Ryan Calls for a Kinder, Gentler DEI

by James A. Bacon

As the University of Virginia Board of Visitors gears up for a discussion of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at its June board meeting, President Jim Ryan has made the case for a kinder, gentler DEI in an essay recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Forgoing the rhetoric of “anti-racism” theorists such as Ibram X. Kendi, Ryan argues that DEI is misunderstood. There is no talk in the essay about “white supremacy,” “white privilege,” “structural racism” or other leftist buzzwords.

Indeed, Ryan argues that the most contentious element of DEI — equity — does not mean striving for equal outcomes, as many conservatives say it does. Sounding very much like Virginia’s Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, Ryan contends that “equity” really means equal “opportunity.” Unlike Youngkin, who renamed the state’s office of DEI to the office of Diversity, Opportunity, and Inclusion, however, Ryan is satisfied to retain the equity label and redefine it in more benign terms.

The tone in Ryan’s essay is moderate and reasonable. Political conservatives and moderates would not find much to argue with. The problem is that the words are largely divorced from reality. One is driven to conclude either that UVa’s president, insulated by layer upon layer of management, does not know what is occurring at the institution he leads or, worse, he does know and he is doing his best to obscure it.

The timing of Ryan’s essay is not random. The U.S. Supreme Court is widely expected to curtail the use of racial preferences in university admissions nationally, and DEI has come under assault in Virginia. Youngkin’s chief diversity officer, Martin Brown, recently declared DEI dead and buried at the Virginia Military Institute. And Youngkin appointees to the UVa Board of Visitors have made an issue of the size, scope and expense of the DEI bureaucracy at Mr. Jefferson’s University.

A PowerPoint deck that will be presented at the BoV meeting on Friday defines “equity” as “an effort to ensure equal opportunity, not equal results.” It also claims, in contrast to a Virginia Association of Scholars study released earlier this year that UVa funded 77 DEI positions, that UVA in fact has only 55 positions (although that is higher than the 40 claimed by DEI chief Kevin G. McDonald in a recent New York Times article).

There is much in Ryan’s essay to dissect here, and I shall not try to undertake to do so in a single post. In this column I will focus on Ryan’s thoughts about “diversity” and “inclusion.” I will follow up later with observations about his understanding of “equity.”

“Diversity, equity & inclusion” means many things to different people, and Ryan does take care to explain how he views those terms. On “diversity,” he writes:

I would define diversity broadly to include not just race, ethnicity, and gender but a wide range of other factors and characteristics, including geography, socioeconomic status, first-generation status, disability status, religion, age, sexual orientation, viewpoint, ideology, and special talents.

Few people across the political spectrum would object to defining diversity broadly, as Ryan does. But two points are worth making.

First, Ryan’s commitment to viewpoint and ideological diversity is restricted to words, not deeds. The net impact of university hiring policies has been to shift the ideological center of faculty significantly to the left. While Ryan supports “free speech” in the abstract, speech is exercised within an increasingly restrictive window tolerated by the left. Conservative students routinely tell instructors what they want to hear, and they frequently conceal their partisan affiliations from classmates and friends to avoid Twitter shaming and social shunning.

Second, while University admissions practices actively solicit applicants who advance racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, they discourage applicants who would add viewpoint and ideological diversity. Student-guided tours are loaded with “progressive” ideological content, and the University has ignored irrefutable evidence that the tours are driving away students from families with conservative views.

Ryan also addresses the concept of “inclusion”:

Inclusion begins with the recognition that it is one thing to recruit a diverse group of students to attend college, or to hire a diverse group of faculty and staff, but it is another thing to help make them feel at home. This what inclusion is about: an effort to make everyone feel like they belong and are full and welcome members of the community.

Again, Ryan frames “inclusion” in the least controversial terms possible. Of course it is desirable for all students admitted to UVa to feel like they belong. No one disputes this.

The question he avoids is this: how is inclusiveness and belonging best accomplished? Is it by emphasizing what students have in common or by dwelling upon their differences? Do Black students feel a greater sense of “belonging” to the wider UVa community by joining student organizations based on racial/ethnic identity, by orientation that emphasizes racial differences, by rhetoric that aggravates their sense of physical danger, by a swarm of DEI bureaucrats policing “micro-aggressions,” by continually highlighting past racial injustices, and by attending race-specific graduation ceremonies?

Does Ryan have any evidence that these efforts work? Do “marginalized” students have a greater sense of belonging today than when Ryan assumed the presidency in 2018? The truth is that there is no evidence. Shortly before Ryan took his job in 2018, the University conducted a “campus climate” survey that included several measures of belonging by race, gender and sexual orientation. Five years later, after sweeping institutional changes, there has been no effort to determine if those metrics have improved. UVa policy is driven by ideology, not tangible outcomes.

And what of the non-marginalized students? Do they feel more involved with the university community, or have they retreated from the public sphere — student council, honor council, judiciary — into their insular fraternities, sororities, clubs, and cliques? That question goes entirely un-asked.

The most positive aspect of Ryan’s essay is his recognition that the pursuit of DEI can conflict with other goals:

Many of the critiques focus on diversity statements or mandatory diversity trainings. And here the critics raise some valid points. Although these statements and trainings are well-intentioned attempts to create a more-inclusive environment, they run the risk of being coercive. If faculty, staff, or students are required to assent to propositions that are debatable, as opposed to self-evident, such trainings would run the risk of crossing the line from education to enforced orthodoxy. If applicants have to describe how they are going to further DEI, it raises concerns that they will feel pressure to state particular beliefs in order to get hired. And if faculty are required to report on how their teaching or research efforts have promoted DEI, it risks infringing on academic freedom.

“That is not to say that diversity statements and mandatory trainings should be tossed out wholesale,” he adds. “In an academic setting, especially, we have to be sensitive to the specter of coercion.” He even goes so far as to acknowledge that some social-scientific studies have found that diversity “training” often leads to the opposite outcomes it seeks.

Here, Ryan states well the inherent danger of diversity statements and mandatory DEI training. The irony is that these very things have proliferated under his watch! Still, he distinguishes himself from presidents of other elite higher-ed institutions by recognizing that these tensions do exist. Now the challenge is getting him to understand the reality of what’s happening at UVa and getting him to act on it.