Opinion: As educators, we’re alarmed and confused by the DEI controversy

Public and higher education institutions cannot achieve desired outcomes if the governor and legislators persist in limiting the diversity of opinions, canceling DEI programs and banning books.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hands come together to support a silent rally at the Utah Capitol before the Senate Education Committee hears HB261, the anti-DEI bill that would dismantle diversity offices in Utah public education and government, on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024.

The authors of this commentary are lifetime educators. Each has been a teacher, administrator, superintendent and, in two instances, university presidents. Taken collectively our combined service spans decades.

The current controversy about diversity, equity and inclusion is both puzzling and alarming. Puzzling because such ideas, practices and values have been at the core of public education since the emergence of the common school in the late 1800′s. Moreover, these values are critical to the mission and effectiveness of both public and higher education.

Alarming because the importance of these core values has been construed in such ways that they are hardly recognizable to those of us who actually teach, administer and belong to the community of public school educators, including higher education. Such ideas have been misrepresented and tortured into meanings that make them almost unrecognizable.

Perhaps a little explanation will help. Diversity is both a fact and a value. Our nation is highly diverse in terms of religion, languages, ethnicity and country of origin. Diversity is also a value. We believe that our communities and nation find strength in the diversity of our people. All educational organizations profit from the rich diversity of students, faculty and staff. We should embrace and celebrate this.

Equality of opportunity is a core American value. There is certainly no attempt at equal outcomes. Equality of outcomes could not be achieved even if such an end were desirable. What is essential is the pursuit of equal opportunities consistent with the goals, talents and ambitions of every student. The point here is to eliminate unfair barriers.

Regarding inclusion, don’t we want everyone to feel welcomed and needed in a public school? As educators, our motto is simple: We want everybody.

It appears that some have decided that our society is on the brink of calamity due to some notion of critical race theory or by the policies and practices of DEI. More than a year ago, some lawmakers alleged that critical race theory was being used to indoctrinate students. A statewide audit was authorized. The glaring conclusion of the report was that there was little, if any, instruction, using critical race theory.

Many believed that this report would put an end to all of the anecdotes, false stories and conspiracy theories often cited by lawmakers. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Some lawmakers have now shifted their attention to the evils of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The information provided so far is anecdotal. It is the same pattern found in the alarm about critical race theory. It is notable that there is no research or evidence that DEI efforts have worked to the disadvantage of other students. On the contrary, DEI programs and services help students and aspiring faculty members achieve their dreams.

Also, there is an unfortunate lack of memory and acknowledgement that people of color, women and other groups have faced enormous barriers to their educational and personal success. The documentation of unfair barriers is beyond questioning. Some DEI critics have gone so far as to say that the history of prejudice is an unfair and negative story and that references to the past should not be taught. On the contrary, our history speaks for itself from a variety of viewpoints and experiences. Literally hundreds of authors tell our history as they understand it, and respect the fact that other authors may not agree with them. Our strength is found in the richness and diversity of multiple voices,

It is our experience that educators at all levels are generally fair-minded in their approaches to important issues and base their instruction on the most accurate information available. There may be some exceptions, to be sure. There are disagreements. But isn’t that the point?

Education is about enlightenment and the search for the truth. Don’t we expect students to make inquiries, to ask questions and to do research on their own? Public and higher education institutions cannot achieve desired outcomes if the governor and legislators persist in limiting the diversity of opinions, canceling DEI programs and banning books.

We hope that Utah lawmakers and the governor will give everyone the courtesy and advantage of a fair chance to succeed. Students who have had to deal with poverty, inadequate facilities and technology, racism in all of its forms may need extra help to be successful. Responding to these needs is imperative.

Diversity, equity and inclusiveness are core values of public and higher education. That is what this discussion is all about. If some DEI programs are not effective, modify them and make them better. Why the near hysteria about DEI, driven by stories and anecdotes? Real harm can be done unless there is a more thoughtful and reasoned approach.

Student success is the goal here. Please support it! Inform yourself on important issues by reading broadly, and don’t give into conspiracy theories. Volunteer on a regular basis at your local public school. Talk to your local public school leaders and legislators.

Richard Kendell

Richard E. Kendell is a former superintendent of the Davis School District and commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education. He is the interim president of Southern Utah University.

Steve Laing

Steve Laing is a former superintendent of the Box Elder School District and was previously State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Larry shumway

Larry Shumway is a former superintendent of the Tooele School District and was previously State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Jeff Stephens

Jeff Stephens is a former superintendent of the Weber School District.

Dave Doty

Dave Doty is a former superintendent of the Canyons School District and was previously associate commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education.

The views expressed in this commentary are the authors’ own and do not represent the views or positions of any organizations to which the authors may have been affiliated.

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