Andy Larsen: One of the most popular anti-DEI studies is full of problems

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and some state lawmakers are looking to reform college diversity offices and hiring practices.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to media during a monthly news conference in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.

When Utah Gov. Spencer Cox says that diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, also known as DEI programs, are out of control — is that true?

“There’s just been an explosion in these administrative programs. I mean, if you just go back and look at the number of people in these offices, it’s just astounding to me. What are the outcomes? Are we actually making a difference?” Cox said in his monthly news conference. “We’re not seeing any evidence that they’re actually working.”

I thought I’d take a look at the research that’s often cited in arguments against DEI — a Heritage Foundation report — and then look at other evidence around DEI programs in higher education. Why have these DEI programs grown so much in the first place? What might happen if they went away?

The Heritage Foundation report

In 2021, the Heritage Foundation — considered to be the most influential conservative think tank in American political discussions — released a report entitled “Diversity University: DEI Bloat in the Academy.” Its lead author is Jay P. Greene, a former professor at the University of Arkansas.

I do not know for sure if this is the research that forms the basis of Cox’s arguments. He didn’t cite it by name. It is, however, the report that is commonly cited in anti-DEI arguments you read online, and it also nearly exactly matches the contours of Cox’s argument.

Here’s what Greene (and co-author James Paul) did: For all 65 universities that are members of college football “Power 5″ conferences, they used school websites to count staff members who he considered to be in DEI positions — those who were explicitly in schools’ DEI offices, or in departments like “Multicultural Affairs” or “Women’s Centers.” Then he put those counts in a spreadsheet and compared those counts to the total number of disability professionals (which Greene distinguishes from other DEI staff because many would be required by the Americans with Disabilities Act), history faculty, and total faculty on staff.

It’s fair to say the results are surprising. He found the average Power 5 university had 45 DEI staff members. That’s about 40% more DEI staffers than faculty in the colleges’ history departments, Greene found, and about four times more DEI staff than they have disability professionals. In the end, it’s about three DEI staff for every 100 faculty overall. It feels like a lot.

But I have some serious qualms with the methodology. I don’t mean to put too much discredit on the “guys looking up stuff on the internet and then putting it in a spreadsheet” method of research — it represents a big chunk of my work, too. However, if I were doing work that would influence politics nationally, I might take a little more care.

Take the University of Utah, which Greene said had 60 DEI staff. When I went through their website, I didn’t find confirmation of that number, unless I took into account a whole lot of young students helping in part-time roles. I also worry that Greene counted some staffers as DEI employees I would have considered more standard advisors.

It’s clear, thinking about this, that the number of staffers isn’t really what you want anyway. The informative number is the budget of these DEI programs at various schools, and the Heritage Foundation’s report has none of that data — even though it would be possible to compile it through Freedom of Information Act requests. Greene didn’t do that work. And to get a real picture of the situation nationwide, you’d also want to compile data from more than 65 schools that cover 16% of the collegiate students in America.

That’s not even my biggest problem with the report, though. It goes on to claim — and this is the second part of Cox’s argument — the compiled date shows the DEI offices are ineffective. It does this by comparing just four schools of the 65. The report notes the University of Michigan and North Carolina have relatively large DEI departments, but worse diversity climate scores than Mississippi State University or Baylor University, which have relatively small DEI departments.

That’s all they use to point to DEI programs’ inefficacy. I swear, that’s the totality of the argument. Go look at the report. It’s an insane way to draw conclusions. It’s equally logically valid as saying that tall people are bad at basketball. After all, the San Antonio Spurs have a losing record despite having 7-foot-4 Victor Wembanyama on the roster. What else could be going on?

Frankly, this is an unserious bit of scholarship from Greene and Paul, and it’s discouraging to see it so widely cited. I also was unable to find any more substantive research that had similar results to what they claimed.

Other research on DEI programs’ effectiveness

There’s not a lot of terrific evidence that growing DEI programs have effectively improved things for minorities, either.

