This is an excerpt from Arguable, a Globe Opinion newsletter from columnist Jeff Jacoby. Sign up to get Arguable in your inbox each week.
The University of North Carolina announced recently that applicants for academic admission or employment at any of its 17 campuses will no longer be compelled to submit personal “diversity, equity, and inclusion” statements as a condition of being admitted or hired. Texas A&M University and the University of Houston announced similar policies this month, removing DEI statements — which have been likened to “woke loyalty oaths” — from their hiring procedures. In Des Moines, the Iowa Legislature is weighing a bill to curb spending on DEI mandates at the state’s public universities. At the New College of Florida, the board of trustees has ended mandatory “diversity” exercises and the campus DEI bureaucracy.
These are encouraging signs that the pendulum has started to swing against the reigning DEI orthodoxy in higher education. Far from promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, DEI policies on campus and the infrastructure created to perpetuate them have tended to promote just the opposite: a rigid ideological uniformity, blatant inequity in the treatment of political minorities, and the exclusion of points of view disfavored by the left.
“The imposition of DEI bureaucracy upon the academy has too often come at the expense of academic freedom and freedom of expression,” notes the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a respected defender of intellectual liberty. Especially pernicious are “DEI administrators [who] have been responsible for repeated campus rights abuses.”
A fresh example of such abuse erupted at Stanford Law School last week when Judge Kyle Duncan of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit attempted to deliver an address at the invitation of the school’s chapter of the Federalist Society. Nearly a hundred students showed up to disrupt Duncan’s speech, repeatedly drowning his words with shouted epithets like “Scumbag!” and “You’re a liar!”
The title of the judge’s talk was “The Fifth Circuit in Conversation with the Supreme Court: Covid, Guns, and Twitter,” and he presumably intended to discuss some of his notable decisions on controversial topics. The Fifth Circuit is considered the most conservative of the appellate courts and Duncan’s orientation is plainly right of center. In 2015, for example, he was retained by 15 states to prepare a Supreme Court brief opposing nationwide same-sex marriage. Agree or disagree with his politics, his judicial philosophy should be of interest to any serious law student. After all, as legal blogger David Lat remarked, “the opportunity to hear from a sitting federal appellate judge about his court’s jurisprudence is why students go to places like” Stanford Law School.
But the students who came to Duncan’s appearance weren’t interested in hearing him but in silencing him. Lat recounts what happened:
When the Stanford FedSoc president (an openly gay man) opened the proceedings, he was jeered between sentences. Judge Duncan then took the stage — and from the beginning of his speech, the protestors booed and heckled continually. For about ten minutes, the judge tried to give his planned remarks, but the protestors simply yelled over him, with exclamations like “You couldn’t get into Stanford!” “You’re not welcome here, we hate you!” “Why do you hate black people?!” “Leave and never come back!” “We hate FedSoc students, f**k them, they don’t belong here either!”
After a while, Duncan lost his cool, calling the students “juvenile idiots” and condemning the “blatant disrespect” he was being shown. That was unwise; he should have known better. But all that was merely a prelude to the worst outrage of the day.
When it was clear that the abuse would not subside, Duncan asked that a university administrator restore a semblance of order to the room. Whereupon Tirien Steinbach, Stanford Law’s associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion — who had been in the room the whole time and done nothing to restrain the disruptors — came to the podium. The judge asked to speak with her privately but she refused. Then she took out a prepared text (!) and laced into ... Duncan.
Steinbach told the judge that his “work has caused harm” and that his speech “feels abhorrent [and] literally denies the humanity of people.” She accused him of engaging in the “absolute disenfranchisement of [people’s] rights.” She said she was “pained to have to say that you are welcome here in this school to speak” and expressed sympathy for those who oppose free speech on campus. “Is your speaking here worth the pain that it has caused, the division it has caused?” she demanded of the judge.
Rather than rebuke the students whose behavior was so disgraceful, Steinbach applauded them. “I look out,” she said, “and I don’t ask, ‘What is going on here?’ I look out and I say, ‘I’m glad this is going on here.’”
Video of Steinbach’s diatribe and some of the raucous heckling that preceded it has been posted online.
When Steinbach finished, about half the students walked out (one called Duncan “scum” as she passed him). The judge tried unsuccessfully to resume his presentation; when he invited students to engage with him in a Q&A, the heckling resumed. “You are all law students; you are supposed to have reasoned debate and hear the other side, not yell at those who disagree,” he said. To which, according to Lat, a protester jeered: “You don’t believe that we have a right to exist, so we don’t believe you have the right to our respect or to speak here!”
Why are universities increasingly seen not as a home for open debate but as a gulag of intellectual conformity and the silencing of non-woke ideas? Look no further than Stanford, where an academic official — a dean no less — insults an invited speaker, extols the students shouting him down, and suggests that the school might be better off jettisoning any commitment to free expression.
One day after the fiasco at the law school, Stanford issued a letter of apology to Duncan, signed by the university president and the head of the law school. “What happened was inconsistent with our policies on free speech,” they wrote, “and we are very sorry about the experience you had while visiting our campus.” Without mentioning Steinbach by name, the letter conceded that “staff members who should have enforced university policies . . . instead intervened in inappropriate ways.” That was putting it far too mildly. There was no forceful rebuke of the students for their shameful and intolerant behavior. There was no indication that Steinbach, the DEI dean, will face professional consequences.
The Stanford Review, an independent student newspaper, had a much stronger take.
”The university’s apology will be completely meaningless unless concrete actions are taken to rid the administration of anti-speech zealots,” declared the paper in an editorial headlined “Fire Tirien Steinbach.” It argued that if Stanford’s claim to care about free speech is to be taken seriously, “it must fire any administrator who actively encourages these unruly actions against it.”
Only as an acronym does “DEI” stand for diversity, equity, and inclusion. In the fever swamps of academia, it has come to stand for everything that academic inquiry and intellectual freedom shun. The debacle at Stanford is only the latest illustration of how toxic higher education has become — and why the backlash against it is only beginning.