Earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis set off alarm bells in academia by requesting an accounting of expenditures related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and critical race theory (CRT) in Florida’s public universities.
For years, Republicans have been asleep at the wheel as DEI departments, staff, and activities have metastasized on college campuses across the country. Any astute observer paying even a little attention has realized that “DEI” is a marketing term for “applied CRT.” Yet those words, “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion,” carry such moral stopping power in their naïve meanings that politicians dare not oppose them individually or in their triune form.
The best you tend to hear are back-footed declarations like “I’m for equity, but that’s not equity.” To his credit, DeSantis has proven willing and able to directly challenge manufactured partisan language. After the Stop WOKE Act passed, DeSantis declared that the word “equity” was a Trojan horse for cultural Marxism. And in his letter to Florida’s universities, he used “DEI” and “CRT” as the synonyms that they are.
Any astute observer has realized that words like “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” are wielded to provide a motte-and-bailey for cultural and ideological aggression.
No doubt you’ve heard that CRT is just a theory taught in law schools, that it is never taught in K–12 schools, and that it has nothing to do with DEI. But anyone who says that hasn’t read enough CRT. Kimberlé Crenshaw, the woman who coined the term “critical race theory,” has admitted that the term was effectively the result of a “marketing decision” and that DEI advocates and professionals have applied the ideology of CRT to various institutions. The same far-left ideology that was niche-marketed to academics as CRT has been marketed to the broader public as DEI.
The state of Florida (every state, really) has an interest in at least understanding how much public money is funding CRT/DEI’s conquest of higher education. DEI militates against every traditional function of a university.
Universities should employ professors to expand the frontiers of human knowledge. Yet “DEI statements,” which subordinate academic merit to political ideology, are used in at least 20 percent of faculty hiring applications.
Universities should be places of open inquiry and free debate. Yet DEI staff oversee “bias reporting systems,” which can encourage students to snitch to the college authorities if they hear a political opinion that they deem offensive.
Universities should not take partisan positions. Yet when DEI staff send emails or issue memos promoting a leftist position on race/sex/gender or declaring a political position on the “current thing” of the day, it is understood that they speak with the authority of the university itself.
Attaining an accounting of expenditures dedicated to undermining the character and core function of public universities is the least that any fiscally conservative governor ought to do. But DeSantis is more than just another fiscally conservative governor, so it seems likely that this request is the prelude to some strong action.
The boldest and most obvious action would be to simply defund DEI departments and staff. Such a proposal has already been filed for the next Texas legislative session, and DeSantis ally Christopher F. Rufo has indicated that he and the Manhattan Institute will soon introduce and promote model legislation to this end. If so, then good.
But not great. There is a far more clever and effective tack that DeSantis and the Florida Legislature could take: Put the funding decision in the hands of the students. Ask universities to present students with all the rigorous empirical research demonstrating the effectiveness of DEI in promoting the success of low-income and minority students. (Spoiler alert: There isn’t any.) Then present students with the choice as to whether the money should continue to flow to the salaries of DEI staff or should be redirected instead toward financial aid and scholarships for low-income students.
Laying direct “siege to the institution,” as Rufo frequently counsels, could backfire in the case of college DEI. Simply defunding it via legislative order or executive declaration would likely turn DEI apparatchiks into martyrs and leave a lasting political impression on a generation of students. Empowering students to decide for themselves the most just allocation of resources would almost certainly yield the same result, but it would do so by empowering students and teaching powerful lessons about trade-offs and, even, “social justice.” Or, were they to choose wrongly, it would at least provide us with a powerful data point on what we can expect from the next generation.
Even if DeSantis does nothing further, he has already rendered a valuable public service, not only in demanding an accounting for — and, hopefully, taking action to eliminate — the DEI apparatus in higher education, but also in directly challenging the moral hegemony that the Left exercises through manufactured language.
Any astute observer has realized that words like “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” are wielded to provide a motte-and-bailey for cultural and ideological aggression. “Diversity” is used to cover racialist indoctrination, but, if you challenge it, they’ll say, “Why aren’t you comfortable with people being different?” “Equity” is used as a pretext to destroy merit-based education, but, if you challenge it, they’ll say, “Why are you opposed to giving students what they need to succeed?” “Inclusion” is used as a justification for refusing to say words like “mother” and “father,” but, if you challenge it, they’ll say, “Why don’t you want every child to feel included?”
By properly synonymizing DEI with CRT, DeSantis has taken an important step that other conservative leaders ought to study and emulate.
Max Eden is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on education reform.