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FAQ: Diversity, equity, and inclusion statements

Students raising hands in class showing academic freedom rights

What are diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statement policies?

University DEI statement policies require or invite current or prospective faculty to demonstrate their commitment to DEI, often through a written statement that factors into hiring, reappointment, evaluation, promotion, or tenure decisions.

Why do DEI policies threaten free expression and academic freedom?

Many DEI statement policies can too easily function as ideological litmus tests that threaten employment or advancement for faculty holding dissenting views. Although faculty are ordinarily the primary judges of their disciplinary peers’ academic competence, administrators or ideologically motivated committees typically develop and administer these policies.

I support diversity. Why shouldn’t I support DEI statements?

FIRE’s concerns about DEI statements rest not on opposition to diversity but to any mandate that faculty endorse specific views. It would be equally unacceptable to require faculty to affirm the importance of values like “patriotism,” “individualism,” or “capitalism,” or to demonstrate involvement in activities that promote them. Universities can promote DEI without infringing individual rights. They can release institutional statements, hold community events, conduct administrative outreach, provide support services, and engage in other non-mandatory initiatives.

But can’t universities require faculty to help create welcoming learning environments and support the success of all of their students, regardless of identity?

Absolutely. But DEI statement policies often go further, compelling faculty to affirm contested views or incorporate them into teaching, research, and service activities. The phrase “diversity, equity, and inclusion” sounds uncontroversial, but is laden with political connotations that make it a matter of lively debate. It is not the university’s role to close debate, hardening a select set of beliefs into incontrovertible dogmas. With scholars increasingly facing administrative consequences for voicing minority or simply unpopular opinions, the last thing universities need is another tool for enforcing ideological conformity.

Do the ideals of free speech and diversity/inclusion necessarily live in tension?

No. In fact, the latter depends on the former. When universities uphold expressive freedom, they allow diverse perspectives and create space for dialogue across lines of identity and ideology. It is preferable to have a robust conception of diversity and inclusivity that encompasses values underlying a university’s mission to produce and disseminate knowledge, such as diversity of perspective, intellectual freedom, critical thinking, inquisitiveness, open-mindedness, and epistemic humility.

What are some examples of bad policies?

One example of a bad policy is the University of California, Santa Cruz’s DEI statement requirement, which gives low scores to faculty applicants who, for example, suggest affinity groups for underrepresented students are counterproductive because they separate students by identity and make them feel less valued. Another example is the California Community Colleges system’s proposal to modify evaluation and tenure criteria to compel all faculty to embed “anti-racist principles” in their curricula and to accept and apply ideas like “intersectionality” and “axes of oppression.”

Why does FIRE defend DEI policies and legislation in some cases and oppose it in others?

FIRE opposes DEI policies and legislation when they violate individuals’ rights to express themselves or to refrain from being compelled to voice a particular viewpoint. In the academic context, for example, FIRE opposes policies that compel faculty and/or students to personally affirm or reject contested ideological views as a condition of hiring, promotion, or admission. We also oppose DEI policies that violate faculty’s academic freedom to determine what to teach in their classroom by specifying how and whether certain viewpoints may be discussed. 

On the other hand, FIRE would defend and support a DEI policy or legislation that ensures faculty will not be required to affirm or reject a given viewpoint as a condition of employment or admission. FIRE’s model legislation, the Intellectual Freedom Protection Act, prohibits the use of such political litmus tests in college admissions, hiring, and promotion decisions. We would also defend faculty members’ right to voluntarily support DEI measures and to discuss pedagogically relevant DEI issues in their classrooms. 

What about optional DEI statements?

Mandatory statements are more concerning, but even optional ones leave room to reward participation or penalize non-participation and risk abuse as litmus tests.

How common are DEI statements?

DEI statements are a growing trend. A recent AAUP survey of hundreds of colleges and universities found that more than one-fifth of them include DEI criteria in tenure standards, including 45.6% of large institutions. Nearly half of the institutions that do not consider DEI in tenure review indicated they are considering adding such criteria in the future. A 2021 American Enterprise Institute survey of academic job postings found that 19% required DEI statements, and elite institutions were more likely to require them.

Why can’t democratically elected government officials and administrators ban DEI topics in the college classroom?

So long as material is relevant to the topic of the class, faculty cannot be prohibited from teaching it. That means even topics that are widely contested like DEI are fair game if a faculty member aims to teach them. On the other hand, government officials and administrators also cannot force faculty to affirm or reject ideologies. Having the right to teach DEI and having the right not to teach DEI are two sides of the same coin, and government officials cannot infringe those rights. 

As the AAUP said in its 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, faculty must have “full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties” as well as “freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.” Government officials, whether democratically elected or serving as administrators, must safeguard faculty’s academic freedom rights and cannot cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom by requiring or proscribing certain views. 

What about DEI in the workplace? Does FIRE take a stance on that?

Companies have their own First Amendment rights to support, associate, or not associate with certain views. When the government either prohibits a private business from supporting DEI perspectives or forces it to support those views, that is very likely a violation of that business’s constitutional rights. FIRE will take a stand against unconstitutional laws.

However, when a private company shuts down voices based on DEI initiatives, that is bad for the culture of free expression, but it is likely not a First Amendment violation. For example, First Avenue in Minneapolis canceled Dave Chapelle’s show at the behest of some of its staff who objected to the comedian’s jokes about transgender people. 

In the absence of a culture that champions a principled defense of free speech, private companies not legally obligated to uphold free speech are incentivized to implement and enforce policy in whatever direction the social wind blows, strategically capitulating to the loudest voices. Normalizing the idea that institutions should “cancel” people for unpopular speech hands those institutions an expanded breadth of discretionary power. The powerful, left to enforce policies in whatever manner they please, are empowered to crack down on anything they don’t like. This is bad for everyone.

What can be done?

FIRE has vigorously combated efforts to leverage DEI to purge campuses of dissenting views on issues of public and academic interest, and will continue to do so. If you are concerned that your institution’s DEI statement policy restricts free speech or academic freedom, contact FIRE. For more on this topic, see FIRE’s full statement on the use of DEI statements in faculty hiring and evaluation.