Opinion: I’ve seen the zero-sum, DEI mindset infiltrate Utah’s institutions of higher education

We have a responsibility to privilege the truth, however elusive, difficult or unpopular it may be.

(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.

I am grateful for The Tribune’s reporting on Gov. Spencer Cox’s December news conference and his comments about the proliferation and apparent ineffectiveness of diversity, equity and inclusion programs and policies. However, the two articles published on the subject (the first on Dec. 20, the second on Dec. 21) fail to capture the reality of DEI implementation and its impact on higher education.

While the articles are informative, their underlying purpose seems to be to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the governor’s concerns. As someone who has taught at the university level for more than two decades, and who has watched in dismay as the zero-sum, DEI mindset has infiltrated higher education, Cox’s concerns are not only legitimate, they are commendable.

Nothing is more crucial to the perpetuation of a bad idea than the misrepresentation of anything or anyone who disagrees with it. Take, for instance, the first sentence of the article “Bordering on Evil”: Diversity hiring practices at Utah’s universities will end in 2024, Cox says: “Gov. Spencer Cox attacked diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs at Utah’s colleges and universities, repeating his assertion that such initiatives foster divisiveness instead of inclusivity, during his monthly news conference Wednesday.”

With a lede and first sentence like this, readers might reasonably wonder how exactly Cox “attacked” DEI. Unfortunately, neither article answers this question, so I watched the news conference. Far from what the article would have me believe, I found Cox’s discussion of DEI to be both measured and honest as well as contrary to the prevailing DEI orthodoxy. Thus, according to the interpretation offered by the article, to disagree with DEI is to “attack” it.

This dangerous conflation is known as “concept creep,” which, according to professor of psychology Nick Haslam, who coined the term in 2016, “is the process by which harm-related topics experience semantic expansion to include topics which would not have originally been envisaged to be included under that label.”

Put simply, where once we could agree on the meaning of words, concept creep has expanded the meaning of words such as trauma, harm and racist to the point of meaninglessness. Add to this the similarly destructive idea that words are violence and the prospect of having much needed, difficult conversations is essentially reduced to nil.

On the off chance these conversations do take place, in my experience, they are often undermined by power dynamics between participants and characterized by confusion, particularly when it comes to the meaning of DEI-related terms. In fact, I would argue that when it comes to DEI, confusion is a feature, not a bug.

I therefore think that Cox can be forgiven for what appears to be some confusion of his own, namely, that university employees are required to sign diversity statements as a condition of employment. Although diversity statements have indeed been used by universities to filter applicants on the basis of race and gender, I don’t think there is any evidence that the Utah university system requires prospective employees to sign a diversity statement.

But as even the most cursory examination of the job boards for any of the state’s institutions of higher education will show, diversity statements are in fact a regular part of employee applications.

One might reasonably ask, then, what is the difference between being required to sign a diversity statement and requiring applicants to submit one as part of an application for employment? Perhaps that is a Tribune article for another day. Also for another day might be a follow up article investigating Cox’s concern that DEI programs are bloated and ineffective.

Whether from the point of view of university members, tax payers, state legislators or the Utah Board of Higher Education, these are valid questions and as someone who, like university professors themselves, is obligated to represent everyone he serves, Cox is right to ask them.

My own concern, however, is that making inquiries such as these is, in the eyes of some, tantamount to aiding and abetting. Consequently, those best positioned to inform the public may lack the will to do so for fear of being ostracized or worse, or because they too believe that the current trajectory is the only way forward, regardless of all the good, the right and the true they will have to sacrifice along the way.

I say this not to disparage the many well-intentioned people who, like me, are trying to make our universities better for everyone (the what), but rather to elucidate some of the very real obstacles to doing precisely that (the how).

The willful misrepresentation of reality is nothing new, but given the purported goals of DEI and the fact that everyone has a stake in realizing them, we all have a responsibility to privilege the truth, however elusive, difficult or unpopular it may be.

Maximilian Werner

Maximilian Werner used to be a Democrat, but now he is politically unhoused and, given the way things are going, expects to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

The Salt Lake Tribune is committed to creating a space where Utahns can share ideas, perspectives and solutions that move our state forward. We rely on your insight to do this. Find out how to share your opinion here, and email us at voices@sltrib.com.