Sociology as a Safe Haven amid Attacks on DEI

Why a key social science discipline matters for general education.
By Laura Sanchez and Meredith Gilbertson

We know that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts are under direct and sustained attack across US colleges and universities. Last June, the US Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions through the conservative majority’s 6–3 decision in two cases—brought by Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina—that targeted race-conscious admissions policies. We have also seen legislative efforts in many states to ban DEI training and programming on campus and eliminate the use of diversity statements in hiring. These widespread, concerted efforts have already had significant effects, including the reduction of university physical space devoted to diversity initiatives; the elimination of prodiversity policies and DEI programs and staff positions; and the reshaping of classroom climate, offerings, and content.

We are also seeing efforts to push back against this trend, and to support DEI, by some college presidents and the Biden administration. College presidents are striving to maintain diverse faculty and student bodies by “working around” the affirmative action ban while remaining technically compliant with its legal requirements; to develop policies that will forestall anticipated declines in the admission of students of color; and to support DEI initiatives that promote a sense of belonging on campuses. Some acknowledge that whereas before they were trying to design policies to increase the numbers of students from underrepresented groups, they now simply hope to reduce losses. Similarly, the Biden administration has openly encouraged universities to keep their diversity pipelines filled through mechanisms that can stand in place of racial or ethnic identification and to strive to make underrepresented groups feel welcome.

This unsettled landscape has a few key actors making steep consequential cuts in diversity and in disciplines well-suited to studying and teaching about diversity, social stratification, and inequality. An obvious example is the January 2024 decision by the board of governors of Florida’s public university system to remove sociology courses as an option for meeting general education requirements. Supporters of this law, including state education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., framed sociology as rife with wild-eyed liberals who use their “woke” ideologies to brainwash students and make conservative students feel unwelcome and silenced. Another example is Ohio’s pending Senate Bill 83, which aims to be a far-reaching and comprehensive assault on campus diversity. The bill as drafted would, if passed, eliminate diversity statements and curtail training except under very limited conditions; prevent funding of DEI offices and staff; and bar state institutions from allowing programs, extracurricular student organizations, and on-campus housing to acknowledge group identities by race, sex, gender identity, or gender expression. It would require institutions to create mechanisms for annual performance evaluations of faculty members and student evaluations of teaching that assess whether faculty members are heading classrooms “free of political, racial, gender, and religious bias,” and it would mandate disciplinary proceedings for faculty members who interfere with students’ rights to express personal opinions (that is, with their “intellectual diversity rights”). The bill passed in the Ohio Senate in 2023 and, as of April 2024, was awaiting a floor vote in the House.

Survey of Sociology Instructors

We are sociologists and proud faculty union members who teach at a public university in Ohio. We are worried about Florida’s sociology ban and Ohio’s SB 83, but we also have great confidence that sociologists, and all their colleagues in sister disciplines, will continue their incomplete and imperfect but important efforts to nurture diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging on their campuses and in their classrooms. One of us, Laura, was trained in sociology and demography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and worked at both the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and Tulane University before settling at Bowling Green State University in 2001. The other, Meredith, has been employed at BGSU since 2005, primarily as an assistant and then an associate teaching professor, with time also spent as a programmer for a research center and as a project manager for a large grant-funded study. We have witnessed the constant ratcheting upward of an audit-generating, neoliberal academic regime made instantly worse by the pandemic and the opportunists who used the crisis to undermine faculty autonomy and governance.

Among our more cherished duties, we are responsible for a required graduate seminar on teaching sociology that we use to prepare sociology graduate students for their first instructor-of-record responsibilities and hone their teaching skills. Last winter, we decided to survey the thirteen cohorts of former graduate students who took this class between 2004 and 2022 to see where they are in their teaching careers. These cohorts include 112 former students, and the study had a 42 percent response rate.

Our survey asked former students simple open-ended questions about their career trajectories, rewarding and challenging experiences, and advice they would give to new sociology instructors. However, we also asked one critical open-ended question, “What is the role of sociology on campus when we see Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion under attack?” Their positions on this last question are fierce, expressing a keen responsibility to educate faculty, staff, and students about the value and purpose of DEI and to address issues related to DEI in their classroom lessons. Our sample of former students is varied in terms of employment and the security of their positions, which are distributed across the landscape of higher education and range from tenure track and tenured to the many varieties of contingent labor. Despite such variations in their appointments, they are unanimous in their unwavering commitment to researching and teaching from a diverse perspective and to supporting DEI policies. We have confidence that sociology will remain useful for supporting diversity initiatives because of these scholars who have been working in an increasingly hostile climate over the past twenty years. Undaunted and energized by this anti-DEI backlash, they give unvarnished, relevant advice about how and why to support DEI against neoliberal and autocratic politics. Two overarching themes emerged: the field of sociology is historically and contemporarily well-suited for teaching DEI concepts, and it is imperative that our classrooms and workplaces are models of DEI principles.

