Targeting Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Higher Education

Malik Miah

WHAT IS HAPPENING in elite private universities from Harvard to other Ivy League schools reflects a dangerous racial and class divide in the country.

Following Claudine Gay’s resignation, the Los Angelos Times article by Michel Hiltzik exposes why:

“The truth about Harvard president’s ouster Claudine Gay’s resignation was the outcome of a right-wing attack on higher education” he went on to say:

“Pundits, politicians and alumni are currently locked in a debate over whether Claudine Gay’s decision to step down after only a months-long tenure as president of Harvard was due to accusations that she was a serial plagiarist or her maladroit performance last month at a congressional hearing about a surge of antisemitism on American college campuses.

“A few things about this: That some of Gay’s academic writings crossed the line into plagiarism is indisputable. That she, along with the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and MIT, failed to knock the ‘gotcha’ questions about antisemitism back down the throats of the cynical, preening Republican interrogators at the hearing is also indisputable.

“What’s important is that neither of those facts has anything to do with what was really behind the campaign to force Gay out of her job. To put it simply, the press has completely missed the real story. To be precise, the debate about her resignation has ignored the noxious context, which is a concerted attack on American higher education — indeed, all education — by a right-wing cabal.”

Gay made the same point in a New York Times op-ed published January 5.

“The campaign against me was about more than one university and one leader,” said Gay. “This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society. Campaigns of this kind often start with attacks on education and expertise, because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda.”

She continued, “It is not lost on me that I make an ideal canvas for projecting every anxiety about the generational and demographic changes unfolding on American campuses: a Black woman selected to lead a storied institution.”

“I have never misrepresented my research findings, nor have I ever claimed credit for the research of others.”

She added, “Despite the obsessive scrutiny of my peer-reviewed writings, few have commented on the substance of my scholarship, which focuses on the significance of minority office holding in American politics. My research marshaled concrete evidence to show that when historically marginalized communities gain a meaningful voice in the halls of power, it signals an open door where before many saw only barriers. And that, in turn, strengthens our democracy.”

Claudine Gay was the first person of color and second woman in Harvard University’s 386-year history to serve as president. Her parents were immigrants from Haiti and the conservative extremists used the N-word repeatedly to denounce her.

Such campaigns, Gay explained, “often start with attacks on education and expertise, because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda. … Trusted institutions of all types -— from public health agencies to news organizations -— will continue to fall victim to coordinated attempts to undermine their legitimacy and ruin their leaders’ credibility. For the opportunists driving cynicism about our institutions, no single victory or toppled leader exhausts their zeal.”

Activists support Gay and others for standing firm and advocating not only diversity, equality and inclusion but explicitly making anti-racism central to their actions.

Not surprisingly the right opposes freedom of speech and assembly by those oppose to racism, Israeli war crimes and critical of capitalist exploitation.

Aim: Restore Unhindered White Privilege

The far right is open about its objectives. Christopher F. Rufo, the leader of the racist mob that chased after Gay, said:

“We launched the Claudine Gay plagiarism story from the Right,” he stated on X — formerly Twitter — on Dec. 19. “The next step is to smuggle it into the media apparatus of the Left, legitimizing the narrative to center-left actors who have the power to topple her. Then squeeze.”

This is a replication of his earlier campaigns to turn “critical race theory” (CRT) and “diversity, equity and inclusion” programs (DEI) into dog whistles for the reactionary Republican voting bloc.

“The obsessive culture war coverage of the Ivies hurts other institutions,” observes Don Moynihan, a public policy professor at Georgetown University. Those elite private schools have the money and connections to survive whatever partisan politics throws at them.

This is not the case for the public institutions that educate most Americans. (Harvard’s enrollment, including its graduate and professional schools, is about 30,000; at Florida’s three main campuses, which are under intense partisan threat from Gov. Ron DeSantis, it is a combined 185,000.)

“The biggest story about higher education over the last decade has been increased politicization, not wokeness,” Moynihan writes. “The biggest threats to speech are coming from people who write the laws and set the budgets, not from students. … University trustees in public institutions are increasingly political appointees determined to impose right-wing values.”

According to Barrett J. Taylor, the author of Wrecked: Deinstitutionalization and Partial Defenses in State Higher Education Policy, a book about the Wisconsin experience, “[Republican Gov.] Walker went after higher ed to rally his base: ‘Universities were too liberal! Professors had too good of a deal!’ It was something to oppose. And higher ed is still a useful political tool.”

