling in and of themselves, carrying the potential for profound and lasting consequences, the larger enterprise of which they are a part poses an existential threat to American higher education. The exact nature and gravity of the risk can be found in the urgent call to action issued by Yenor in his American Reformer essay, where he outlines specific action steps for conservatives to take in order to reclaim colleges and universities. These include denying public money to universities “informed by the new vision” of inclusive excellence; removing funds for DEI-infused programs like queer studies; withdrawing support for “political and dying” disciplines such as social work, sociology, English, and history, ensuring that their departments and colleges lose accreditation; and abolishing general education. Yenor insists that engaging in reform efforts is no longer enough and that this approach must be abandoned in favor of stigmatizing—and recapturing—higher education as it currently exists.

Viewing stigmatization of the academy as a prerequisite for returning public colleges and universities to their former greatness, Yenor maintains that “only governmental and private efforts to stigmatize and destroy our current educational establishment and replace [it] with a competitive, patriotic moral model suitable for a great country can work.” He points to the tactic offered by University of Texas at Austin finance professor Richard Lowery, who proffers, “If we really work on tarnishing the brand [of higher education], we could get the brand to look like Philip Morris.” For Yenor, this moment when American confidence in higher education has reached an all-time low and enrollment numbers have plummeted to their lowest point in a decade provides a perfect opportunity for a complete takeover by conservatives. 

The strategy involves, among other things, a campaign of misinformation and disinformation about the purposes of DEI. Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a DeSantis-appointed member of the board of trustees at the reconstituted New College of Florida, has been at the forefront of shaping the false narrative around DEI as racial indoctrination. According to Rufo, “So-called Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion bureaucracies at public universities operate as divisive ideological commissariats promulgating and enforcing Critical Race Theory and related political orthodoxies as official campus policy.” Of course, much of the rhetoric about DEI as a set of radical and political social doctrines intent upon promoting anti-American sentiments and values while grooming leftist activists, like the treating of critical race theory as an epithet, is nothing more than a dog-whistle.

The performative outrage and victimology engaged in by DEI’s most ardent critics is not new. It is the apotheosis of a decades-long attack on higher education that has been triggered and catalyzed by Black advancement within a society steeped in zero-sum thinking. In his recent book American Whitelash, journalist Wesley Lowery details the cost of racial progress and the danger in thinking that a multiracial democracy—what America should be—is a settled question. Predictions of a majority-minority America, coinciding with the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president followed by a straightforwardly nativist president in Donald Trump, fueled a new wave of white racial violence and aggression, according to Lowery. And he is convinced that, as a nation, we are woefully unprepared to deal with whitelash as a political force.

So, too, is higher education unprepared when it comes to responding to attacks on programs intended to guarantee fair treatment and broad representation across race, gender, sexual orientation, and more, especially for those who have been historically underrepresented. We need to be clear about what is at stake. The mission of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) to advance the democratic purposes of higher education by promoting equity, innovation, and excellence in liberal education is grounded in a commitment to inclusive excellence and the conviction that equity and excellence in higher education are inextricably linked. Inclusive excellence necessitates fostering a campus culture where engaging diversity is essential to both intellectual and social development. This includes confronting the historical legacies of racism and white supremacy in the classroom and in the cocurriculum, providing a horizon-expanding education for all.

The equity mandate for colleges and universities extends beyond the composition of the student body. Diversity should be construed as active, intentional, and ongoing engagement with difference—in people, in the curriculum, in the cocurriculum, and in the intellectual, social, cultural, and geographical communities with which individuals might connect. In this way, diversity increases one’s awareness, content knowledge, and cognitive and empathetic understanding of the complex ways individuals act within systems and institutions. Intellectual, social, and cultural engagement is at the very core of a liberal education. A liberal education fosters the free exchange of ideas and unfettered pursuit of the truth while liberating the mind from past dispositions—necessary for entertaining the possibility that some of our most fundamentally held beliefs might be mistaken.

Thus, restrictions on DEI programs and curricula greatly impede the ability of colleges and universities to advance their missions and create educational environments and experiences that produce the learning outcomes faculty seek for their students. In fact, preparing students for work, citizenship, and life in a globally interdependent, multicultural world necessitates exposure to a diversity of perspectives along with the practice of humanistic identification with people from different backgrounds.

None of this can be accomplished, however, without ensuring that our campuses are places of welcome and belonging. Eliminating DEI programs and DEI-infused departments sends a message that students of color, first-generation students, students with disabilities, veterans, and LGBTQ+ students, all of whom are served through DEI initiatives, are either outsiders who must assimilate on their own or do not deserve a place in the academy. Because the hidden and overt messages arising from anti-DEI legislation can deter these students from attending and completing college, colleges and universities must commit to open dialogue about the climate for underserved students and ensure that the educational benefits of diversity and difference are derived throughout the learning process. The importance of this commitment is showcased by sociologist Cia Verschelden’s compelling research on cognitive bandwidth, in which she emphasizes how individual student, faculty, and staff experiences of their environment differ based on positionality, background, and identity. Racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of discrimination, as well as food and shelter insecurity, interfere with a student’s ability to learn by reducing their cognitive bandwidth. Verschelden reveals that uncertainty about “belonging” is the biggest bandwidth stealer for students. It is not surprising that the need for students to hide who they are or to grapple with microaggressions, fear, and anxiety over not being accepted, especially in the absence of DEI support services, increases the likelihood that they will struggle academically and drop out.

AAC&U, originally called the Association of American Colleges, was founded in 1915. Its first meeting was held in Chicago, where 150 presidents gathered to define the purpose of their colleges and reassert their importance in the face of a rapidly changing higher education landscape and attacks on academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The annual meeting became the great rallying point for fulfilling the goals of “learning the truth about colleges, telling the truth about colleges, and making better colleges.” The participants arrived at the themes of “inclusiveness and interhelpfulness” to guide their work, and one of the first manifestations of the commitment to interhelpfulness was a collaboration with the AAUP that produced the 1925 Conference Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure and the subsequent joint restatement of its principles known as the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Designed to promote public understanding of and support for academic freedom and tenure in response to undue political influence, the principles contained in these statements have served as the foundation for faculty rights and responsibilities for nearly a century.  

Now, as then, it is imperative for college and university leaders to join with each other and with higher education associations in marshalling a collective response to legislative overreach that violates the principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy upon which the integrity of American higher education depends. At the same time, using resources such as the African American Policy Forum’s #TruthBeTold Campaign, we need to tell the truth about the role of DEI in fostering liberal education; supporting the success of students, faculty, and staff; and safeguarding democracy. In addition, we need to have our own well-formed strategy to dispel the “lies agreed upon,” arising from the propaganda that W. E. B. Du Bois warned against as inevitable when racial progress and true equity gain momentum.   

Lynn Pasquerella is the president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities and a philosophy professor who served as the eighteenth president of Mount Holyoke College.