Sociology as a "Cornerstone" of DEI

The educators who responded to our survey feel strongly that the skills, concepts, and methodologies used in sociology situate it as an ideal discipline for teaching and embodying DEI tenets. Through general education course offerings, sociologists benefit students across majors by helping them develop essential analytical skills. As one instructor noted, “Sociology courses provide a unique opportunity to help students develop an intersectional lens through which to view their own lives, as well as information more broadly. I think too we have the chance to help instill media literacy, critical thinking, and statistical literacy overall.” This scholar sees sociology as a means to enable students to see their own lives within larger social structures.

An associate professor at a public university described teaching quantitative literacy as a serious obligation:

I teach a population of students who have little experience with social sciences, and also have myriad political and social viewpoints. My goal is to teach my students to be engaged critical thinkers. We’re not teaching students to “agree” with one particular viewpoint, but we want to teach students how to ask questions and how to think carefully and be empathetic to the viewpoints of others. To do this, I think sociology professors have to be viewed as reliable narrators of the problems our country encounters. Thus, we have to think really carefully about how we present facts, data, and arguments. We have to approach our tasks with enormous intentionality.

Respondents frequently noted the importance of such a careful, reasoned approach to engaging students. One suggested, “I believe the role of sociology on campus when Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is under attack is to provide students the opportunity to learn about root cause[s] of inequalities in the United States. This could involve giving students historical context of inequality, theoretical perspectives on why DEI issues persist today, quantitative evidence of the issues, and encourag[ing] discussions of ways to mitigate issues.” Surveyed faculty members uniformly expressed the need to situate problems in their historical context, provide reliable evidence, and foster discussion about social justice solutions.

Respondents perceived sociologists as responsible for nurturing communities of care. An assistant professor at a private university who considers sociology “vital to the education of students, staff, and faculty on the issues of DEI” wrote,

Students of all majors can benefit from learning about the topics covered in sociology and developing a sociological imagination. Through learning about sociology, students can be more understanding and kinder to each other. Students leave college with a better understanding of the world and how larger social forces influence their behaviors. . . . I also find that it is helpful for faculty and staff to learn about topics addressed in sociology. Much like students, faculty and staff become more understanding of different situations students face and this can lead to changes in policies and treatment of students to help promote and foster equity and inclusion.

This scholar framed the mission of the sociological imagination in terms of fostering equity, inclusion, and social justice. The previous associate professor who argued for dedicated, thoughtful intentionality of lesson plans about DEI wrote, “I find that a lot of students see sociology and the social sciences as a safe haven in a scary world. As a professor, I try to figure out how to be there for my students inside and outside of the classroom and approach teaching and mentorship with the whole person in mind.” These sociology instructors strive for excellence in their use of evidence, focus on critical social problems, and dedicate themselves to their students’ welfare.

Modeling DEI

The educators we surveyed maintain that, even while not directly teaching DEI concepts, it is crucial for sociologists to model DEI principles in and out of the classroom. The following comment from an associate professor at a private university captures how sociologists perceive the critical importance of their classrooms as welcoming settings:

Sociology professors have the power to teach the importance of DEI in their classroom not only based on the content of their courses, but also the classroom space itself. When it comes to the content of the class, while talking about issues of race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. . . . it’s also important to make sure students can see themselves in the lessons being taught. In other words, we need to be cautious of not teaching topics of DEI and then assigning readings that are written by only or primarily white men. Make sure that people of color, women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community etc. are highlighted in the course by having students read their work and describe their experiences in their own words. The classroom space should also be a sacred and safe place. I always start my classes with ground rules of what sort of language and behavior is and is not allowed. We talk about the fact that people have different views and experiences and that’s not only okay, [but should] be respected and valued. We also have to be willing to give voice when we see things or hear things that are hurtful and are not okay, but to also do this in a respectful manner with our peers.

