I can’t reconcile the idea that my university is racist with my experience

EDI claims should be treated with the same curiosity and scepticism as anything else in academic life, says Maximilian Werner

March 24, 2023
An unfocused image of a faculty meeting
Source: iStock

In a recent opinion piece in Times Higher Education, Samuel Abrams complained that requiring applicants for grants and jobs to pledge their loyalty to a certain understanding of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is an imposition on academic freedom. He is right. But the problem runs even deeper. As National Association of Scholars Fellow John Sailer notes in another recent article, “the concepts of EDI have become guiding principles in higher education, valued as equal to or even more important than the basic function of the university: the rigorous pursuit of truth”.

You might think that such a drastic reformulation of mission would have been preceded by rigorous deliberation. According to Sailer, however, many of the EDI policies and provisions “happened by fiat, with little discussion”. Moreover, many professors who are privately critical of EDI declined to speak even anonymously to Sailer “for fear of professional consequences”.

Although I do not know how much deliberation went into my own university’s EDI adoption process, there certainly wasn’t much evidence of it in my own discipline. What discussion there was usually amounted to the most steadfast proponents of EDI – especially those whose scholarship centres on critical social justice – taking turns praising one another’s “labour”, while almost everyone else looked at their laptops.

EDI has become the hermetic province of a chosen or self-appointed few who, for reasons related to their “positionality”, are deemed more qualified or entitled to produce and comment on EDI efforts, policies and texts. Yet the starting point of EDI efforts should revolve around framing: how we use language to both represent EDI ideas and influence how they are perceived, particularly by sceptics. And as long as we all understand a given language, we can all engage in deliberation about it. Of course, identity and personal experience may play a role in that process, but they don’t seem essential to it.

In addition to impeding communication and persuasion, positionality – a version of the argument from authority fallacy – is patently contrary to the aspirations of higher education, including collegiality, critical thinking and open inquiry.

For all the national attention regularly commanded by the most egregious punishments for running afoul of EDI’s often confusing and unspoken scriptures, hundreds more tussles play out daily in universities across the country. While these incidents may not all take the same toll as being tarred and terminated, they clearly affect morale and thereby undermine the university’s ability to fulfil its mission.

As part of my department’s laudable commitment to equity and diversity, we developed three questions to be added to course evaluations. As an engaged faculty member who cares about how we represent ideas and how they represent us, I responded to the invitation to provide feedback.

One of the questions asked “how effectively did the course instructor…disrupt and address discriminatory/harmful behavior?” Although I had concerns about what constitutes “harmful behavior” and how students’ answers would be used, I focused on lower-hanging fruit and asked why we needed to include the word “disrupt” when “address” would accomplish the same goal in a less ideologically loaded way. No one responded to my comment on the document itself, but during a subsequent discussion someone said that we should keep “disrupt” because “we need it”. Another added that it was “important”. And that was the extent of the discussion.

More recently, we revised our anti-racism statement. This begins with two claims: “Racism exists and persists: Universities and departments perpetuate racial-ethnic hierarchy and racism” and “Language and writing prejudice is systemic: Standard Academic English and Standard Academic Writing reinforces anti-Blackness, anti-Indigenous, and anti-nonwhite ideologies”.

One of the more troubling characteristics of EDI-related proclamations is their reliance on rhetorical sleight of hand. No serious person would deny that “racism exists and persists”, but this is not equivalent to saying that “universities and departments perpetuate...racism”, and no examples are offered. Moreover, whatever the situation elsewhere, my own department is one of the most EDI-minded and conscientious on campus, and my university has spent millions growing its own EDI bureaucracy. I just can’t reconcile the idea that my university and department are racist with my experience of them.

I also had some questions about how standard academic English and writing might “reinforce racism”. I probably should have known better than to ask for evidence, but my training overcame my caution.

The response came about as close to calling me a racist as one can get without actually saying the words. Apparently, my request for evidence “fits the tenets of whiteness studies” and “smacks of a Western tradition” that, among other no-nos, “attempts to quantify experiences...into data sets”. I was then invited to read both recent and historical research. But while each recommended author has interesting things to say about racism in higher education and beyond, none appears to offer any quantifiable evidence to support their opinions, let alone the claims in my department’s anti-racism statement. 

So what, then, is an evidence-loving, critical-thinking, pro-humanist university professor (or department, or university) to do? Take a shadow boxer’s approach to eliminating racism, fighting an enemy I usually cannot see, throwing punches whose effectiveness I can’t measure?

I too want to create a more welcoming and inclusive campus and world. But outside a religious context, I can think of no other situation where reasonable people are asked (and agree!) to do so much without the benefit of cogent explanations, evidence and deliberation.

If higher education has any hope of retaining its value to society, it must prioritise open inquiry and a rigorous standard of evidence. EDI should be treated with the same curiosity and scepticism as anything else.

Maximilian Werner is associate professor in writing and rhetoric studies at the University of Utah.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (5)

Too true! The 'EDI crowd' are a self-selecting, self-perpetuating, vociferous, intolerant mob. In my department the Head decided, under lobbying pressure, I believe, to allow the formation of an 'EDI committee' in 2020. Of course, in taking no responsibity for this, Left-wing extremists piled in - there is no balance whatsoever. Moreover, never has there been a more powerful, unconstituted, fanatical committee in the existence of the department. It regularly issues edicts, and no one dares challenge them for fear of being labelled a 'bigot' and run out of town. It's terrible, and is causing quite a degree of despondency and demoralisation.
The "racism" accusation sounds a little like the psychoanalytic movement, where those who expressed doubts could be accused of being "neurotic" - and where two doctors confirmed such a diagnosis, a person could be "sectioned" (i.e. confined to an institution) - so critics usually didn't push their objections to an effective degree.
Hi Maximilian, Top article nailing this current downside of EDI that makes its laudable aims a bit of a nonsense. As other commenter remark, these EDI committees attract the usual crew of shouty types who generally enjoy telling people off. The recourse to hyperbolic language they use such as 'disrupt' is to lend a bit of heightened emotion to it all. If your EDI committees are like ours then they are usually pretty much a 'Project Whitey' affair. Namely, they are largely ethnically white using the EDI platform to burnish their nicey person credentials. They will often approach BAME members of staff to be on the committees so they don't look too un EDI ish. Just on this use of BAME as a descriptive, my colleagues and friends who would be included in this 'othered' grouping really dislike it. They do not want to be clumsily characterised by dermal chromatics or imagined cultural groupings. Rather they want to be treated as individuals who have their own personalities unencumbered by Project Whitey set parameters.
A member of my Schools EDI committee approached me to express concerns about one of my seminar articles. Apparently it was too masculine and needed to be "queered". They recommended an alternative for me to teach. The offending article they wanted to cancel was about freedom of speech!
An excellent article making several good points. I consider myself to be a lefty, but am horrified by the nonsense espoused by the EDI brigades, which to me only increase racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. I am fully supportive of equality, but that contradicts diversity and inclusion. If we are to be equal then we should be providing everyone with the right opportunities, but in the end we should be choosing the best person for the job. Putting someone in a position because they are black, a woman, etc is tokenism, an insult to the person, biased against the best person, and is fundamentally racist, sexist, etc. As for institutionalised racism, whites are all racist, western-centric ideas, etc, what a load of nonsense. The West has provided most (not all) advances in civilisation, from industrialisation to the Enlightenment. We have shared our ideas with the world, often through empires (which have good points as well as bad points), so it is inevitable we use the English language and western ideas at our conferences and in our articles. It makes me ashamed to be left wing when these people try to close down all discussion, restrict academic freedom, and function in a similar manner to 1930s Germany.