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The Atlantic
The Atlantic
10 Feb 2023
Graeme Wood

NextImg:DEI Is an Ideological Test

During the past century or so, social scientists have observed that politics is, like sand after a day at the beach, in everything. It is especially present where you don’t think you’ll find it. You think you’ll find it on the campaign trail and on cable news—these are your beach towels and the floor mats of your car. But how the hell did it get into the glove compartment—or, in universities, into the math department? Rochelle Gutierrez, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has pioneered the teaching of “mathematx,” a form of math education attuned to politically marginalized groups. Politics is everywhere, and always has been.

Another feature of a day at the beach is that afterward, I feel like taking a shower. A similar impulse sometimes accompanies my reading of the work of Christopher F. Rufo, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and one of the most gifted conservative polemicists of his generation. His signature tactic is to draw attention to his enemies at their moments of extreme overreach, often on issues of gender and race. More recently, he has opened a southern front. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appointed him to the board of New College, a tiny public liberal-arts school, and Rufo has announced his intention to rid the place of leftist excesses.

Here, I offer a qualified defense of Rufo’s initiative. The grossest aspect of his work is his villainization of individuals—people who, like the tatted-up social-media addicts and priggish schoolteachers featured on the Libs of TikTok account, are hardly the best advocates for their cause. Picking weak targets is dishonorable. But a public college is not a weak target, and if Rufo wants to challenge an entrenched bureaucracy, then he will have a fair fight. I am curious as to how it will turn out.

Many institutions of higher learning ask faculty applicants to write a statement of commitment not just to diversity, equity, and inclusion but to an extreme form of it. The universities’ publicly stated positions imply that there is only one proper way to interpret the DEI trinity: through the concept of “anti-racism,” which may not mean what you think it means. Anti-racists argue that “the only remedy for past discrimination is present discrimination”—that is, not ignoring race but focusing on it with renewed vigor and treating people differently depending on their skin color.

Discerning applicants know not to say that they will treat students of different races and backgrounds equally. Academic jobs are rare, so woe to any applicant who makes this error and thereby expresses a political view that runs against the policies plastered all over the university’s website. Hiring committees who want to bring on such a heretic will have to explain to the dean why the campus should tolerate a professor who holds these forbidden views, and who is too dense or too ornery to hide them.

Rufo has vowed to eradicate all oaths to such doctrines and to replace the DEI office with a much smaller office of color blindness. Additionally, he and DeSantis have moved to eliminate certain ideas from the university system—most famously, critical race theory and gender theory.

On the latter point—forbidding particular ideas—I align myself with Justice William O. Douglas: “The State may not, consistently with the spirit of the First Amendment, contract the spectrum of available knowledge.” Indeed, I would protect more than just knowledge: The state shouldn’t even stop professors from teaching wicked and obvious lies. Politicians who try to dictate the boundaries of knowledge generally end up as villains or buffoons—book-burning Nazis on the one hand, rubes like the 19th-century Indiana legislators who resolved that π = 3.2 on the other.

But the demolition of DEI as a bureaucratic force is another matter. Critics have accused Rufo of trying “to turn [New College] into a space of extremist indoctrination”—as if a campus with a de facto ideological test for employment is not already political. Whether that ideological test is valid is unsettled in the general public, at least judging by the controversy Rufo has kicked up so far.

It is a simple step, to go from believing that politics is everywhere to believing that because it is everywhere, the politics may as well be one’s own politics rather than one’s enemy’s—to make politics not just omnipresent but hyper-partisan. Curiously, though, those who have spent decades saying that politics is everywhere seemed to have been caught flat-footed when it arrived in the form of Rufo. Last week, when Rufo and another trustee, Jason “Eddie” Speir, showed up to talk to New College’s faculty about their plans, the provost tried to cancel the event for security reasons. She alleged that the event “put our community at risk,” because someone wrote in to say that trustees should “MAKE SURE THAT YOU HAVE A FLAK JACKET ON.” (It’s not even obvious that this is a threat. The message is certainly menacing, but it would be more menacing if it expressed a hope that Rufo not wear a flak jacket.) Rufo, of course, treated the threat as serious, which allowed him to insist in Churchillian fashion that the event go forward. Then he used the occasion to humiliate the provost, calling her an example of the censorious crybabies whom he had come to relieve of their responsibility.

If you want politics, this is it. It’s playing dirty pool. It’s grandstanding and humiliation. It is a quest for dominance first, and truth if and when we get around to it. Rufo has argued that universities’ embrace of DEI follows what the activist and sociologist Rudi Dutschke called the “long march through the institutions.” Rather than smash governments and universities apart, Dutschke suggested, revolutionaries should burrow deep inside them, master their workings, and effect change like deep-cover Cold War moles. Rufo sees a revolution in racial politics that was accomplished not by convincing the public but by capturing the administration of universities, and instituting large and unpopular changes from within. This process was as filthy and political as appointing Rufo as a trustee. It was accomplished sneakily: No one ever voted for “anti-racism.”

They did, however, vote for DeSantis for some reason, and, by extension, for his apostle Rufo. Politics, man. And winning elections has consequences. The consequences need not be fatal for the anti-racist left. Advocates of DEI could welcome the chance to defend it in public against a fierce opponent whose power depends on an elected official. Floridians, I assume, do not want to see their universities wrecked or made hostile to minorities. If DEI is a serious defense against that happening, then Rufo’s opponents should demonstrate that a disaster is indeed at hand. Faculty who think their work depends on DEI could also create a disaster through mass civil disobedience. Rufo swaggers and treats quasi-threats against him as an opportunity to score points. New College community members are already playing the same game, by suggesting that Rufo is responsible for hypothetical violence by groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.

As a political appointee, Rufo is especially vulnerable to these tactics and to being held responsible for whatever happens next. One of the healthiest aspects of political control is that all success and all failure can be concentrated in one individual. A bureaucracy contains many warrens and crannies where the champions of a policy can hide. Most of those university DEI statements are, tellingly, unsigned. Rufo is a political appointee interfering politically in a highly political environment—his initiative could go badly for him and for his governor. A wise politician should exercise control over academia sparingly. Think of the forbearance of a modern constitutional monarch, who cuts ribbons and attends parades but goes decades without meddling in the affairs of her domain. Meddle too much, and your subjects start holding you to account for potholes and bad calls at the Super Bowl.

“These are public institutions, supported by the taxpayers, and governed by the legislature [and] public officials,” Rufo told an audience in Florida recently. “The deeper importance of this initiative is reestablishing public control and public authority over the public universities.”

As long as his initiative is also the subject of public scrutiny, it will at least have the positive effect of subjecting to debate a revolution that has hitherto occurred creepingly, without the vigorous open discussion that accompanied, say, affirmative action. Rufo is smart enough to know that the median voter is uncomfortable with DEI in its current form and perhaps also miffed that public institutions have adopted it as dogma without more public debate. The partisans of DEI now have their chance, when the debate takes place in the bright Florida sun, to change the median voter’s mind.

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