This is eloquent guidance about the physical space of the classroom itself as a sacred, inclusive place of belonging: the course topics, readings, and assignments should all be infused with a DEI sensibility, and students should be guided to learn how to communicate honestly with genuine regard for their companions. Note the strong emphasis on standing up for people who are injured or silenced on college campuses. What we find striking about this thoughtful treatise on how to create a welcoming classroom is that it contradicts the claims of anti-DEI legislators who cast aspersions on college instructors by saying that they create hostile environments that silence and shame students. Surely, any politicians who even casually observed the practices in DEI-structured classes would see that their legislative attempts to protect student voices are already being honored by the efforts of instructors determined to protect all students’ voices.

The educators surveyed see a critical role for sociologists as advocates for DEI. Comments by one early-career sociologist reflected respondents’ commonly held belief that their advocacy helps students who view a sociology instructor “as a safe person to confide in for a variety of issues due to the nature of our work, particularly among marginalized students. Our role is, in part, to be a willing advocate for students, an ear to listen, and to promote empirical and theoretical bases for considering social issues for students as they move forward in their lives.” Advocacy for DEI is bound tightly to this sociologist’s core identity as an academic.

For some, advocacy and its attendant requirement to stand up and defend DEI translates to settings both in and beyond the classroom. An associate professor at a public university wrote, “Be in the conversation. Fight back. Create inclusive, welcoming environments for your students and colleagues. If you are white, you HAVE to stand up for your colleagues and students. They shouldn’t have to do it alone. Teach from the research.” An assistant professor at a private university also endorsed the idea that sociologists should be part of institutional conversations about DEI but noted that sociologists often miss these chances to contribute because of lack of understanding about sociology’s purpose: “Our discipline, as a whole, doesn’t do a good job of inserting itself into conversations that we may have important ideas about. On our campus, the psychologists are often the people having DEI discussions. This is a missed opportunity for us, but we often aren’t invited to the conversation because so many people don’t know what sociology is or what we study.” This scholar clearly sees a beneficial expanded role for sociologists as supporters of DEI initiatives. Notably, right before the sociology ban, the Florida education commissioner displayed his own worries that sociologists are potentially dangerous campus leaders on DEI policies, posting on social media that “sociology has been hijacked by left-wing activists.”

An assistant professor at a public university presented the clearest articulation of this campus service-oriented advocacy role for sociology: “When DEI is under attack, sociological thinking and approaches can help find commonalities, build connections, and lead to open lines of communication. It’s important for sociology—as a department or as sociologists—to identify and label harms that have occurred or attacks as they happen, and to provide background to these issues. We can’t address something if we don’t know what it is, and sociology can establish both the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ to move forward and provide restorative approaches for resolution.” This scholar characterized sociologists as uniquely trained with habits of thoughts and skills that attend to structural inequalities, foster inclusive communities, and generate restorative solutions to campus inequities—focusing not just on aspirational goals of recruiting and retaining diverse students and faculty and nurturing belonging communities but also on identifying, labeling, and rectifying harms. This vision for the discipline of sociology includes strenuous, active advocacy for DEI.

Several sociology instructors articulated a robust offensive strategy to reach DEI objectives. As an associate professor and chair of a program at a public university offered, “To paraphrase Marx, it is not enough simply to study the world, the point is to change it. Sociologists have a long history of using research to educate others of the need for DEI initiatives, but we cannot stop there. We must actively advocate for DEI at every level to attract and retain the most qualified students, faculty, and staff and create a welcoming and supportive environment for everyone.” This comment highlights the need for sociologists to focus their attention and labor on keeping diversity pipelines primed for generating inclusivity. This forward-looking, active approach is exemplified by an associate professor and department chair at a large public university: “We are uniquely positioned to strategically equip colleagues in other departments and students to modify our language to continue to do essential work while outsmarting terrible legislation. We are in a unique position to equip students to mobilize and express their voices in ways faculty may not be allowed to. Some of us (those who are full faculty and bring in considerable external funding) may be in unique positions of power to push back through channels existing on campus.” This scholar’s point is that sociologists need to not only enter into conversation about the chilly climate for DEI but also to educate and encourage other departments to continue engaging in DEI work despite anti-DEI legislative and policy efforts. The view that tenured faculty bear a strong responsibility to use all channels available to support DEI and empower student voices was raised by many of the faculty members surveyed, including those with tenured, tenure-track, and contingent appointments.

