Creeping Totalitarianism of the Woke at William & Mary

by James A. Bacon

Katherine Rowe has brought about sweeping changes to the College of William & Mary since becoming president in 2018. Most notable has been her implementation of a program of social justice under the banner of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI). In words crafted for public consumption, her vision sounds benign. Consider, as a recent example, a January announcement that she was taking steps, on the basis of a campus climate survey, to improve DEI at the venerable institution.

DEI is an ethical imperative as the university strives to live by its values of “belonging” and “respect,” said Rowe. “While we have taken steady sustained steps toward improving inclusion and equity in our culture and systems, we have more to do.”

“The world’s best academic institutions understand that it is the diversity of students, faculty and staff that make them special,” added Gary A. Smith, senior partner of the Ivy Planning Group, which conducted the survey. “The richness of that environment accelerates learning. The goal is to build a community that allows that difference to thrive.”

How could anyone possibly oppose these things? Certainly, members of the university community should feel “included,” “respected,” and like they “belong.” Of course, university presidents would want students, faculty and staff of all backgrounds to thrive.

Trouble is, this lofty rhetoric is a smokescreen. Dig into W&M’s website, and the words take on new shades of meaning. Review the memos and protocols, and you will find that the rhetoric assumes a more militant tone. Probe the intellectual underpinnings, and see that the rhetoric encompasses a radical Leftist framework for viewing the world. Examine how the rhetoric is applied in actual hiring, promoting and training, and you will find that, at bottom, DEI is a mechanism to impose ideological conformity — the very antithesis of building a community “that allows difference to thrive.”

Last month I detailed how Rowe had swept out the top administrative leadership at W&M since becoming president three-and-a-half years ago. To be sure, the leadership then was dominated by White males, who occupied seven of eight top administrative offices. Rowe herself replaced Taylor Revely III, a White male, as president. Of the six senior officials she hired, only one was a White male. A replacement for a seventh official, the dean of the business school, has yet to be selected.

Bringing in a new guard is Rowe’s prerogative. Many university presidents recruit senior administrators and college deans who share their vision. One might argue that W&M needed a diversity of perspectives that a phalanx of White male executives could not provide.

Alternatively, one might suggest that the purge of deans and senior administrators reflects a Leftist orthodoxy to which Rowe adheres but is too circumspect to advocate forthrightly for fear of scaring parents, alumni, politicians, and others who pay the bills.

Let us peel the onion layer by layer.

The outer layer: the Diversity & Inclusion web page. The official W&M presentation of DEI is found on the Diversity & Inclusion section of the website. Those pages are slightly more explicit about the ideology of diversity than the press releases but, being for public consumption, not much more. Notably, the web page is entitled “Diversity & Inclusion,” not the formulation we commonly hear, “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.” Equity is the polarizing word that many have come to understand does not equate with “equality” (as in equal rights under the law, equal opportunity, etc.), but with socially engineered, equal group outcomes.

For the most part, the Diversity & Inclusion page uses unthreatening, feel-good language.

Rowe stresses the intellectual advantages of recruiting people “from different nations, economic backgrounds, ethnicities, identities in many registers.” The result she says, “is a freshness of thought and an academic curiosity that is unparalleled.”

However, in the “About” page of the Diversity & Inclusion section, Rowe does inject the “e” word. “We strive,” she says, “to be a place where equity and inclusion are integral parts of all that we do.” Her formulation is somewhat deceptive, however. She couples equity and inclusion in a way to imply that they mean essentially the same thing: creating a community of students, faculty and staff of different backgrounds where everyone feels “supported and affirmed” — a fair description of “inclusion,” perhaps, but not of “equity.”

“Equity” has a specific meaning in the lexicon of the modern-day academy imbued with a social-justice ethos. “Equality” means treating people by the same rules. Some have stretched this to allow minor adjustments for the disadvantaged, as in making accommodations for the disabled. But “equity” attributes all disparities between racial/ethnic groups to “structural” racism, with the implication that the structures must be dismantled and rebuilt to achieve equal group outcomes. The semantic distinction looms large as DEI initiatives are put into practice, as we delve deeper.

Peeling the onion: recruiting URMs. One of Rowe’s priorities (like that of almost every other university president in the country) has been to increase recruitment of URMs — that’s academic nomenclature for Under-Represented Minorities — in the faculty and staff. In 2018, when Rowe came on board, recruitment of URMs could be fairly described as an aggressive form of affirmative action: making extra efforts to diversify the pool of applicants to include qualified minorities. Increasing the hiring and retention of minorities was a conscious goal, but not one that trumped other considerations.

The tone began to change in 2019. “An update to the Arts & Sciences Action Plan for Diversity and Inclusion” pressed harder on the outreach to minorities. The A&S Dean’s Office encouraged departments and programs to word their advertisements with the explicit goal of attracting minority candidates, adding a statement indicating a “demonstrable interest in engaging diverse people and perspectives.”

Some departments pushed the boundaries by requesting diversity statements.

Along with the usual CV, cover letter, and teaching and research statements, some departments and programs are requesting an additional statement describing previous professional experience or future plans (or both) that demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

By 2020 the new dean of Arts & Sciences was encouraging every department and program to require diversity statements.

By asking job applicants to describe their commitment to diversity, William & Mary created what could be construed as an ideological filter. Applicants had reasonable grounds for fearing that a failure to express support for the prevailing social-justice ideology would put them at risk for being excluded from consideration. Such a fear would be increasingly justified as DEI criteria in hiring became more stringent.

