At a recent Stanford Law School event, sponsored by the school’s Federalist Society chapter, federal Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan quickly realized it would be impossible to give his prepared remarks over the shouts of student protesters. So when the school’s associate dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion stood up to speak, Duncan thought she was standing to quiet the crowd.

That expectation lasted about as long as it took Tirien Steinbach, the DEI dean, to open up her folder and announce that she had prepared remarks of her own. 

“This event is tearing at the fabric of this community,” Steinbach said to the room and to Duncan, who had been invited on March 9 to speak about his work on the United States Court of Appeals. “Do you have something so incredibly important to say … that it is worth this impact on the division of these people?” she said to Duncan. 

Steinbach is now on leave, according to Stanford Law’s dean, Jenny Martinez, who, in a 10-page public letter, said administrators failed to follow the school’s free speech policies at the event. On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Steinbach, where she explained her actions.

Martinez did not address whether any of the student protesters would face repercussions. Duncan faced heckling, lewd posters and comments, and was ultimately escorted from the lecture hall by federal marshals.

In an op-ed written for The Wall Street Journal after the event, Duncan said one protester screamed they hoped his daughters were raped.

Students have shouted down conservative speakers on college campus before. But on Twitter, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said that this time was different. 

“Unlike so many prior instances in which STUDENTS engage in this kind of mistreatment, this incident involved the ADMINISTRATION at Stanford,” Lee said

This exchange highlights the increasingly high-profile conservative frustration with DEI initiatives. Whereas proponents of DEI offices say they are meant to make all students feel welcome and to redress disparities, what seems like a growing number of opponents say they stifle diversity of thought and encourage a despairing view of systemic discrimination. 

Conservatives also point to evidence that DEI offices may discriminate against conservative viewpoints and have little to no effect on students’ actual sense of belonging.

This year a spate of anti-DEI bills were introduced in red states across the country — including Utah, Florida and Texas — that would defund or outright ban DEI initiatives in public institutions of higher education. 

However, author and educator Irshad Manji said in an interview with the Deseret News that efforts to ban DEI miss the mark if they’re just about picking a side, even if conservatives are right to find fault in the way DEI programs are implemented.

“If your intention is to fan the flames of the culture war, in order to rally your tribe to your side and ensure that you are reelected, well, then of course that’s the right approach,” she said. “There definitely is a better way.”

What is DEI?

Diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, is catchall phrase for programs and policies meant to create an environment of equal representation and opportunity, with a focus on groups that have faced historic discrimination. 

“I think there’s a misunderstanding about what it is that diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are designed to do,” Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and former president of Mount Holyoke College said. “They are not designed to promote people who are not qualified. That would be setting people up for failure. They’re not designed to give preference based on race. They’re designed to give equal opportunity and equal access so that everyone has a place at the table.”

Pasquerella said diversity statements in college hiring and admissions processes should demonstrate a person’s capacity to be an effective teacher or student in a pluralistic society. And recent events have shown that efforts to right historic wrongs and create a welcoming environment are necessary, she said. 

“DEI programs are really intended to help institutions engage in audits about their own policies, practices, hidden biases, and to redress those in ways that ensure that everyone feels a sense of welcome and belonging,” Pasquerella said.

These programs also help attract and retain a diverse student body and set them up for success, Pasquerella said, pointing out that students are better able to perform academically when they are not dealing with racism, sexism, homophobia, or other forms of discrimination or insecurity.

Problems with DEI

But while the three words — diversity, equity, inclusion — on their own appear innocuous, their application has at times been disastrous, according to Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow and director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute. 

“Those are all good goals,” Shapiro said in a phone interview with the Deseret News. “The problem is that the way that DEI offices operate are almost completely in contradiction to those goals.”

Shapiro said that while proponents say DEI policies are necessary to create a welcoming environment, they often function as a way to weed out those who stray from progressive orthodoxy. 

This includes college professors who were denied raises and research opportunities based on their responses to diversity statements.

“(DEI initiatives) prevent intellectual diversity and kind of narrow the acceptable range of policy views to achieve equality of outcome rather than treat everyone fairly, and to exclude anyone who disagrees with a rather rigid ideological perspective,” Shapiro said. 

