A year ago, Manhattan Institute scholar Christopher Rufo told his followers on social media that they should pay attention to an up-and-coming researcher who was looking into DEI policies at American universities. “This work is going to lead to serious policy impact,” Rufo wrote.

The tweet was prescient. And John Sailer, the researcher that Rufo hailed, is becoming well known for his impact on diversity, equity and inclusion mandates across the country.

Working from his home and coffee shops in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Sailer (pronounced Sigh-ler) has been doggedly exposing hiring policies that he believes are likely unconstitutional through his job as a senior fellow at the National Association of Scholars. Sailer’s reports, which have been published in various publications, including Deseret, The Free Press and The Wall Street Journal, appear to have been the impetus for policy changes in Missouri, Texas, Ohio and Colorado, and for vigorous debate elsewhere.

His work is controversial and makes for incendiary content on talk shows and cable news. And yet Sailer approaches his work like the academic wonk that he is at heart. The 30-year-old father of two is not prone to hyperbole or generalizations. Instead, he prefers to deal in facts, facts he has obtained through public records requests he has made of universities across the country.

He’s made about 400 such records requests over the past year.

In Utah, for example, Sailer’s request for records at Utah State University yielded information that showed candidates who were applying to teach in very specific areas of science — insect ecology and solid earth geohazards, for example — had to show not only expertise in their field, but also a “demonstrated capacity” to contribute to “justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.”

To Sailer’s thinking, this is the sort of policy that often goes unchallenged until it emerges outside the university and kindles outrage. “When I have written about these policies, I have found very few people who will defend them as they exist,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “Exposure works,” he said.

It worked in Texas last year after Sailer’s article on hiring processes at Texas Tech University was published in The Wall Street Journal with the headline “How ‘Diversity’ Policing Fails Science.” In the article, Sailer examined not only the DEI policies of the university, but also the evaluations of a dozen or so job applicants which he obtained through a public records request. He learned that search committees were required to “strongly weight” the required DEI statements submitted by each applicant, leading to one candidate being downgraded for casually using male pronouns with regard to professors, another for not adequately explaining the difference between equality and equity. (The National Association of Scholars posted the records Sailer obtained online, with names redacted.)

Within days, Texas Tech stopped requiring DEI statements of applicants and other Texas universities followed.

As a result of this and other investigations, Sailer has become a gadfly to progressives who promote DEI in academia. It is a career path he didn’t envision a decade ago.

John Sailer, senior fellow and director of university policy at the National Association of Scholars, works on his computer on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, at West Salem Public House in Winston-Salem, N.C. | Allison Lee Isley, for the Deser

What is DEI?

While “diversity” and “inclusion” are generally seen as positive goals in the workplace and academia, the “equity” part of DEI is more controversial. Equality posits that people should be treated the same in all circumstances and given equal opportunities, while equity seeks equal outcomes, even if some people must be treated differently in order to achieve or force an equal outcome.

Derek Monson of the Sutherland Institute summed up the tension between equity and equality when he wrote, “A plurality of Americans of all races believe it is important for businesses to promote racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace. But a majority of Americans of all races also believe hiring and promotion at work should be based only on qualifications, even if this produces less diversity, and they do not believe that race and ethnicity should be a factor in such workplace decisions.”

Opponents of equity in the workplace maintain that DEI policies lead to less qualified people holding jobs.

Sailer wasn’t thinking about any of that when he graduated from high school and enrolled in The King’s College, a private Christian college in New York City. Later he went to the Teachers College graduate program at Columbia University where he studied philosophy and education. His first jobs included teaching chess at a charter school that served low-income students in West Harlem, teaching English, and serving as a debate coach at his alma mater, The King’s College — a good fit, since he’d been a debater in high school and president of his college debate society.

Looking ahead, however, he was becoming discouraged about job prospects in higher ed. “I came to the realization that the academic job market is just incredibly difficult. You can be incredibly qualified for an academic job and do all the right things and still not get one. That increasingly seemed untenable for me.”

When The King’s College itself shut its doors in 2023, Sailer was working for the National Association of Scholars, a conservative NYC think tank. He didn’t delve into DEI right away; one of his first projects was to examine civics education in a handful of states, including Utah. About this time, however, there was a backlash growing against the DEI policies.

Sailer said he had growing unease about what was happening in academia. “I just had the sense that there was something really, really wrong with the state of public discourse in America, mostly surrounding social justice issues, and academia was a key place where that dysfunction was playing out.”

How FOIA requests yield DEI information

Sailer approached the subject of DEI like an investigative journalist: spending hours reading information that was already online and then making public records requests to get a more granular look at what was going on when universities filled positions.

