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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, February 22, 2024

Is so-called DEI policy the third rail of politics on U.S. campuses?

The recent resignations of two leading university presidents tore open the debate over diversity, equity and inclusion policies.

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Harvard Yard is pictured.

The recent resignations of Claudine Gay as president of Harvard University and Elizabeth Magill as president of University of Pennsylvania sparked a public debate over diversity, equity and inclusion policies on U.S. campuses. 

Their resignations stemmed in part from reactions to their responses to questions at a Dec. 5, 2023 congressional hearing about protecting Jewish students from antisemitism on their campuses. Following this hearing, Magill announced her resignation on Dec. 9, 2023, in the wake of widespread criticism of her testimony. 

Gay’s resignation, however, came on Jan. 2, following subsequent intense questioning of her qualifications and academic body of work. Her tenure as the university’s first Black president lasted only six months, making it the shortest serving time of any Harvard president. 

Discussions over Gay and Magill’s resignations splintered into disagreements, including over academic policies. Some celebrated Gay’s resignation as a win against the policies of DEI. Others viewed it as part of a broader attack against diversity initiatives and higher education. 

The controversy has signaled how DEI has become the third rail of college campus politics across the country ahead of the 2024 election. 

Following the departure of Gay under pressure from Harvard’s board of trustees, thought leaders across the country and on all sides of the political spectrum have weighed in on the broader implications of her resignation in particular.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award-winning journalist, commented on the nature of the debate over DEI policies. Hannah-Jones is the creator of the 1619 Project, a New York Times series turned Hulu show by the same name. 

“I don’t think this is a new battle,” Hannah-Jones said in a call with the Daily. “But I do think it’s the latest iteration in an ongoing battle and Dr. Gay became the target of a well-organized propaganda campaign, which is the same propagandists who stoked the anti-critical race theory frenzy and are now attacking what they call diversity, equity and inclusion, but they’re really attacking racial justice programs.” 

Hannah-Jones also spoke of parallels between her own experience in academia and Gay’s. She referred to her experience in 2021 of being denied tenure at University of North Carolina after the journalism department recommended her for the position. She was the first Black woman to be considered for the Knight Chair position at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and was the only person in that position ever to be denied tenure. UNC eventually voted to grant Hannah-Jones tenure, but she declined the offer. 

“I absolutely empathize and see my experience reflected in what happened to Dr. Gay in that a Black woman with an impeccable career reputation became completely politicized and had her work and her reputation attacked because of what she stood for,” Hannah-Jones said. She is now the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University. 

The term DEI, which refers to the set of procedures and strategies used by institutions to promote the equitable treatment of groups, has frequently come up in discourse following Gay’s resignation. 

Bill Ackman, CEO of the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management and one of Gay’s most vocal critics, took to the platform X, formerly known as Twitter, to share his read of the situation. 

“DEI is racist because reverse racism is racism, even if it is against white people,” he wrote. 

Ackman wrote about his views on DEI in the university setting in another tweet. 

“The DEI statement [of Harvard] makes clear that Harvard’s conception of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging does not include Jews,” he wrote. 

These are some of the claims made by critics of DEI efforts in university settings. Such claims are made by more than just individuals. 

In a conservative commentary titled “Is DEI Losing Its Hold on College Campuses?” Jonathan Butcher — the Will Skillman Fellow at the Heritage Foundation — voiced his opinion on DEI at universities. 

“DEI is indelibly linked to discriminatory concepts such as critical race theory. DEI has its roots buried in ‘social justice philosophy,’ a euphemism for racial preferences,” he wrote. 

Although there are many critics of DEI policies, many universities stand by them and seek to promote more inclusive environments in education. 

Monroe France, Tufts' vice provost of institutional inclusive excellence, wrote in an email to the Daily that he remains committed to ensuring “a culture of inclusion, equitable opportunities, accountability, and a diversity of people and perspectives.” France argues that it’s exactly in times like these that fostering diverse leadership is vital. 

“We will need leaders inside and outside of higher education to champion and deepen their commitment to this work–especially during times of backlash and scrutiny,” he wrote. “I am thankful to be in a place like Tufts where this work remains an integral part of our institutional values and priorities.”

France nevertheless expressed his worries over the intense social and political division surrounding his work. 

“The attack on diversity and inclusion in higher education and more broadly is deeply concerning. Unfortunately, this is not new — this work has always been under scrutiny,” he wrote. 

Following the Senate hearing on Dec. 5 with the presidents of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, accusations of plagiarism directed at Gay’s work were published in The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online outlet. The majority of the criticisms centered on citation issues. 

Dr. Stephanie Hall, senior director of higher education policy at the Center for American Progress, contends that the criticism around Gay speaks to a larger issue. Hall does not view the implications of Gay’s resignation as truly being about plagiarism or on-campus antisemitism. 

“I think that a really well coordinated attack on academic freedom is the context. And I think that Dr. Gay’s resignation is just one moment in that broader attack,” she said. 

Hall emphasized that in her field of work, she is especially concerned about the vulnerability of universities that are lesser-known than Harvard. 

She points to the recent example of West Virginia University, which grappled with a $45 million budget deficit in September 2023.

“What I immediately thought about was West Virginia University, where they were dealing with this massive budget shortfall, declining student enrollment, reduced state funding, and questionable decisions made by their administration,” Hall said. 

She further linked these concerns to the broader context of academic freedom. 

“It all links back to qualms that folks have either with academic freedom — sometimes the phrase DEI is thrown around — but almost always it’s a bad faith use of the phrase and it’s really just being used as by a vocal minority to kind of hijack higher ed,” she said. 

Peter Levine, a Tufts professor of citizenship and public affairs, similarly views these developments as part of a broader conversation about academic freedoms. 

“All of us who are connected to higher ed should be using the opportunity to think about the deeper questions about what it’s for,” Levine said. “I don’t think anybody is doing that great a job of articulating the values of free inquiry and free speech in an academic setting.”