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This is no time to ban DEI initiatives in education; we need DEI more than ever

Sumer Seiki and Megan Thiele Strong

Education has become a major battleground for the attempted anti-racist paradigm shift of diversity, equity and inclusion work; mirroring society, this work remains stuck in a cycle of advancement and retaliation.

Education administrators at all levels need to act now to resist a rising tide of efforts against social science knowledge. That tide includes bans on state funding for teaching DEI in schools, public colleges and state agencies.

Alabama just followed Florida, Utah and Texas in banning state funding of DEI work and DEI positions, and programs are being restricted, challenged and canceled across the nation, in industry and academia. DEI instructors are suffering the consequences.

The backlash against DEI work is predictable. History reminds us that counterattacks have followed every advancement in equity and inclusion, from Brown vs. Board of Education to affirmative action.

But schools must not acquiesce to this backlash. The work is too important to abandon. That’s why schools need to broaden the reach of DEI content and protect the instructors and faculty who are responsible for teaching it.

Instead of caving in, educational institutions should double down on DEI efforts. California is leading the way by requiring the teaching of ethnic studies at the secondary level. That’s a good start, but to be transformative, nationally, content should be representative and include African American studies; Asian American studies; Latinx studies; Native American Studies; women, gender and sexuality studies; and sociology and other social sciences across the K-12 curriculum. The lack of instruction in these fields in K-12 education can help explain why there are such strong attacks on DEI.

Universities also need to integrate such content more fully to foster an understanding of diverse experiences and inequities within our institutions. Universities would do well to consider requiring DEI seminars as part of orientation and encourage faculty to include DEI content in every course. Universities can offer professional development to faculty and staff.

Universities must also update retention, tenure and promotion methods to create new ways for faculty who teach DEI content to be evaluated and help neutralize the personal and political anti-DEI response. Neither university nor K-12 policies have yet caught up with the need to protect faculty.

As professionals, instructors are expected to facilitate controversial course content and student dialogue. Yet, for DEI instructors, university environments can be openly contentious, particularly in predominantly white spaces and in courses addressing a less receptive crowd.

And yet DEI content is vital. If students are exposed to DEI curricula, they can learn how white supremacy is enacted and maintained. They can learn how white privilege and power operate, how institutional policies uphold whiteness, how stereotypes are perpetuated and how implicit biases cultivate mistrust and disrespect.

Yet many students, especially in required courses, have difficulty accepting these concepts.

Usually, when a student in a classroom is not understanding the material, they ask for help. But a different tactic is typical in DEI classes. There, too often, struggling students attempt to discredit the educator and the field of social science.

In course evaluations, some students have called DEI educators “divisive” or “close-minded” for discussing racism — and have even attacked the appearance of their DEI educators. Their end-of-term evaluations reveal hate speech protected by anonymity.

These attacks then become entrenched as part of professors’ academic records and impact their well-being, salaries, employment and careers. Research shows that women and educators of color, particularly Black, Asian, Latinx and Indigenous women, receive worse evaluations than their white and male counterparts.

How should educators respond to such hostility and resistance? Should we confront, ignore, accommodate, negotiate, tolerate or use conflict mediation techniques?

A business educator would not be required to conform to the beliefs of anti-business students; we don’t ask dental educators to change their practices and curriculums to be more palatable to anti-dentistry audiences.

To accommodate resistance to our legitimate fields is to coddle and reproduce white supremacy.

DEI knowledge must be made accessible even to an aggressively anti-DEI crowd. This education is direly needed. States and universities fail their faculty and the public when they cave in and allow cuts and bans to DEI and fail to protect those who teach it.

Education is meant to broaden horizons and encourage critical thinking. Exposure to social science research, which underpins and is informed by much DEI work, is needed to build an informed public.

When paradigms are shifting, they rarely go without resistance.

Sumer Seiki is an artist and associate professor at University of British Columbia with the Restoration Project.

Megan Thiele Strong is a sociology professor at San José State University and a 2023-24 Public Voices fellow at the The OpEd Project.