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The Rise of the Anti-DEI Movement in Education

  • Published on: February 21, 2024
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  • Updated on: July 1, 2024
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  • Reading Time: 4 mins
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Eric Stano
Authored By:

Eric Stano

VP - Ed Services

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement, DEI initiatives and offices gained greater traction and prominence on college campuses throughout the U.S.  The taking of Floyd’s life was seen as a call to action. It was a tipping point for many to redouble efforts to combat institutional racism. In the context of education, the incident spurred an increased focus on ensuring that every student is given an equal opportunity to succeed in their academic career and life pursuits.


Challenges in Initial DEI Efforts

These well-intentioned, laudable efforts were not perfect, of course. Here’s where most stumbled:

  • A lack of necessary resourcing for and investment in DEI offices;
  • Policies and branding statements were more performative than substantive or actionable;
  • A resulting “revolving door” of DEI officers and staff.

Nevertheless – to paraphrase an expression popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  – the arc of the universe, while not direct or untroubled, seemed to many to be bending toward justice.


The Rise of the Anti-DEI Movement

Cue the law of unintended consequences or, perhaps better put in the context of the polarized American political system, the relatively predictable emergence of opposition to these initiatives.

Since 2022, approximately 40 anti-DEI bills have been introduced relative to higher education.  (Some legislation, such as Utah’s HB 261, produced a blast radius that reached K-12.)

These bills – riding in the wake of harbinger state laws like those of Texas and Florida – target, abolish, and/or mutate mandatory DEI training, diversity statements in hiring, DEI offices, and curricula.  In essence, anything that substantively touches on issues of race, sexism, sexuality, privilege, and oppression at any publically funded institution of higher education is in the scope of this legislation.

Some states go even further.  Kentucky’s Senate Bill 6, for instance, enables employees or students to sue a college or university if they feel discriminated against for not supporting – in the words of the bill – “divisive concepts.”

These anti-DEI efforts have been advanced and supported by frequent and well-placed speeches, op-eds, and interviews. The opponents of DEI assert, with some irony, that diversity efforts actually blunt free speech, encourage more division than unity, and discriminate against white students. (Amid these allegations, one can find argument-corroding asides such as the telling words of Utah Representative Katy Hall while making these very points, “I can’t say I have data…”)

Supporters of DEI efforts are also facing headwinds blowing from the Mideast, where the Israeli-Gaza conflict has inflamed U.S. campus tensions and discord. These have been illustrated recently – if not exacerbated – by the tone-deaf testimony of the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania.


Given this maelstrom, what are the people, organizations, and institutions in education committed to the principles and goals of DEI, to do?

For starters, committed advocates must ensure that their efforts are driven by a devotion to clearly articulated, measurable outcomes. Quantifiable and assessable goals should be clearly documented in the hiring of (any) staff, the establishment of diversity offices, the promotion of DEI policies, and the development of educational products (e.g., courseware, textbooks).  In each of these areas, leaders should ask themselves, “What are the desired impacts of each of these investments?  How will we track, document, and disseminate the results of these efforts, and when?   If the results are unclear or suboptimal, how can we transparently alter our strategy, improve our implementation, or calibrate our investments to better achieve them?”

The progress toward achieving clearly defined goals by diversity officers might also be monitored and supported by monthly status meetings between those officers and their CEOs, presidents, provosts, or boards.   Educational publishers and edtech companies might measure, A/B test-style,  the results of deliberate DEI investments in the content of their products and compare the learning gains of students using a DEI-informed product to those of a similar cohort of students using an alternative.  Those data, one suspects, could easily find a prominent perch in a company’s marketing material or annual report.

Early DEI efforts were weakened by the absence of concrete objectives and support.  Instead,  proxies were often put forward in the form of too-vague achievement milestones and unclear, unguided pathways to reach them.  This often left those charged with making gains in DEI fishing with their hands and deprived them of the tools, investments, and visible leadership they actually required.

The lack of clarity and the resulting paucity of funding constituted a double-edged sword – of sorts – in which both sides of the blade produced negative consequences. Unfortunately, that resulted in DEI advocates bringing a sword to a gunfight when it came to battling opponents for progress on diversity, equity, and inclusivity.


Staying Committed to DEI Goals

Educational institutions – and the organizations that serve them (e.g., educational publishers and edtech companies) – are filled with thoughtful people whose stock and trade are data.

As an ecosystem and industry at large, they are people committed to the scientific method: observe, hypothesize, experiment, collect data, analyze, conclude, and communicate.

Specificity, clarity, and precision are three pillars of any good hypothesis.  If one hypothesizes that DEI efforts and policies increase opportunity for all students (in the myriad ways that a good education does), one must test that theory as any good scientist might – and communicate data-driven findings to the Representative Halls of the world.  “Let the data show…”


Eric Stano
Written By:

Eric Stano

VP - Ed Services

Eric has an over 30-year career as a leader in academic publishing and edtech and has been consistently dedicated throughout that time to the acquisition, development, and release of content for student consumption at all grade levels (K-20) and across a wide range of disciplines. A throughline of Eric’s career has been his focus on putting achievement within reach of all students, with special consideration given to providing support for less proficient students and attending to the needs of those who are commonly disenfranchised.

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