Defund the (Diversity) Police

Gene Healy

In recent decades, American universities have erected a multitude of new offices, deploying swarms of bureaucrats to harass undergrads and eat out the substance of campus intellectual life. Under the banner of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), these officers wield administrative power to stamp out behaviors that make students feel “unsafe” or “unwelcome.”

Of course, in DEI Thought, some students’ sensitivities count for more than others’. Faced with

pro‐​Hamas protests sweeping college campuses in the wake of the 10/7 massacre, university administrators suddenly lost their zeal for punishing “microaggressions.” When it comes to offenses like pro‐​Trump graffiti or culturally insensitive Halloween costumes, they’re ready to pounce: that stuff’s traumatizing, after all. But pogrom‐​endorsement? Hey, it’s complicated.

House Republicans blasted that double standard at Tuesday’s congressional hearing on “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism.” But they offered few ideas for addressing the problem beyond strongarming college presidents into policing more speech.

That’s a perverse approach to the crisis of campus illiberalism. Reformers should have no truck with the infantilizing and un‐​American machinery of speech codes, mandatory trainings, and “bias response teams.” Instead, they should use this opportunity to disrupt and dismantle the DEI bureaucracy itself.

That bureaucracy has played a key role in the academy’s institutional capture by left‐​wing ideologues. A recent study found an average of 45 employees devoted to DEI programming across 65 major universities (the University of Michigan alone has 163). The new administrative class tends to be even more left‐​leaning than the faculty. University administrators are “twelve times more likely to call themselves liberal than they are to call themselves conservative”—twice the rate among professors.


Ideologues who can’t do and can’t teach are now entrusted with reshaping the campus intellectual climate. Some of them enforce that mandate with extreme prejudice. In a widely reported incident at Stanford Law School earlier this year, around 100 students shouted down a conservative federal appeals court judge giving a Federalist Society talk on “COVID, Guns, and Twitter.” Amid the caterwauling, Stanford’s associate dean for DEI took to the stage—not to tell the privileged little punks to pipe down and grow up—but to give them aid and comfort: “my job is to create a space of belonging for all people in this institution,” she scolded Judge Kyle Duncan, “and your work has caused harm.”

This corps of “belonging” enforcers draws institutional support from “extremely restrictive” campus speech codes and bias‐​response teams. A 2022 study by Speech First found that 56 percent of leading four‐​year colleges and universities had bias reporting systems in place encouraging student informants to officially report “offensive conduct or speech” for administrative response.

Virginia Tech’s “bias‐​related incidents” policy is fairly typical of such schemes. It warns against “jokes that are demeaning to a particular group of people,” “hosting a culturally themed party,” or any “words or actions that contradict the spirit of the Principles of Community.” As Cato’s amicus brief in Speech First vs. Sands notes, such vague and open‐​ended mandates are designed to “chill dissent by leaving all speech potentially subject to official disapproval.”

It’s working: A 2022 survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) asked students, “On your campus, how often have you felt that you could not express your opinion on a subject because of how students, a professor, or the administration would respond?” More than 80 percent said they had self‐​censored on controversial topics like racial inequality, COVID-19 vaccine mandates, transgender issues, gun control, and mask mandates. When everyone expects the campus inquisition, it tends to put a damper on open debate.

Worse still, many students have come to embrace the new censoriousness. In 2023, FIRE and CollegePulse polled some 55,000 students at over 250 schools on acceptable protest tactics against disfavored speech. A majority of undergrads (63 percent) now say it is in some cases acceptable to shout down a campus speaker; 45 percent say the same about “blocking other students from attending” talks; and 27 percent think there are times when “using violence to stop a campus speech” is permissible.

University presidents testify about antisemitism on campuses before the US House Education and Workforce Committee, December 05, 2023.

Where did American undergrads get such illiberal ideas? Just possibly from marinating in an institutional environment that likens unwelcome speech to violence and uses soft‐​Stasi tactics to suppress it. As the old PSA has it, “I learned it by watching you!”

DEI’s post‐​10/​7 disgrace should be a teachable moment, but many would‐​be reformers are learning the wrong lesson. Congressional Republicans have offered nostrums like using student loans to force deplatforming of “Anti‐​Semitic events” or ramped‐​up “hostile environment” enforcement from the Biden administration’s Office of Civil Rights. GOP state legislators in New York have drafted a “Dismantling Student Antisemitism Act” that would freeze state funding for SUNY schools unless they implement mandatory antisemitism training and bias reporting procedures.

But trying to make DEI programming “fair and balanced” is a fool’s errand. As Milton Friedman once quipped, “What would you think of someone who said, ‘I would like to have a cat, provided it barked’?”