Shapiro speaks from personal experience. In the first part of last year, he was subject to a four-month investigation by Georgetown’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action for a controversial tweet he posted shortly before taking a new position at the school.

Though the investigation determined no disciplinary measures were needed, Shapiro resigned a few days later, saying that the university had proven it lacked a commitment to the traditional ideals of higher education. 

Such experiences have become more common as universities have devoted more resources to DEI administrators and offices over the last decade, especially since the George Floyd protests, Shapiro said.

Recent years have seen more colleges hiring hundreds of DEI administrators and spending tens of millions of dollars a year on DEI offices. Some universities offer DEI degrees, and a majority of them have, or are considering, DEI criteria for tenured positions.

DEI has also become a multibillion-dollar corporate industry. Last year, LinkedIn ranked “diversity and inclusion manager” as the second fastest growing job of the last five years. And Shapiro’s colleague at the Manhattan Institute, Christopher Rufo, has documented that 100% of Fortune 100 companies have DEI initiatives in place.

Rufo and Shapiro published model legislation in January that would defund DEI bureaucracies and prohibit mandatory diversity trainings in public institutions, defining DEI initiatives as any effort to promote differential treatment based on race, color, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation.

Legislation like this has been introduced in state legislatures across the country, including in Florida, where Rufo has worked closely with Gov. Ron DeSantis on education issues. 

Red states take on DEI 

In January, DeSantis announced a proposal to eliminate university courses and bureaucracies dedicated to DEI. The Republican-led legislature followed with a bill to allow the state Board of Governors to remove DEI-related majors and courses from universities and cut spending to DEI programs.

Other red states followed Florida’s lead. 

In early February, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a memorandum to public universities stating that the use of DEI initiatives was illegal in hiring. By early March, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, University of Houston, and University of Texas school systems had all instructed their leaders to halt DEI hiring practices and to review their DEI policies. 

Bills introduced in the Texas House and Senate would prohibit colleges from maintaining DEI offices and from requiring DEI statements in hiring or admissions. 

Similar bills are making their way through the Missouri and Iowa state legislatures. A similar bill in Utah didn’t make it out of committee

This aggressive response by Republicans is appropriate considering the size and scope of the problem, according to Matt Beienburg, director of education policy at the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute and a coauthor of the model legislation. 

He said that according to his research around 80% of job openings in the Arizona public university system require a DEI statement. And Beienburg said that more than three-quarters of job applicants are rejected in the California school system because they do not meet certain DEI requirements.

“What we’ve seen is basically what this functions as is a political litmus test, which rather than promoting diversity, particularly diversity of thought and opinion, which is crucial for the intellectual inquiry of higher education, these measures require essentially intellectual conformity,” Beienburg said. 

Bridging the DEI divide 

But Manji, author of “Don’t Label Me,” and founder of Moral Courage College, suggests there is a way to implement DEI without inflaming divisions.

“What people tend not to think about is how something is done will determine whether its ideals translate in the real and messy world,” said Manji,

One example Manji gave was if a DEI training were to segregate individuals based on skin color and apply the labels of “victim” and “oppressor” based on these categories. This activity does nothing to address the real problem, Manji said, and instead would likely increase feelings of resentment and division.

“The best intentions of DEI then become corrupted by the way it is practiced,” she said.

Diversity Without Division, a program offered by Moral Courage College, wants individuals to be able to share their views on controversial issues without resorting to tribal defensiveness. It encourages participants to listen to and not shame one another.

“In this version of diversity, empathy and inclusion, nobody is saying that you have to change what you believe,” she said. “You get to stand your ground and create common ground at the same time. And that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s actually a delicious paradox.”

Brigham Young University’s Office of Belonging appears to be trying to strike a similar balance. 

The Office of Belonging, opened last fall, strives to create a welcoming community, first by focusing on students’ common identity as children of God, and then by emphasizing the necessity of eliminating prejudice and addressing achievement gaps, particularly among first generation students.

It’s initiatives like this that make Manji optimistic that eventually DEI can help create a community that values belonging, intellectual diversity and respect for the individual. 

“Anybody can be destructive,” Manji said. “But being constructive, now that is where integrity comes from.”