The GOP ‘Stimulus Package’ for Campus DEI

  • December 22, 2023
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Gene Healy

House Republicans are waging war against woke anti‐​Semitism, and they smell Ivy League “blood in the water” The Hill reports. Viral video of Rep. Elise Stefanik (R‑NY) roughing up three college presidents at a recent congressional hearing has already forced one, Penn’s Elizabeth Magill, to resign. And last week the House passed a resolution calling on the other two, Harvard’s Claudine Gay and M.I.T’s Sally Kornbluth, to “follow suit.” “One down. Two to go,” Stefanik crowed. OK: then what—declare victory?

Stefanik and her colleagues have drawn attention to a serious problem: elite academia’s capture by an illiberal orthodoxy branded as “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI). But the GOP’s pressure campaign is doomed to backfire. Its most likely result will be to spawn a new layer of speech‐​suppressing bureaucracy on college campuses. If Republicans hate the DEI regime so much, why are they handing it a stimulus package?

Actually, at that December 5 hearing on “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable,” GOP members sounded a lot like DEI administrators themselves. Your campuses are “not a safe space,” charged Rep. Aaron Bean (R‑FL); what policies have you put in place so students can “prevent and report anti‐​Semitic behavior?” Rep. Glenn Thompson (R‑PA) demanded; “We will not tolerate the creation of a hostile environment for our Jewish students,” warned Rep. Erin Houchin (R‑IN).

They aim to force a crackdown, using the leverage of federal funding and ramped‐​up “hostile environment” investigations—in other words, more of what got us here.

Federal policy is hardly the sole driver of the “Great Awokening” in academia. But it’s been a key factor in the rise of Woke U.’s enforcement arm: campus DEI bureaucracies. As journalist Megan McCardle points out, “universities are legally required to minimize discrimination on campus, which is how their DEI offices acquired power in the first place.”

The key statutes here are Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (barring discrimination based on race or national origin in federally funded programs) and Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972 (barring discrimination on the basis of sex). Congress passed those laws hoping to expand educational opportunities for minorities and women. But in the hands of a runaway federal agency, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), they’ve become justification for comprehensive social engineering of collegiate life. As Cato’s Walter Olson noted in 2015,

using authority it claims under Title IX and other federal laws, [OCR] has arm‐​twisted the nation’s colleges and universities into stripping away procedural protections for faculty and students facing charges of sexual misconduct, sought to regulate speech as “verbal conduct,” and urged colleges to record microaggressive behaviors that do not rise to the level of harassment or assault but might add up in time to some future pattern.

Starting in the Obama administration, the OCR pursued what the political scientist R. Shep Melnick calls an “investigate and colonize” strategy, “launching expensive, institution‐​wide, reputation‐​damaging investigations against individual schools,” and securing settlements that required “large, autonomous Title IX compliance offices.” The result is a sprawling campus “Sex Bureaucracy,” devoted to “reeducat[ing] students about the meaning of masculinity and femininity.” A similar dynamic has helped foster the growth of the DEI “Race Bureaucracy” that’s lately drawn Republican fire.

Yet the current GOP approach will only further feed the bureaucratic beast. A 2019 Trump executive order extending Title VI to cover anti‐​Semitism is expected to fuel a “flood of student lawsuits.” To ensure that happens, Republicans in the House and the Senate have introduced legislation codifying the Trump directive. Meanwhile, GOP members of the House Education and Workforce Committee have called on President Biden to “move aggressively” under Title VI, “to combat all discrimination, not just the forms that fit conveniently into the woke agenda.”

What’s the Republican endgame here? “Fair and balanced” DEI? Every demographic group gets its own bias response team and dedicated codicil in the campus speech code?

This is not the way. As I wrote recently,

Reformers should have no truck with the infantilizing and un‐​American machinery of speech codes, mandatory trainings, and “bias response teams.” Instead, they should use this opportunity to disrupt and dismantle the DEI bureaucracy itself.

Even in nominally private institutions, like Harvard, MIT, and Penn, campus DEI is largely a state‐​sponsored industry. In a future post, I’ll explore some proposals for reining in the OCR and revising the legal framework that’s subsidized DEI’s growth. Instead of trying to win the campus culture wars from Washington, reformers should focus on getting government out—by undoing the damage federal policy has already done.