UVa President Ryan Has “No Idea.” Golly Gee.

by James C. Sherlock

As a follow-up to yesterday’s story on the slide show for the UVa Board of Visitors on DEI at the University, I think it only fair to offer President Ryan’s preamble to that presentation.

To summarize:

  • He cannot imagine what all the fuss is about; but
  • He assures that DEI efforts at UVa are misconstrued by critics, who he divides into two camps:
    1. those who support the goals of DEI “but are concerned about overreach threatening academic freedoms or seem designed to enforce ideological conformity”; and
    2. “one that asserts that the programs are being used to promote a stringently liberal, if not radical agenda – one that stands in opposition to merit and excellence and unfairly privileges certain groups over others.”
  • He asserts that any fair criticisms will be taken seriously; and
  • He is trying to create a level playing field.

He asserts that:

We ought to define the terms that comprise DEI; assess and resolve instances where DEI efforts are in potential conflict with other core values; and continually examine what is working and what is not and adjust accordingly.

He then proceeds to define the terms diversity, equity and inclusion in a clear attempt to push critics of his DEI program, expanded enormously in a progressive attempt to “never let a crisis go to waste” in 2020, to the edges of reasoned debate.

He professes he has “no idea where this notion” (that equity means equal outcomes) came from. This from a man whose own DEI bureaucracy publishes only statistical outcomes.

“No idea.”

I call this the “golly gee” approach. “Golly gee” indicates surprise, excitement or both from an innocent in the ways of the world.

Seriously?  Spare us.

A field of straw men. Ignoring the recruiting, admissions, hiring and curriculum oversight elements of the equity policies of his university that I quoted yesterday,

  • he asserts colleges like his are using DEI to “remove barriers to success” and
  • that should not be controversial.

That is of course a classic straw man. He knows that removing barriers to success is not controversial.

He offers “working definitions” of diversity, equity and inclusion — meaning they work for him.

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.

He never offers information about the University’s efforts to ensure viewpoint and ideology diversity.

He assures that equity does not mean equal outcomes. Yet the university “Diversity Dashboard” delivers only statistics.

His examples of “equity”

For example, offering a sign-language interpreter for someone who is deaf or a ramp for someone in a wheelchair are hardly radical gestures.

He then defends financial aid for needy students — intentionally leaving the impression that it is under attack. It is of course not under attack. By anyone.

He asserts that inclusion is “an effort to make everyone feel like they belong and are full and welcome members of the community.” His examples: food in the dining halls; how the institution’s history is told and pictures on the walls; holidays and events celebrated.

the basic idea that colleges should create an environment where people feel welcome and at home should not raise a lot of eyebrows.

Another straw man. Making people feel welcome does not “raise eyebrows.”

We are still at this point awaiting discussion of the elusive “viewpoint and ideological diversity.”

Taking criticisms seriously. Having defined the terms of the debate, Mr. Ryan deals with criticisms on his terms.

He asserts that he takes seriously “critiques [that] focus on diversity statements or mandatory diversity trainings,” but

That is not to say that all diversity statements and mandatory trainings should be tossed out wholesale, or that applicants and current employees should never be asked about DEI. There is nothing inherently wrong in asking people how they might help advance the values of the organization.

But he cautions that such inquiries should not “raise the specter of coercion.”

Measuring success. As for measuring success, he does not offer hope other than through statistics, not otherwise offering concepts of “evidence.”

Some efforts, like those focused on inclusion, can be difficult to measure. Others, such as the demographic composition of students and faculty, retention rates, and graduation rates, are easier. Still others require ongoing evidence-based assessment.

Finally he calls for continuing assessment of what works and what does not. He promises “discipline” in undefined future DEI efforts.

Bottom line. Mr. Ryan, a graduate of the UVa Law School, offers not a word about DEI in the context of the United States Constitution.

He fails to acknowledge the requirement of a state university to comport itself within the constraints of the First Amendment. Which was, of course, designed to be constraining.

He does not try to defend the university’s DEI activities in terms of freedom of speech. He simply asserts they will be “disciplined” and try to avoid seeming “coercive” in the future.

But in Mr. Ryan’s vision of the University, DEI functionaries will retain the oversight of recruiting, admissions, hiring and curriculum that they currently exert. They will still have a vote on tenure. He admits they will still ask the same questions.

They will just will not mean to be coercive. Or to intrude on academic freedoms.

Mr. Ryan presents as a trained attorney defending himself here. In doing so, he confirms the Italian proverb about such efforts.

His other client is the Board of Visitors. Whose clients in turn are the Governor and the people of Virginia. Who may not prove as pleased with Mr. Ryan’s services as he clearly is.

Golly gee.