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Scholars Spar Over Success of DEI in Higher Education at Harvard Safra Center Event

The Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics hosted a panel Thursday afternoon as part of their Civil Disagreement event series. Four panelists agreed it was important to protect diversity in higher education.
The Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics hosted a panel Thursday afternoon as part of their Civil Disagreement event series. Four panelists agreed it was important to protect diversity in higher education. By Neil H. Shah
By Tilly R. Robinson and Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers

Four academics agreed it was important to protect diversity in higher education, but disagreed over whether universities’ diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives clash with academic freedom during a Thursday panel hosted by the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics.

The Thursday panel, the latest in a series of events about civil disagreement hosted by the Safra Center, was co-sponsored by the Harvard College Intellectual Vitality Initiative and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The event featured Ilya Shapiro, director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research; Jeannie Suk Gersen, a Harvard Law School professor; Amna Khalid, a Carleton College history professor; and Stacy Hawkins, a professor at Rutgers Law School. Christopher Robichaud, a Harvard Kennedy School lecturer, moderated the discussion.

Hawkins emerged as the sole defender of DEI efforts during the event, while the other panelists offered sharp criticisms of universities’ DEI programs.

Khalid opened the panel by distinguishing between the principles of DEI and what she termed a distinct idea called “DEI, Inc.” — in which, she said, “diversity is a customer service issue, education is the product, and students are customers.”

“It’s underscored by the notion of harm and that students somehow need to be protected from harm, as if we entered our classrooms dying to harm our students,” Khalid said.

But Hawkins pushed back against Khalid’s criticisms of DEI initiatives, saying it is contradictory to oppose the “operationalization and the professionalization of diversity” while pursuing it as a goal.

“We have wanted diversity, we have wanted equality in this country — in our institutions — for a very long time, and we have not managed to succeed in achieving it,” she said. “And one of the problems is that there was not sufficient structure and accountability around that goal.”

“And so, without the structure and accountability that Jeannie and Amna and, I guess, Ilya as well are complaining about, we would have no ability to make meaningful progress,” Hawkins added.

Gersen countered by offering Harvard’s current racial demographics as evidence for an increase in higher education’s diversity. She said that while this increased diversity should encourage “friction” and healthy debate, she found DEI policies have made students more hesitant to freely express themselves in the classroom.

Gersen praised the DEI model adopted under former HLS Dean John F. Manning ’82, who was recently appointed to serve as the University’s interim provost. Under the HLS model, the role of the DEI office has also been expanded to include oversight over academic freedom concerns.

In her classroom, Gersen said, she often requires students to take opposing stances on legal debates. After one such class discussion — on Lawrence v. Texas, which ruled unconstitutional a Texas statute criminalizing same-sex sexual intimacy — students complained to the HLS DEI office, arguing they were harmed by needing to listen to arguments against overturning the statute. Gersen said those complaints were quickly dismissed by HLS administrators.

“What they’re doing with cases like that is dismissing them off the bat because of academic freedom, and saying this does not actually violate the rules of our school, it does not violate anti-discrimination policies, it does not violate any rules by which people are bound,” Gersen said.

That stands in contrast to other schools, where a similar complaint could provoke a monthslong investigation, according to Gersen.

Shapiro said that he felt DEI initiatives have led to censorship or a culture of self-censorship — which, in turn, harm academic freedom.

DEI is “almost always wrong in the sense that it subverts classical liberal principles of the academic mission of open inquiry and truth-seeking and knowledge creation and research and debating ideas and what-have-you,” Shapiro said.

Thursday’s debate took place amid mounting political opposition to DEI initiatives, which has escalated into a campaign in state legislatures to restrict them.

Harvard, meanwhile, has been hauled into government proceedings surrounding its response to campus tensions and the war in Gaza — including a far-reaching congressional subpoena, Department of Education investigations, and multiple federal lawsuits. In a January letter threatening to revoke Harvard’s tax-exempt status, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Jason T. Smith (R-MO.) criticized the University’s DEI initiatives, arguing they exclude Jewish students and repress dissenting voices.

Shapiro, who co-authored model legislation restricting diversity efforts in higher education, was eager to take credit for the new laws.

“I had my hand in a lot of that,” he said.

Khalid slammed the restrictions as “ideologically charged” and said legislatures should stay out of the DEI debates.

“While I’m very critical of DEI offices, there is no space — and should be no space — for interference from the legislature on academic matters,” Khalid said.

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at tilly.robinson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

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