‘More Cowardly Than Cautious’: Faculty Decry College Leaders’ Silence on DEI Attacks

When George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, in May 2020, dozens of college leaders issued carefully crafted statements decrying racism and pledging to double down on efforts to make sure everyone on their campuses felt valued and included. The statements were followed by focus groups and task forces and promises to work for systemic change.

Three years later, those commitments are being tested as lawmakers in 20 states try to chip away at or, in some cases, take a sledgehammer to diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. This time, most of those leaders have stayed silent. Required diversity statements are being quietly dropped, a few DEI offices rebranded as offices of belonging or community engagement. As the clock ticks on legislative sessions that will expire soon, it’s hard to know how many college leaders who support diversity efforts are trying to influence lawmakers behind the scenes and how many are holding their breath, afraid to risk a political backlash by speaking out.

In either case, faculty, staff, and students who have been fighting to preserve diversity programs are getting increasingly frustrated by the silence.

Nowhere has that tension been more apparent than in Florida, where anti-DEI legislation has been signed into law, and Texas, where legislation that’s working its way toward final approval would ban such offices in public colleges and eliminate DEI training and statements used for hiring and promotion.

In February the University of Texas system issued its only public reaction to the proposed law. The statement, by Kevin P. Eltife, chairman of the Board of Regents, said he welcomed the lawmakers’ scrutiny and all new DEI efforts would be paused. He added that the system was asking all of its campuses to report on their DEI activities so the board could review them.

“To be clear, we welcome, celebrate, and strive for diversity on our campuses in our student and our faculty population,” his statement said. “I also think it’s fair to say that in recent times certain DEI efforts have strayed from the original intent to now imposing requirements and actions that, rightfully so, has raised the concerns of our policymakers about those efforts on campuses across our entire state.”

When DEI activities were suspended, “I was deeply disappointed,” said Karma R. Chávez, a professor of Mexican American and Latina/o studies at UT’s flagship campus, in Austin, and a leader in the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “Caving before you’re asked to cave is a bad strategy.” Chávez added that “as a faculty member of color who teaches in ethnic and gender studies, every colleague I’ve spoken to has expressed dismay that they don’t feel the upper administration has their backs.”

College presidents may feel they’re in a no-win situation, where silence is interpreted as complicity and speaking out risks firing or funding cuts, said Michael S. Harris, a professor of education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University.

Even if they’ve kept their lips sealed publicly, UT administrators have probably been communicating privately with lawmakers, “to either mitigate some of the problems the bills have caused or to stop them altogether,” he said. Still, “it’s problematic that university leaders haven’t pushed back” against two separate bills that would ban diversity offices and would eliminate or restrict tenure for newly hired professors, depending on which versions of the bills survive, Harris said. In order for either to become law, House and Senate members would first have to agree on which versions of the bills they can live with, or come up with a compromise. The legislative session ends on Monday, but a special session could be called.

“It really feels like there’s been a calculation that if we say something, it’ll be worse, so we won’t say anything,” Harris said. “That may be smart in the sense of getting the least-damaging legislation, but gosh, if I were a student or faculty out there protesting, I’d want someone backing me up.”


As of Thursday, 35 bills that would dismantle campus DEI efforts had been introduced in 20 states. Three of those bills had been signed into law, and four have received final legislative approval. Twelve others were considered but failed to pass before the end of the session, leaving 16 that could be considered in the coming weeks.

Some campus leaders, of course, have spoken out, especially at private colleges and in states where diversity efforts aren’t under attack. Christina H. Paxson, president of Brown University, wrote in an opinion essay in The New York Times that state laws that limit the teaching of certain subjects are as dangerous and misguided as the blacklisting campaigns of McCarthyism or efforts to outlaw the teaching of evolution.

One reason other college leaders may have kept quiet is that DEI elicits strong reactions among alumni, politicians, and their own students and faculty members during these highly polarized times. A Chronicle survey and interviews of college presidents found that many censor themselves even on topics they consider central to their mission and values, including DEI, racial justice, and gender and sexual identity.

Sameeha Rizvi, a senior who’s been active in student government and multicultural programs on the Austin campus, understands the political pressures. “UT-Austin faces hyper-scrutiny from the Texas GOP. We’re relentlessly targeted from politicians trying to impose certain ideological agendas on our campus,” she said. “However, our administration’s silence feels like a punch in the gut to those of us who are organizing against this anti-DEI, anti-truth legislation. Whatever the university might be doing behind closed doors — I’m not seeing the impact.”

Our administration’s silence feels like a punch in the gut to those of us who are organizing against this anti-DEI, anti-truth legislation.

As someone who lives with Type 1 diabetes, she appreciates the support of the university’s Disability Cultural Center and the efforts of the DEI staff, especially at the height of the pandemic, to promote flexible attendance policies for students struggling with health complications.

