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.
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.