Florida took Wisconsin’s baton and is at the center of the reactionary attack on public higher education. Gov. DeSantis has installed Ben Sasse, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, as president of the flagship University of Florida (enrollment: 60,795); never mind that Sasse had zero experience running a major university.

The highlight (or lowlight) of DeSantis’ campaign against Florida universities involves New College of Florida, a Sarasota institution that possessed a well-deserved reputation as one of the nation’s outstanding havens for talented, independent-minded students. DeSantis fired its board of trustees and replaced it with a clutch of right-wing stooges including Rufo.

They promptly fired the college’s president and replaced her with Richard Corcoran, a former GOP state legislator, while nearly doubling his salary to $700,000, plus more than $200,000 in rewards.

Corcoran moved to turn New College into a fourth-tier institution of zero distinction. He recruited 70 baseball players even though the campus has no playing fields. Existing students fled, and the average SAT and ACT scores and high-school grade point averages of the incoming class have plummeted.

“That brings us back to Rufo and his campaign against Claudine Gay. Does any person past the age of playing with their toes really believe that he cares one whit about plagiarism and antisemitism, the ostensible rationales for her departure? Does anyone believe his purpose is to heighten the integrity of prose in academia or ensure that university campuses remain refuges for pro-Israel policy?” adds Hiltzik.

Anti-wokism, CRT and DEI Fraud

At the height of the right’s fabricated campaign against critical race theory, which became conveniently truncated as CRT, Rufo wrote:

“We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”

Having achieved his purpose by demonizing CRT, Rufo and his sycophants turned to DEI. Right-wing politicos unwilling or unable to even feign interest in making public policy scurried to get in front of this parade.

It is not just far right activists like Rufo who care little about free speech and truth. Established institutions have led the way.

In July 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action policies in higher education are unconstitutional. It proclaimed, falsely, that the United States is a “color blind” country. The facts of Indigenous peoples being slaughtered (a massive genocide) and Black people being taken from Africa as slaves goes unmentioned.

The same unelected lifetime justices in 2013 said voting rights could be legally gutted by states after 50 years of protection. The same court ruled against women’s reproductive rights, another 50-year precedent.

Focus is “Anti wokism”

Today the focus of the “anti-wokism” campaign is DEI -— diversity, equity, and inclusion. The aim is restoration of uniformity, inequality, and exclusion. This translates into Jim Crow-type white supremacy without calling it that. The right is even threatening lawsuits to stop voluntary diversity programs at private employers.

In our alleged color-blind society, it is whites —- especially white males -— who suffer discrimination, not African Americans.

Of course, once you have reduced these color-blind principles to “DEI,” no one will stop and think about its true meaning.

The assault on DEI programs, observed a report on Florida’s anti-DEI campaign by the American Association of University Professors, is “emblematic of how civil rights discourses get co-opted by the far right to promote misogynistic (and/or racist) agendas.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a leading Maga Republican and graduate of Harvard, set the rhetorical trap that Gay walked into at the Capitol Hill House hearing, along with Penn President Liz Magill (who has also resigned, more directly as a result of a campus controversy over antisemitism) and MIT President Sally Kornbluth (who still has her job).

Rufo and Stefanik are taking victory laps over Gay’s resignation. Stefanik, who never lets an opportunity slip by to display crass vulgarity, tweeted, “Two Down,”referring to Gay and Magill. Another tweeter hailed the “scalp” taken.

This incident should open people’s eyes to the dishonesty of the right’s campaign and the hollowness of their triumph.

What Must Be Done?

What must be done is to fight back with both outrage and mass counter protests. Demands must be pressed on all levels of government, including the White House. in defense of CRT and DEI.

Activism for Palestine’s survival and freedom, and for an immediate cease fire in Israel’s war on Gaza are important. The threat of firings and loss of jobs has not stopped that movement and it will not.

Gay, who will continue to work as a professor at the university, entered her role at a tumultuous time. She officially took over the position in July 2023, just days after the Supreme Court set limits on affirmative action at the university. The decision came amid conservative attacks on diversity initiatives — or DEI — in higher education.

DEI initiatives are crucial to remedy policies that may exclude historically marginalized groups. This includes addressing pay inequity, rectifying issues that lead to poor retention rates among marginalized groups and implementing anti-discrimination training.

We need to protect the gains that have been won for African Americans and other discriminated minorities, for women and for the LGBTQ+ community. What is fundamentally at stake is not so much tenured positions at private universities but the much larger battle for justice.

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