‘There’s a silencing effect’: the attack on diversity in the US

Equity, diversity and inclusion staff in US higher education are losing their jobs in the wake of anti-EDI laws, but college leaders are mobilising, reports Rosa Ellis

June 7, 2024
Montage of Donald Trump, people holding placards for diversity and the Supreme Court in the US. To illustrate attacks on diversity
Source: Getty Images montage

The university sector has been integral to the world’s progress towards equality, but now, particularly in the US, some aspects of that work are under attack.

When former US president Donald Trump signed an executive order banning federal contractors from conducting racial sensitivity training in September 2020, it gave a boost to the previously fringe anti-diversity movement. Then, in 2023, Republicans began introducing legislation that limits diversity efforts within universities, prohibiting universities in certain states from having equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) offices, providing mandatory diversity training, using diversity statements in hiring or promotion, and considering race, sex, ethnicity or national origin in admissions or employment.

At the time of going to press, 85 bills have been introduced and 13 have become law. There are at least 11 states with anti-EDI laws aimed at higher education (usually called DEI in North America), and 10 where they could soon be approved. Along with the Supreme Court ruling rejecting the use of race-based considerations in college admissions and the public ousting of Claudine Gay, Harvard University’s first black president, the anti-EDI movement is well and truly established.

“We've not been confronted in the 21st century with the kind of resistance that we're facing right now,” says Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the US’ National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. She says that her members in states with anti-EDI laws are losing their jobs. 

Universities are having to do a “strange dance”, she adds. “How do you navigate legislation that threatens funding for your institution versus your mission, commitment and values you’ve espoused that represent the success of all students?”

Eden King is Lynette S. Autrey professor of psychology at Rice University in Texas, which last year introduced a law banning public universities from having EDI offices and staff, creating diversity statements, providing mandatory diversity training and giving preferences based on characteristics such as race or sex in hiring and admissions.

“I am in a private institution, which is why I can talk to you about it and study this topic without fear of retribution,” Dr King says. “Over 40 people have been laid off from [EDI] positions at the University of Texas…If your job has ‘diversity’ in the title, best case is they're taking that out of your title; worst case is you’re being laid off.”

The EDI bans are affecting staff who work to make universities more inclusive, students from diverse backgrounds and academics studying diversity.

“I’ve talked to peers who are afraid to study these topics, who are worried for their students, who are concerned about the need to change their curricula. There’s a silencing effect. And there’s fear,” Dr King says.

“It’s not just words on a bill,” adds Ms Granberry Russell. “These are lives that are directly impacted.”

The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings tables on SDG 5 (gender equality) and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities) ask universities to provide evidence of various measures relating to student access, women’s progress and discrimination, including, for SDG 10, the existence of a diversity and equality committee, office or officer.

Thirty of the 35 US universities ranked for SDG 10 this year received full marks for that indicator, based on data from 2022, meaning there was public evidence that such a committee or officer existed at the institution. Only one US institution, Texas A&M University, said it did not have a diversity and equality committee, office or officer. But that number might increase in the wake of the anti-EDI laws, threatening US universities’ performance in the table in future years. 

Kimberly Barrett, a diversity consultant based in Wisconsin, who previously worked at universities, says one way to see the anti-EDI sentiment is as “a backlash to the collective response that the world had to the murder of George Floyd”.

There is a backlash to the backlash, however: college leaders are mobilising. Michael Gavin, president of Delta College in Michigan, started a coalition of presidents called Education for All in February last year. It has grown from five college presidents to around 200.

“We’ve got people and institutions in different kinds of contexts. So there’s different ways to resist the anti-DEI movement,” Dr Gavin says. “What we’re trying to do is provide concrete action and tools that can be offered in those different contexts, especially by presidents or their cabinets or board members.”

The group has produced videos in which students explain the impact of not having access to EDI initiatives. They also provide sociological readings of the impending bills to be given to lawyers.

In some cases, what the bills say is benign, but there is still a “chilling effect”, says Dr Gavin. Meanwhile, some “anti-DEI folks have learned that their language and its ambiguity, or sometimes its concreteness, has been potentially benign, so now they’re refining it in different ways” to cause more damage, he adds. 

Experts agree that the laws will have a detrimental effect on diversity in higher education. Tia Brown McNair, vice-president for diversity, equity and student success at the American Association of Colleges and Universities, says it will take time to reverse the laws, and “students and educators from diverse backgrounds will feel the impact for years to come”.

Even in states without such legislation, those working on EDI are concerned. Stefanie Johnson is an associate professor of organisational leadership and information analytics at the University of Colorado Boulder. “In Colorado, I think we’re pretty committed to maintaining DEI in higher ed, but it’s something I still think about. Even in programmes at our university, I’m thinking twice about making sure that there’s no miscommunication about how the programmes are run,” she says.

Dr McNair agrees that the attacks on diversity “have heightened awareness among educators at all higher education institutions, regardless of where they are located”.

What about beyond the US? Eddy Ng, Smith professor of equity and inclusion at Queen’s University in Canada and editor of the journal Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, says the research field of diversity broadly “feels under attack”.

In Europe, anti-EDI sentiment exists, but “it's more at the level of sort of isolated incidents”, according to Karin Gilland Lutz, deputy head of the Office for Gender Equality and Diversity at the University of Zurich and co-chair of the EDI group within the League of European Research Universities (Leru).

Gavan Titley, professor of media studies at Maynooth University in Ireland, says that, in the UK, the uproar around the removal of statues linked to colonialism can be seen as a small-scale version of the same sentiment.

However, there are concerns that attacks on diversity might become more frequent or more severe outside the US, and diversity experts in the UK are closely following the situation across the pond. 

According to Femi Otitoju, an EDI consultant in the higher education sector in the UK, the US situation has “made people a little bit nervous”.

And Tim Soutphommasane, chief diversity officer at the University of Oxford, suggests there is good reason for that, as “there’s no doubt such work has its critics here in the UK”. He recently co-authored a study, along with UCL Policy Lab and non-profit organisation More in Common, that examined British public opinion on EDI. While the research found that most Britons support EDI initiatives, 28 per cent said it led to more unfair outcomes, suggesting that anti-diversity sentiment sometimes portrayed in the media has got some foothold in the UK.

Pete Quinn, a diversity consultant who has worked with several UK higher education institutions, says he is keeping an eye on the situation in the US, especially the rhetoric being used: “You’re always looking at the US for what may be coming…This [UK] government and people aligned with it do use [the same] tropes,” he says.

Many experts are particularly worried about the impact of no longer teaching the value of diversity.

For Professor Ng, “when you teach DEI, it actually creates a positive change in students’ attitudes and values”.

“I think that’s critical,” he says. “It leads to more positive experiences – people are much more interested in improving the lives of others. That’s what the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are all about, right?”


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Reader's comments (2)

“Students and educators from diverse backgrounds will feel the impact for years to come.” Does "diverse backgrounds" here mean "various different (unspecified) backgrounds", or are only some people diverse?
Good point Stephen. Some groups are simply the wrong kind of diverse. Admissibility to the family of diverse is gatekept by whitey liberals looking to burnish their credentials.