As faculty members who work in a university where sociology serves as one means for large numbers of students to meet their general education requirements, we must reflect soberly on the immediate threats to DEI. Indeed, several of our former students talked about this bread-and-butter contribution of sociology. An associate professor and chair of a program at a public university wrote, “Sociology plays a pivotal role for all students, regardless of major. Many students will be introduced to sociology because of . . . a diversity course requirement or global studies requirement, etc. These are opportunities to engage students in meaningful dialogue around DEI issues.” A senior lecturer who works across community colleges and public universities expanded this theme of the value of sociology as a general education course:

Especially as this field is used often as a Gen Ed, sociology has the opportunity to teach students the complexity of society that many are not even aware exist. Many of my non-sociology major students leave comments at the end of the semester about their new exposure to cultural differences, not having previously known the difference between sex and gender, and/or not being aware how intersectionality really plays out in society. How can we ask questions or engage in meaningful discussions about DEI if they don’t even understand what they are? That is where sociology really fills a void and helps our students and campuses be more informed members of their communities.

Another respondent wrote, “Sociology is a cornerstone of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Sociology can protect the inclusive environment by designing the curriculum for the mandatory training about preservation of equity and diversity for all employees and students at the university or college.” These instructors see a valuable place for sociology as part of a liberal education to prepare students for community service and social citizenship and to provide guardrails through university DEI training. American sociologists generally recognize that they conduct research, teach, and serve in one of the most racially and ethnically diverse nations in the world with a vibrant heterogeneity of human lives and communities. This generation of sociologists who have spent the last two decades researching and teaching link their discipline to healthy DEI practices on campuses. Unfortunately, these are the precise practices on the chopping block in many state legislatures.

Current Challenges

Florida legislators replaced sociology as an option with a mandatory American history course focused heavily on the Constitution, its amendments, and the Federalist Papers. Ohio’s SB 83 sets out to do much the same and more. Although the bill does not openly call for the banning of sociology, it requires a tightly framed American history course and sets limits on how instructors can bring intersectionality into their classrooms. We do not question the civic value of history for undergraduates but instead challenge the direct attack by legislators on one discipline and their efforts to override academic freedom by dictating course offerings and content.

As Ohio sociologists, we warn that SB 83 could deliver even more limitations on DEI and academic freedom. The bill places deliberate, multifaceted restrictions on how teachers engage scholarship on race in their classrooms and on training, including penalties for instances when “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” Even more aggressively, it calls for a “sunshine law” that would require easily accessible, searchable regular posting of syllabi on university websites for public consumption and critique. The bill also proposes requiring the following question in student evaluations of teaching: “Does the faculty member create a classroom atmosphere free of political, racial, gender, and religious bias?” This item may be used punitively against instructors who address uncomfortable topics. Not surprisingly, SB 83 includes an expansive, seemingly exhaustive list of anti–affirmative action provisions to eliminate any trace of preferential hiring practices, DEI training (except when federally required), and DEI statements.

Worst of all, the bill would create a legal structure to unravel tenure. Ohio universities already have routinized tenure-weakening post-tenure review practices, but SB 83 would codify a highly bureaucratized, detailed system for empowering administrators to investigate, penalize, and dismiss faculty. As currently drafted in the bill, “The department chairperson, dean of faculty, or provost of a state institution of higher education may require an immediate and for-cause tenure review at any time.” Pointedly, the bill provides no mechanisms for faculty recourse during such impromptu post-tenure reviews.

The sum of these anti–affirmative action, anti-DEI efforts—which reflect a broader disregard for the reality of local and national diversity and disrespect for complicated histories rooted in inequalities—is a last-ditch effort to weaken or stop what cannot be turned back. As Martin Luther King Jr. said at the Washington National Cathedral in 1968, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Sociologists will never back down from teaching, advocating, campaigning, and voting for DEI initiatives. Social justice is in our DNA as scholars trained in a discipline that provides tools for studying and caring about intersectionality, stratification, and inequality.

Our findings from this generation of former students, who remain committed to our discipline in the current divisive political environment, do not surprise us in the least. In conversations with colleagues, we routinely hear sociologists discuss how “banning” sociology will only attract students to that “dangerous” science or how the entire movement to eliminate critical race theory, while misinformed and manipulative, will have no impact at all on their efforts to teach and study what we do: race, gender, class, and much more. This survey shows that sociologists are likely to “lean in” rather than admit defeat to those who complain (and legislate) about critical race theory, “woke liberals,” and the purportedly chilly climate of anticolonial education. We find not just a few voices here and there but an entire generation of sociologists who continue to value and readily defend DEI, even after experiencing—along with research and teaching successes—the hard knocks of demanding workloads, invisible labor, and insecure employment. We are confident that support and work on DEI will outlast the destructive and harmful but ultimately flash-in-the-pan politics of its petty opponents.

Laura Sanchez is professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University. Her email address is [email protected]. Meredith Gilbertson is associate teaching professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University. Her email address is [email protected].