Peeling the onion: human resources. Overseeing the recruitment process at W&M are human resources managers such as Brian Baines, the senior HR officer at the Mason School of Business. A Baines-written memo, “Staff DEI Efforts 2021-2o22 Academic Year,” shows how far thinking about DEI has evolved in some quarters of W&M.

Note that the memo title did not refer simply to “Diversity and Inclusion,” the verbal formulation of the university web page, but to “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.” In highlighting the importance of DEI to the Mason School, Baines wrote (my bold):

The Raymond A. Mason School of Business at William & Mary values Diversity and strongly supports Equity and Inclusion as part of our core values. Because of that belief it is the duty of all employees of the Mason School to ensure they promote DE&I efforts through their work as part of their primary responsibilities.

Now promoting DEI is a “primary responsibility” up there with teaching and research. Moreover, Baines wrote, in line with Rowe’s thoughts on “DEI acceptance,” the following question would become standard in all staff interviews:

How do you foresee incorporating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practices into the work you are tasked with for this position to support the Mason School and University initiatives?

Elaborating upon this idea, outgoing business school Dean Lawrence Pulley wrote a memo in which the phrase DEI had morphed into DEI&B — Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. In updating the school’s DEI&B initiatives, Pulley made the point that to be “career-ready,” students had to “understand and embrace DE&I on many dimensions” because they will be joining companies that are dealing with DE&I themselves. To promote “belonging,” the strategic plan discusses hiring a DEIB ombudsman, creating a long-term plan for new art & decorations, and even putting “clings on the floor saying ‘welcome’ in 28 students’ spoken languages.”

Peeling the onion: equity statements for faculty. A document describing a “3-Year Faculty Hiring Pilot Implementation Plan for 2020-2023,” makes the expectations regarding a commitment to DEI more explicit than ever:

At every stage of the hiring process, candidates who progress should demonstrate excellence in inclusive teaching…. In discipline-specific ways, [faculty] expertise may be manifested in teaching methods, course design, student assessment, selection of content, mentoring practices, publications and more.

Every candidate who advances through a search is asked a version of the two questions below by the search committee and the Dean.

  • Please tell me who is under-represented in your classroom/your discipline.
  • Please describe something concrete you do to ensure those students thrive, and ideally, stay in your major/field.

The pilot plan sets the following hiring goal: “100% of all faculty hires will bring expertise in inclusive teaching.” For a definition of “inclusive teaching,” the document refers readers to an essay by Bryan M. Dewsbury, with the University of Rhode Island, about faculty development of STEM-inclusive teaching practices.

Peeling the onion: the philosophical core. The philosophy underlining W&M’s diversity initiatives analyzes higher education in terms of systemic inequities in power. Thus, being “inclusive,” according to Dewsbury, requires implementing “inclusive pedagogy,” a philosophy that places the burden of responsibility on institutions and faculty “to specifically understand how conventional pedagogies generate inequity.”

Traditional teaching of historically marginalized groups, he writes, “creates an artificial sociocultural hierarchy, arbitrarily assigning the dominant culture (the group currently being well served), a normative status to which the marginalized must aspire.”

A “pedagogy of the oppressed,” according to Dewsbury, seeks to achieve equity between groups that “may require deep alterations of the power structure that exists at any given time.” Pedagogy should consider “the systemic problems” that URM students encounter.

Dewsbury goes on to explore the meaning of “belonging,” the new catch-word at W&M. “‘Sense of belonging’ only makes sense as a concept when the normative culture serving as a reference point is clearly defined. If the reference point of ‘belonging’ is being ‘American,’ then the challenge is figuring out what this label actually means…. Any consideration of the concept of ‘belonging’ must include an examination of the overall social structure of the local community.”

DEI in practice. Every organization has a formal culture, as embodied in its written documents, and an informal culture, which reflects the way people actually interact with one another. William & Mary is no different. In practice DEI brooks no dissent. While Rowe opines that demographically diverse student bodies allow more diverse viewpoints to flourish, the reality is that intellectual diversity is stifled. Few students or faculty feel free to express opposing viewpoints regarding social-justice ideas that permeate every nook and cranny of academic life. The diversity statements ensure that political views will become even more monochromatic as only those with Woke views are hired and promoted.

In writing this article, I consulted with two professors who asked to remain anonymous for fear of career-jeopardizing retribution. Needless to say, if they were unwilling to speak for attribution, they also are hesitant to express openly their critique of DEI, diversity statements, and the meaning of “belonging” in university settings.

Only members of a so-called oppressed group can authentically communicate the ills caused by systemic oppression against that group, one professor told me.

A URM’s “lived experience” cannot be questioned. Nobody else’s lived experience matters. 

“There is just no way to raise your hand and say, ‘I’m not sure that’s right,’ or ‘What evidence do we have that structural racism is rampant on campus,” says the other faculty member. “Leadership has gone all in on this theory. It is designed to upend the current structure and replace it with something that reduces the relevance of merit, something that emphasizes group identity as central to all things, and something that will not tolerate any differences in outcomes across ill-defined groups.”

Wokeism is totalitarian in the sense that it encompasses every aspect of human activity, and it is inherently intolerant. It demands submission and conformity.

The professors point to the Education School’s diversity statement, which states openly the aim of expunging “unacceptable” views (my bold):

We are resolved to explicitly and publicly affirm our identity as an anti-racist school of education, with the expectation that any value or perspective counter to this point is unacceptable and we will take every conceivable effort to remove them from our community.

As the old generation of scholars with diverse ways is replaced with equity statement-vetted younger faculty members, ideological conformity will be complete. The only permissible discourse will be between various flavors of Left-wing orthodoxy. And Rowe’s goal of creating “a community that allows that difference to thrive” will be rendered a travesty.