Posted on October 10, 2020

Diversity Work, Interrupted

Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed, October 7, 2020

Two campuses are halting diversity efforts in relation to the White House’s recent executive order against “divisive concepts” in federally funded programs.

In a campus memo, the University of Iowa’s interim associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, Liz Tovar, said, “Let us state unequivocally that diversity, equity and inclusion remain as core values within our institution.” However, she continued, “after consulting with multiple entities, and given the seriousness of the penalties for non-compliance with the order, which include the loss of federal funding, we are recommending that all units temporarily pause for a two-week period.”

John A. Logan College in Illinois also suspended diversity events, including a Hispanic Heritage Month talk planned for next week.

In contrast, the University of Michigan’s president and provost released a statement in response to the order recommitting the campus to diversity, equity and inclusion work. “The educational efforts this order seeks to prohibit are critical to much-needed action to create equitable economic and social opportunities for all members of society,” they said, “to confront our blind spots; and to encourage us all to be better teachers, scholars and citizens.”

The executive order, released Sept. 22, invokes the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and describes the “fundamental premises underpinning our Republic” as follows: “All individuals are created equal and should be allowed an equal opportunity under the law to pursue happiness and prosper based on individual merit.”

Yet today, the order says, “many people are pushing a different vision of America that is grounded in hierarchies based on collective social and political identities rather than in the inherent and equal dignity of every person as an individual.” Such an “ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.”

Citing the “malign ideology” of training materials and statements from recent diversity efforts at the Treasury Department and several national laboratories and museums — such as guidance that racism “is interwoven into every fabric of America” — the order prohibits the promotion of “race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating” in the federal workforce or in the uniformed services. Federal contractors also will not be permitted to “inculcate such views in their employees,” and grant funds will not be used for such purposes.

Prohibited concepts under the order include that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that the U.S. “is fundamentally racist or sexist” and that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Actor and playwright William Jackson Harper also has said that the order threatens arts-based work he’s been doing with U.S. military academies. {snip}


Because the order talks about federal employees, agencies and contractors, there has been confusion, even among experts in higher education-government relations, as to its scope. Does the order apply to all federally funded entities, including virtually all colleges and universities?


A senior administration official who declined to be named from the White House Office of Management and Budget said Tuesday that the executive order “is not limited to federal agencies and applies to federal contractors and grant recipients when allowed by law. Agencies should review their grant programs to use the discretion they have to apply the prohibitions to grant recipients.”

Iowa’s Office of General Counsel said via email through a spokesperson that the university is “both a federal contractor and a recipient of funds from federal agencies. General Counsel believes the provisions regarding training of employees may be read as applicable to all our employees and not just to those working on or funded through federal contracts.”


Several free speech groups have released statements against the order, warning that it amounts to censorship. Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs at PEN America, for instance, said, “The implications for higher education and the creative community are grave, but the potential impact is broader than that as well. This is an assault on the essential freedom protected under the First Amendment — not just to speak but to receive information, to debate ideas freely and without fear of punishment, least of all from the government itself. Anything short of that is not democracy. This EO is not just words on paper. It is a danger to our fundamental rights, and it must be revoked immediately.”

A Larger Effort

The executive order is part of a larger federal attack on critical studies, including the White House’s September Conference on American History, at the National Archives. {snip}

Trump’s line of criticism has some supporters within academe. The conservative National Association of Scholars this week asked the Pulitzer Prize board to rescind the prize from lead “1619” journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones for asserting, among other “manipulations,” that the American Revolution, not just the Civil War, was fought in large part to preserve slavery. {snip}