Izabella De La Garza, who graduated this month, said that as a Latina from San Antonio, she felt culture shock at first on the Austin campus. The Multicultural Engagement Center, a physical place that offers support services, cultural-immersion activities, and a spot for students and employees to hang out, always felt like home, she said. Now, with bills approved by both the House and the Senate that would ban diversity centers, its fate is uncertain.

“I found so much solace and support in the MEC, and the idea of other students’ not having that is very scary,” she said. “I can’t grasp in my mind why someone would be scared of it.”

Erin McElroy, a tenure-track assistant professor of American studies who’s been teaching on the Austin campus for two years, said the attacks on diversity and tenure in Texas had made it easier to accept a new job at a “Research 1 public university on the West Coast where tenure isn’t threatened.”

As a feminist scholar who integrates issues of race and gender into teaching American history, McElroy had hoped that the talk of eliminating DEI was just “political posturing” by conservative politicians. But as the bills inched closer to passage, the public silence of university administrators was disappointing, McElroy said. Texas, it appeared, might soon be going the way of another Southern state that has targeted DEI.

Taking a Stand

In Florida, legislation that Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed into law this month bans public colleges from spending state or federal funding on DEI unless it’s required by federal law. The colleges will also be banned from offering general-education courses that “distort significant historical events,” teach “identity politics,” or are “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, or privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States.”

The AAUP issued a preliminary report on Wednesday that accused college leaders of complicity in the avalanche of attacks on higher education in Florida. “Academic administrators throughout Florida’s public university and college systems, from the highest to the lowest levels, not only have failed to contest these attacks but have too frequently been complicit in and, in some cases, explicitly supported them,” the report said. “While some individuals are leaving as a matter of conscience, those who remain face the prospect of serving as pawns in DeSantis’s corrupt patronage system.”

Caving before you’re asked to cave is a bad strategy.

While some may genuinely fear retaliatory budget cuts, “the approach of many of the administrators appears more cowardly than cautious,” the AAUP said.

In January the 28 state- and community-college presidents who make up the Florida College System Council of Presidents released a statement that many read as an endorsement of the governor’s conservative agenda. It vowed “to ensure that all initiatives, instruction, and activities do not promote any ideology that suppresses intellectual and academic freedom, freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity, and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.”

The statement said the presidents would not fund or support “any practice, policy, or academic requirement that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality, or the idea that systems of oppression should be the primary lens through which teaching and learning are analyzed and/or improved upon.” Documents obtained by The Chronicle suggest that much of the wording came from a top administrator in the Florida Department of Education, not the presidents.

Elsewhere in Florida, students who support diversity efforts demanded that university leaders back them up. In March, Florida State University students shouting “FSU — take a stand!” protested outside an administration building after they were locked out.

Alex C. Lange, an assistant professor of higher education at Colorado State University at Fort Collins, said college leaders in Florida had missed an opportunity to alert their alumni about the possible impact of the anti-DEI legislation. As a graduate of Florida Atlantic University, Lange would be concerned to learn that future students might not have the support and guidance of a staff member in a fledgling LGBT center who had made such a difference in Lange’s own college experience.

Calling Out the Problems

In a few cases, college leaders did in fact take a stand, and did so publicly. Ohio State University’s Board of Trustees released a statement on May 16 forcefully objecting to Ohio’s Senate Bill 83, which has been approved by the Senate and was pending in the House as of Thursday. Along with banning many diversity initiatives, it would require annual faculty performance reviews, create new graduation requirements, and mandate the specific language colleges must use in their mission statements.

“We acknowledge the issues raised by this proposal but believe there are alternative solutions that will not undermine the shared-governance model of universities, risk weakened academic rigor, or impose extensive and expensive new reporting mandates,” the statement said.

“We share the General Assembly’s commitment to free speech, open dialogue, and the importance of diverse views,” it continued. “The university is already taking steps to again emphasize that all viewpoints are welcome and respected on our campuses.” In an apparent spirit of compromise, the university updated its hiring practices to stop requiring diversity statements, “except when mandated by federal law, research contracts, and licensure or accreditation.”

Ohio State faculty leaders, who have met frequently with trustees to stress the importance of shared governance, welcomed the board’s willingness to call out the problems in the bill, given that all of the members were appointed by a Republican governor. “We appreciated the fairly robust defense of some of our rights and know that there are political risks involved,” said Caroline T. Clark, chair of the University Senate and a professor of teaching and learning.

In Utah, where the state’s top higher-education leaders spoke out against a bill that would ban diversity offices, a conservative lawmaker quickly withdrew the measure, saying he realized it was too harsh. It’s not clear whether pushback from the state’s higher-education leaders, including Dave R. Woolstenhulme, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, had played any role in that decision.

As diversity, equity, and inclusion officers’ work, and the progress they’ve made in recent years, are under attack, higher-education leaders aren’t speaking out to defend “their espoused values and mission,” Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, wrote in an email.

“As the recent spate of legislative attacks has shown,” she wrote, “their efforts are having their intended chilling effect — silencing the voices of leaders who, just three years ago, were acknowledging the necessity of higher-education institutions to address racial inequities during the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.”

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