What would be nice is if someone commissioned a large-scale study that took the question seriously. What you’d want to do is compile DEI budgets by making records requests at the thousands of public colleges and universities around our nation. Then, you’d want to track success measures of those programs. Are graduation rate race gaps closing? Do minority students feel more comfortable in the classroom? Are future incomes becoming more equal? Do those results change depending on the DEI budgets allocated?

We just don’t have that study.

What we do have are the tidbits that have led us here, links in a chain that explain why higher education administrators made the effort in the first place. These links are supported by actual serious studies, and a good amount of them. I don’t think Cox would disagree on the following, for example:

• There is a significant gap between graduation rates and future income levels for college students depending on their race and sexual orientation — even among students in the same cohorts.

• When minority students learn from diverse faculty, they perform better in school.

• When students feel a sense of belonging in their schools, they’re more likely to graduate.

• Racial diversity in a student body leads to less racial bias from those students later in life.

Presented with all of the above, college administrators made efforts to reduce the gaps. They’ve tried to hire diverse faculty, make students feel like they belong and promote racial diversity in their admissions.

The most controversial point for Cox seems to be the “diversity statements” some Utah schools asked some of their prospective hires to write, a practice which he called “bordering on evil.” Those statements ask applicants to explain how they’d contribute to diversity efforts at their new job. I don’t see that as evil, but I understand that some see that as a political litmus test.

Those statements are a result of linear, logical thinking. Think about it from the perspective of a college administrator, who wants their minority students to graduate at higher rates: If minority students perform better when their teachers are diverse, then we should try to get diverse teachers. (School faculty are rarely as diverse as the student body they teach.) The first schools that tried this diversity statement thing found that they hired more diverse faculty, by about 10%. We should probably try it too.

That being said, I also understand how some folks see that as essentially an end run around racial quotas, and affirmative action in schools was just banned by the Supreme Court in June. Truthfully, I don’t have a huge problem with eliminating the diversity statement in hiring decisions.

What I do have a problem with is otherwise cutting the budget of DEI programs — or removing them entirely, as some want to do. These programs at least strive to address the well-documented gaps in school performance for minorities, and are using logical and researched steps to try to make that happen.

The consequences of cutting

The other issue is this: DEI programs are popular among students. Only 26% of students say they would support legislative efforts to limit the promotion of diversity, equity, and inclusion at public colleges, 54% say they’d oppose with such a bill. Just 20% were neutral.

You get similar results if you ask students if the elimination of DEI programs would have impacted their decision to enroll in their school. Fifty-nine percent of students said if a college they were considering had abolished DEI initiatives, it would have impacted their decision to enroll there. (Another survey showed a significant portion of high school students are indeed researching this.) And 55% of students polled said they would consider transferring if their college were to abolish DEI initiatives. Only 17% said they definitely wouldn’t.

There are those who will say that this is evidence of the “indoctrination” happening at schools. Maybe so. More likely? The poll results above reflect the decades-long tendency of young people to be concerned about progressive multicultural issues.

Schools that eliminate or reduce DEI programs, especially through state legislative intervention, are probably going to be at a competitive disadvantage to those that maintain or grow them. If public schools justify large sports administration budgets by noting the influx of high school applicants and dollars that come with them, couldn’t the same arguments be used in favor of DEI programs?

What are the next steps?

What exactly is the proposed solution here? In my mind, those that want the programs removed need to propose specific new efforts to fix the graduation rate and income gaps. Those next steps have been lacking.

Instead, the hope seems to be that cutting the “bad programs” will improve the situation. Cox, for example, said the “I in DEI has become exclusion,” and the programs were “harming real people on our campuses.”

Of course, this ignores our multi-decade history of colleges pre-DEI programs — in which minority performance gaps were not better, but worse.

We have tried the “do nothing” approach. It failed.

In the end, the anti-DEI folks have a problem: Their argument just isn’t that well-considered. They’re using shoddy methodology, they don’t address the research that led to DEI programs in the first place, and they haven’t appeared to consider some of the consequences of what cutting the programs would do in a competitive collegiate environment. But most of all, those advocates — and Cox — haven’t brought a better idea to the table.

I was hoping for substance here. I haven’t seen it.