Less than 80 miles from his home was the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine, which had created a task force for integrating social justice into its curriculum. Sailer found the report online and thought it contained “really radical recommendations” but few people outside of the school had read the report, he said. “That was a 40-plus page document, but doing the hard work of reading through it and actually figuring out what was going on — that made a tangible difference.” After Sailer’s reporting and the objection of other groups brought critical attention to the proposals, the university pulled back from some of the recommendations.

Similarly, after making a records request at the University of Missouri, Sailer acquired the rubric used to evaluate diversity statements and published a report on it. The next month, citing “media reports,” the university said it would no longer use that rubric or require diversity statements from job applicants.

Sailer’s impact is not always immediate or, for that matter, always clear. There are other writers and think tanks, including the Manhattan Institute, challenging DEI initiatives. And one published report leads to others. When Sailer was working on civic education, he wrote about a university in Arizona requiring its students to take four DEI-related courses which he said “very much used the language of progressive social justice politics.” Six months later, after widespread criticism, including in National Review, the university revised its requirements. “It’s not like they reversed what they had done, but they were clearly being responsive to that critique,” Sailer said.

Other changes were clearly linked to Sailer’s work. After his report on DEI practices at Texas Tech was published in The Wall Street Journal, there was a “cascade” of universities saying they would stop the practice. And the next summer, the Legislature passed a bill basically eliminating certain DEI practices on campuses.

Nationwide, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which keeps track of DEI legislation, there have been 76 bills introduced since 2023 that would end or limit DEI practices on university campuses. Changes include passage of the Equal Opportunity Initiatives bill in Utah. As the Deseret News previously reported, on July 1, the state will outlaw DEI trainings, requirements, programs and offices at public universities, schools “or any other institution of the state” that engages in what the legislation calls “prohibited discriminatory practices.”

John Sailer, senior fellow and director of university policy at the National Association of Scholars, works on his computer on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, at West Salem Public House in Winston-Salem, N.C. | Allison Lee Isley, for the Deser

Pushback to DEI challenges

Sailer’s work is not without controversy. Last year, he was invited to speak on a panel at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and some students and faculty objected to the event, saying it was against a core value of the school, DEI. The event was moved off campus because conversations about it became “unacceptably disruptive,” the school’s president said.

“Whenever you write critically about something like diversity, equity and inclusion, there’s going to be a group of people who accuse you of basically being a terrible person,” Sailer said. “Diversity, equity and inclusion all sound like great things, an invitation to be nice to people. ... So a lot of people will make accusations of racism and say you’re out of step with the imperatives of social justice. That’s one line of critique.”

Another problem, he said, is a “strong cultural deference” to questions about race and gender that makes it difficult for people to talk frankly about the subjects. “You can see that in guidelines on how to report on issues of race and gender. You see it in guidelines on what language to use surrounding these issues. Culture and policy both play a role. But I do think that leads to an interesting opportunity for entrepreneurial figures in media who are willing to buck that trend. There are a lot of fascinating stories that I have been able to uncover and nobody else is looking at them, or only a few people are looking at them.”

But along with the pushback, Sailer has also found encouragement. While awaiting the results of a records request in Ohio, for example, he was contacted by several faculty members who learned of his request and contacted him to suggest he look into other practices they found concerning.

“That happens pretty often,” he said, adding that it is “extremely helpful to get tips from faculty members who know the lay of the land.” And there are more faculty with reservations about DEI than news reports often indicate, he said. He noted the “crazy rubric” at the University of California, Berkeley, that gives job applicants a lower score for saying they want to treat everyone the same. “That’s widely used across the country. I’ve seen almost no one who will defend it even though it’s widely embraced by university administrators and a slice of people who work in universities.”

Writing for Reason, Robby Soave has called UC-Berkeley’s DEI policies “a lawsuit waiting to happen.” Sailer agrees and said he expects such policies to be deemed unconstitutional eventually. Right now, Sailer’s focus is looking into how the federal government has helped contribute to the proliferation of DEI programs by giving multimillion-dollar grants to universities to foster their development. He intends to follow the same formula that he generally uses in his reports, which he describes as “10% opinion and 90% reporting.”

Politically, Sailer describes himself as “right of center” but says he tries to present information in a “nonpartisan, nonideological” way, although challenges to DEI are often “coded as conservative” — in part because it’s conservatives who are often being shut out of university hiring.

“We’re talking about who is allowed to participate in academia — a litmus test that disqualifies anyone who expresses conservative or classically liberal views on things like race and gender. Those people are being excluded. That, I think, is just a massive scandal. ... My goal is just to shed light on these practices in higher education, and I am always looking for new, creative ways to figure out what is going on.”

John Sailer, senior fellow and director of university policy at the National Association of Scholars, stands for a portrait on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, on Salem College’s campus in Winston-Salem, N.C. | Allison Lee Isley, for the Deser