Elected officials have no business trying to micromanage campus culture using the levers of state power. But neither is there any reason the taxpayer should be expected to fund this destructive nonsense.

Instead, at the state level, reformers should use the power of the purse to break the power of the DEI bureaucracy at public universities. The Manhattan and Goldwater Institutes have proposed model legislation toward that end. It bars the use of public funds to support DEI offices in state schools, bans mandatory diversity training, and prohibits the use of “diversity statements” in hiring and admissions. It’s an agenda that’s perfectly consistent with limited‐​government principle—unless you’re the sort of libertarian who’s too broad‐​minded to take his own side in a fight.

Private universities and colleges present a different set of issues. In a free society, they’re entitled to be as ”woke” and speech‐​restrictive as they like—so long as government’s thumb isn’t on the scale. But it is, in myriad ways, including lavish federal grants that require DEI “loyalty oaths” in faculty hiring, and a runaway Office of Civil Rights that pressures private universities to adopt sweeping speech codes and staff up with compliance officers. Even in private higher education, DEI is largely a state‐​sponsored industry. Policymakers—and private donors—who worry about rising illiberalism on campus should stop subsidizing its growth.

Biden’s New Federal Czar for the Middle‐​School Library

Gene Healy

“The library looms as the next big confrontation in the culture war,” the Atlantic reports, and President Biden, our Culture‐​Warrior‐​in‐​Chief, is itching for the fight. “The president signaled a new approach in his late‐​April announcement video, when he cited book bans as evidence for his accusation that Republicans in the Donald Trump era are targeting Americans’ ‘personal freedom.’”

Not today, Satan—not on Joe Biden’s watch. “We’re taking on these civil rights violations, because that’s what they are,” Biden told the crowd at the White House Pride Celebration in June: “book bans may violate the federal civil rights laws when they target LGBTQ students or students of color and create hostile classroom environments.”

When that happens, local school districts will face the wrath of the new federal Czar of the Middle‐​School Library. “Students have a right to learn free from discrimination,” the president’s top domestic policy advisor, Neera Tanden, explains, but “across the country, our nation faces a dangerous spike in book bans [targeting] LGBTQI+ communities.” Accordingly, the administration is appointing a new “coordinator” in the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights who’ll bring the full force of the federal government to bear in this fight.

I wrote recently that Biden’s new Title IX edicts make him “Commander‐​in‐​Chief of the Girls’ Room”; with this latest move, he can add “Boss of the Bookmobile” to his collection of extraconstitutional titles. It’s an absurd power‐​grab based on the flimsiest of pretexts—and it’s certain to make America’s cultural conflicts worse.

The White House, like much of the press, has been cagey and duplicitious when it comes to what the “book‐​banning” controversy is really about. In Biden’s reelection video, for example, while the president rails against “MAGA extremists… banning books,” the camera shows a stack of titles including Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Atticus Finch in the dock? Maybe in a few notorious MAGA strongholds like, er, Los Angeles and Seattle, where Lee’s novel has been pulled from the curriculum for its insensitive “white‐​savior” storyline. But the real school‐​library fight centers on a quite different class of books.

In both the PEN America and American Library Association “most banned” lists, number one by a wide margin is Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, a “graphic novel” that’s decidedly Not Safe For Work and—arguably!—inappropriate for a grammar‐​school library.

Others in the ALA’s top 10 include:

The ACLU and former president Barack Obama have recently encouraged public‐​spirited Americans to start Banned Books clubs. I’d love to see the face of any earnest suburban liberal who signs up expecting a refresher course in Vonnegut and Steinbeck. In any event, if you’d like a clearer picture of what some parents are objecting to, in their new study, “The Book Ban Mirage,” AEI’s Max Eden and Heritage’s Jay P. Greene and Madison Marino helpfully screenshot many of the offending passages.

As for the supposed “dangerous spike in book bans,” Eden, Greene, and Marino show that activists are playing fast and loose with the term “banned.” PEN America’s definition is broad enough to include “any action taken against a book” that leads to “restricted” or “diminished” access for any period of time. Temporarily removed then reshelved after review? “Banned.” Moved from the middle‐​school library to the high‐​school shelves? “Banned.” Removed from a recommended reading list but still on the library shelves? “Banned.”

In fact, when Eden et al. decided to check online school library catalogs against the PEN index of “banned” books, they found that:

“74 percent of the books that PEN America lists as banned are listed as available in the same districts from which PEN America says those books were banned.”

Still, the authors managed to find a few localities where kids can no longer check out some of the spicier tomes on PEN’s List. So what? There are over 13,000 school districts in the United States; are we supposed to think Our Democracy is imperiled because a couple dozen of them took Gender Queer off their library shelves?

