Updated Dec 13, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Anti-DEI movement expands in politics, business and academics

Illustration of a hand erasing the letters DEI from a chalkboard

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The backlash over diversity, equity and inclusion programs, or DEI, is sharpening in politics, business and academics.

Why it matters: Diversity programs are being cut in business, pummeled by Republicans in politics and ridiculed in academia, where donors have pulled millions.

What's happening: College DEI programs support historically underrepresented students and faculty members, such as people of color, people with disabilities and veterans.

  • Critics have argued for years that these programs make universities overly sensitive to only certain groups.
  • They leapt to make that connection after university presidents hedged when asked how they would respond to hypothetical instances of antisemitism on their campuses.

What they said: Billionaire hedge fund manager and Harvard alumnus Bill Ackman wrote an open letter to his alma mater calling for Claudine Gay to resign as president, and said the university's DEI office was a "major contributing source of discriminatory practices on campus."

  • Ackman also suggested that Gay, Harvard's first Black president, was hired because of a DEI initiative. Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton told AP, "Now we have one of the richest men in America attacking a Black woman whose academic credentials are impeccable."
  • Gay's job is safe, Harvard's board said Tuesday.

Penn alumnus and investor Ross Stevens, who pulled a $100 million donation from the university after former president Liz Magill's testimony, had withdrawn another donation from Penn's Wharton school earlier this year.

  • According to the New York Times, Stevens "changed his mind because he thought the school was prioritizing DEI over enhancing the business school's academic excellence."

Zoom in: "It's a reality that traditional DEI has not been inclusive enough of antisemitism and it's urgent to address the gaps," said Stacy Burdett, an antisemitism expert, who previously served as a vice president of the Anti-Defamation League.

  • "The racial justice movement as we know it may not have imagined the need to support and protect a group of mostly white people who are targeted by hate crimes and identity based harassment."

But the solution is to expand DEI efforts to include Jewish students, Burdett said. "The answer is more support, not less. DEI may need to be improved, but dismantling programs that help minorities makes no sense. Whose safety does that help?"

  • "The culture war against diversity, and efforts to turn DEI into a bogeyman don't make Jewish people safer. That's simply playing on Jewish fear to score political points," she said.

Zoom out: Conservatives have long had elite universities in their sights due to the liberal tilt of their faculty and students. Now those attacks are pickup up validation — as well as bipartisan support — as institutions face the strain of campus protests and rising antisemitism and anti-Arab sentiment, the New York Times reports.

  • "I'm seeing a new trend," said Joelle Emerson, CEO of the DEI consulting firm Paradigm. "Those critiquing DEI aren't just the extreme, right wing anti-progress activists, like the group who challenged affirmative action."
  • "They're also liberal leaning people who are likely values-aligned with DEI in principle, but confused and misguided about what the work looks like in practice."

Flashback: Three years ago, after George Floyd’s killing and the ensuing protests threw the lack of diversity at colleges and companies into the spotlight, universities were raking in funds to establish new DEI programs.

  • Institutions like Brown and UT Dallas raised funds to increase accessibility, support DEI research and hire faculty.

A slew of colleges around the country, like the University of Minnesota and Penn State, established new scholarships to support students from underrepresented backgrounds.

  • But "2023 has undeniably shifted the DEI landscape for years to come," per a recent report from Paradigm.

What to watch: Bills to defund DEI efforts at public colleges or limit or ban identity-based faculty hiring have been proposed in 20 states this year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Look for this backlash to gain steam.

Go deeper