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Enough Already: A New Year’s Resolve to Correct the DEI False Dichotomy

So much of what I read this year get’s DEI wrong in fundamental, divisive, and destructive ways. 

Regarding DEI practices, it’s crucial to recognize the popular construction that DEI is a good or a bad thing (e.g., supportive of or in conflict with academic freedom) to be a false dichotomy. 

DEI is inherent in all human endeavors, including the operations of academic institutions. Diversity is an issue that must be navigated and negotiated as soon as more than one person occupies common space, time, and resources. 

The question of whether or not one should be for or against DEI is a nonsensical question. And we should expect everyone, and perhaps especially our civic and institutional leaders, to know that and avoid perpetuating the divisive and destructive DEI false dichotomy.

The right questions to ask about DEI

The three proper, constructive, and necessary questions regarding DEI are: (1) Does our community represent significant human diversity consistent with our aspirations, (2) Are effective inclusion and equity measures in place to activate the proven benefits of diversity (and guard against the negative effects of unmanaged or poorly manage diversity), and (3) How do we know?

Here’s a detailed explanation of these key DEI questions.

Does our community represent significant human diversity consistent with our aspirations?

Key Consideration: This question assesses whether the composition of a community (such as an academic institution) reflects a broad spectrum of human diversity, aligning with the institution's goals and values.

Application: It involves evaluating demographics, backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences of faculty, staff, and students. This assessment can reveal gaps or strengths in representation and inform recruitment and retention strategies.

Are effective inclusion and equity measures in place to activate the proven benefits of diversity (and guard against the negative effects of unmanaged or poorly managed diversity)?

Key Consideration: This question probes the active steps taken by the institution to ensure that diversity is not just present but effectively leveraged and supported.

Application: It includes examining policies, practices, and cultures that promote equitable opportunities and inclusive environments. This evaluation helps identify areas needing improvement and celebrates successful initiatives that foster a sense of belonging and fair treatment for all community members.

How do we know?

Key Consideration: The final question involves measuring and understanding the outcomes of DEI efforts.

Application: This can be approached through data collection, qualitative feedback, and continuous monitoring of DEI initiatives' effectiveness. Key metrics might include academic success rates, faculty and staff retention, student satisfaction, and the extent of participation in DEI programs.

Implications for Academic Freedom:

Harmonizing DEI and Academic Freedom: This approach aligns DEI with the core principles of academic freedom. It recognizes that a diverse and inclusive academic environment can enrich scholarly discourse, enhance critical thinking, and foster innovation.

Avoiding False Dichotomies: By focusing on practical aspects of DEI, the conversation shifts away from polarized views of DEI as either a threat or a panacea for academic freedom. Instead, it emphasizes DEI as a vital component of a thriving academic community.

Contextual Implementation: Each academic institution can and should  tailor its DEI strategies to its unique context, mission, and community needs, ensuring that these efforts complement rather than conflict with the ethos of academic freedom.

The key DEI questions provide a constructive framework that emphasizes clarity, practicality, effectiveness, and continuous assessment. It supports a balanced view where diversity, equity, and inclusion are seen as integral to the academic mission (and all human endeavors) and not as opposing forces to academic freedom. This perspective allows institutions to navigate the complexities of DEI in a manner that enhances their educational, research, and societal roles.

New Year’s DEI Resolve

Let's step forward into 2024 with a renewed commitment to critical thinking and an accurate understanding of DEI. Our journey towards more inclusive and equitable institutions and communities isn't just about policy and political debates; it's as much about sharpening our mindset and approach to diversity. What steps will you take to avoid the false dichotomy trap in your environments? I welcome your thoughts and experiences.


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