Reports of a wave of book‐​banning Babbittry have been greatly exaggerated. But to be fair to PEN America, the organization does document some serious cases of legislative overreach by Red‐​state politicians claiming to speak for concerned parents. Last year, for example, Missouri made it a misdemeanor offense, carrying possible jail time, for librarians to provide “explicit sexual material” to students. That’s nutty: decisions about what goes on school‐​library shelves should be made at the local level, not forcibly dictated from the state house.

Still less should those decisions be dictated from Washington, D.C.: if the taxpayers in a local school district don’t want Gender Queer or This Book Is Gay in their kids’ library, it’s none of Joe Biden’s business.

That’s not how Biden sees things, unfortunately; in the president’s view, it’s his right and duty to make a federal case out of how school libraries stock their shelves.

In January, according to the Washington Post, the Biden administration embarked on its “first test of a new legal argument that failing to represent students in school books can constitute discrimination.”

In early 2022, the Granbury Independent School District in North Texas removed multiple LGBTQ‐​focused books from its libraries for review, ultimately deciding to return most of them to the shelves. Only three books, including This Book Is Gay (the one “that teaches kids about anal sex, oral sex, and hookup apps”), were permanently removed. The ACLU hit back with a federal civil rights complaint charging that the district had “actively facilitated discrimination and hateful rhetoric” in violation of Title IX. As the Post noted:

“If the government finds in the ACLU’s favor, the determination could have implications for schools nationwide, experts said, forcing libraries to stock more books about LGBTQ individuals and… ensur[e] student access to books that some Americans, especially right‐​leaning parents, deem unacceptable.

The Granbury investigation is still in progress, but in May, OCR reached a settlement in a similar case involving a suburban Atlanta school system. Here, the Biden administration advanced the novel theory that, even if the school district itself doesn’t discriminate, it can be held accountable for a “hostile environment” created by parents’ comments at a school board meeting.

The Forsyth County School District’s trouble started in January 2022, when it temporarily removed eight books following parent complaints. After review, they returned seven of eight to the library shelves, excluding only one, the aforementioned All Boys Aren’t Blue. FCS soon found itself subject to a federal civil rights investigation into whether the removal of those books created a “racially and sexually hostile environment for students.”

In its May 19 letter announcing the resolution of that case, the Office for Civil Rights admits that Forsyth County wasn’t engaged in an anti‐​gay book purge: it had “limited its book screening process to sexually explicit material.” “Nonetheless,” OCR chides, “communications at board meetings conveyed the impression that books were being screened to exclude diverse authors and characters, including people who are LGBTQI+ and authors who are not white, leading to increased fears and possibly harassment.” OCR found it troubling that during a February 15 board meeting:

“some [parents’] comments focused on removing books for reasons related to gender identity or sexual orientation. Also some parents made negative comments about diversity and inclusion or critical race theory.”

The OCR letter doesn’t specify what those comments were, but according to press coverage of the Board meeting, they included statements like

“Do you think it’s healthy for 8‑year‐​olds to be exposed to books which encourage transgenderism, sexualization and masturbation?”


“CRT, DEI, SEL, or any other name you give it is not harmless…. No more lies, such as ‘DEI’s purpose is to teach children that there are different cultures that eat different foods. Really?”

Scandalous wrongthink—and in the presence of children, no less! According to OCR, parents’ statements at the board meeting contributed to a potential “racially and sexually hostile environment,” which the district failed to adequately address with “supportive measures” for afflicted students.

To get the feds off their back, Forsyth County Schools had to agree to a number of humiliating terms. Per the Resolution Agreement, FCS must:

  1. Publicly Pledge Fealty to DEI Thought: “in locations readily available to the District’s middle and high school students,” FCS shall post a statement affirming that “the District strives to provide a global perspective and promote diversity by including in school libraries materials about and by authors and illustrators of all cultures”;
  2. Help Aggrieved Students Sic the Feds on Their School: that statement will also provide “any student who feels impacted by the environment surrounding the removal of books” with “information about how to file a complaint about discrimination or harassment” under Title IX and Title VI;
  3. Take a Long, Hard Look in the Mirror: “The District will administer a school climate survey” on the prevalence of book‐​related and other harassment in its middle and high schools; and “assess whether any additional student or other training is needed to further improve the climate.” Look, this is a wealthy school district with plenty of tax dollars to go around: why shouldn’t the DEI‐​consultant industry get a taste?

…all this because school officials took a book featuring underage cousin‐​incest off their middle‐​school library shelves.

As the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression notes, OCR’s strong‐​arm tactics succeeded here despite the fact that

“there is no legal authority that [says] failure to ‘promote diversity’ violates federal anti‐​discrimination law. If OCR thinks it can require schools to affirmatively ‘promote diversity’— a term left undefined — what else does the agency think it can get away with?”

I suppose we’ll find out as Biden’s new school‐​library czar gets to work.

Joe Biden: Culture‐​Warrior‐​in‐​Chief

Gene Healy

Last week, the New York Times ran a front-page story admiring President Biden’s political acumen on culture-war issues (“Biden Sidesteps Any Notion That He’s a ‘Flaming Woke Warrior’”, NYT, July 4, 2023). You’ve got to hand it to him, apparently: Biden has “deftly avoided becoming enmeshed in battles over hotly contested social issues” like transgender rights. “At a moment when the American political parties are trading fierce fire,” we’re told, “the president is staying out of the fray.”

The claim is pure malarkey. In fact, Biden has repeatedly engaged the full powers of the presidency in an attempt to impose a forced settlement on issues where the American people are deeply divided.

The analysis, by Times reporter Reid Epstein, is entirely style over substance. Being elderly and somewhat out of touch is the president’s secret superpower on social issues, the argument goes. Biden is “white, male, 80 years old, and not particularly up-to-date on the language of the left”; Epstein writes; “the president has not adopted the terminology of progressive activists,” and sometimes seems confused by it.

To be fair, it’s tough even for non-octogenarians to stay abreast of the ever-proliferating jargon in this area. Last month, Biden’s Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, warned unsuspecting Americans of the perils of “biphobia” and “interphobia,”; and last week brought new “health equity” guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on “chestfeeding” infants. (Epstein got a little confused himself; the original version of the article included this perplexing sentence: “[Biden] also does not always remember the words most American politicians use to describe same-sex people.”)

But even if, as the Times piece insists, “Mr. Biden has never presented as a left-wing culture warrior,” what the president is actually doing with the weapons of executive power ought to count for something. For example:

  • the president’s proposed Title IX edicts would give him the power to make national rules about which kid gets to use which bathroom and who gets to play on the girls’ team for every K-12 public school and practically every college in America;
  • a rulemaking put forward by Biden’s Department of Health and Human Services would require doctors and hospitals to provide “gender-affirming care”— puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and “top” and “bottom” sex-change surgeries—including for minor children. Private insurers—and the taxpayer, via Medicaid—will be required to foot the bill;
  • and in the president’s June 2022 “Executive Order on Advancing Equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Individuals,” he proposes sending the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after doctors practicing “conversion therapy,” which may be defined broadly enough to include psychologists who resist immediately forking over puberty blockers.

“Staying out of the fray”? C’mon, man.

Millions of Americans believe that medical intervention for trans-identifying minors is compassionate “gender-affirming care”; millions more believe it amounts to experimenting on children in the midst of social contagion. The state of the medical evidence here is “worryingly weak”; but even if it wasn’t, the debate’s not likely to be settled by telling people to shut up and “trust the science.”

Biden’s attempt to force a settlement on transgender issues points to a larger problem with “the deformation of our governmental structure” toward one-man rule. The original constitutional design required broad consensus for broad policy changes, but as law professors John O. McGinnis and Michael B. Rappaport warn in an important recent article, “Presidential Polarization”:

“now the president can adopt such changes unilaterally…. Domestically, Congress’s delegation of policy decisions to the executive branch allows the President’s administration to create the most important regulations of our economic and social life. The result is relatively extreme regulations that can shift radically between administrations of different parties.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is running for president, and he has his own views on medical treatment for gender dysphoria: he says it amounts to making children “guinea pigs” and “mutilating them.” If elected, he’ll certainly take inspiration from Biden’s FTC move—maybe he’ll even encourage a few creative prosecutions under the federal Female Genital Mutilation law.

Alexander Hamilton supposed that “energy in the executive” would lead to “steady administration of the laws.” In the service of presidential culture-warring, that energy can mean whipsawing between “compulsory” and “forbidden” in four to eight-year cycles, depending on which party manages to seize the White House.

Worse still, as McGinnis and Rappaport note:

The imperial administrative presidency also raises the stakes of any presidential election, making each side fear that the other will enjoy largely unchecked and substantial power in many areas of policy.

That fear encourages the dangerous sentiment that every election is a “Flight 93 Election”: charge the cockpit, do or die. The relentless growth of federal power—and its concentration in the executive branch—has made our government a catalyst of social strife.

Having a president who actually stays out of the culture-war fray isn’t just a worthy goal: under current conditions it may be essential to the “domestic Tranquility” our federal government is supposed to ensure. But unless we expect them to refrain out of the goodness of their hearts, we’ll need structural reforms that limit their power to intervene.