HILL: Save the telos of universities ― end DEI  

In this photo taken Monday, April 20, 2015, students walk between classes at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Acclaimed sociologist and author Jonathan Haidt made the bold claim during a recent lecture at UNC Chapel Hill that DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) will destroy American universities unless it is stopped in its tracks.  

Before anyone calls him a racist right-wing stooge, let it be known Haidt is a self-proclaimed moderate left-of-center voter who used to teach at UVA and is now a professor at NYU in New York City. He made his argument solely as an academic concerned about the proper role of higher education in America.  

Haidt showed a chart prepared by British researchers which listed the top ten universities in the world.  Eight were in America, Oxford and Cambridge being the only two universities outside of US borders to make the list. None were from China; none from Russia; none from any other continent on the planet.  

He attributed such distinction to the historic mission of English and American universities to search for truth in an environment which supported and encouraged free, unfettered exchange of ideas and concepts. The telos, or the reason for being, for any college or university is that search for truth.  

Haidt pointed out elite American universities have been on a dangerous downward path for some time but hit their absolute low point during the ill-fated testimony by the presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT before Congress on December 5, 2023. When asked if students on campus calling for the genocide of Jews violated rules against bullying on campus, they all responded in a coordinated way by saying “it depends on the context.”

The ”context” of what exactly? Generally-accepted rules of decent human behavior since the beginning of time?  There has never been a case in history where any group calling for the extermination of an entire race of people has been “acceptable” under any circumstance. 

The problem, as Haidt saw it, is that universities have become infected with the desire to use “identity politics” to wage social justice warfare rather than adhering strictly to the telos of providing the best liberal arts and scientific education possible to every student. Americans have spent centuries trying to form a more perfect union where people would be evaluated, or judged, on the content of their character and not the color of their skin, cultural heritage or social standing in life. To do otherwise would be contrary to the whole American democratic republican experiment in the first place.  

Haidt had no problem with universities wanting to be more inclusive and more diverse in terms of bringing in more people from disparate backgrounds in each incoming cohort of students. However, once universities dictate “equity” in terms of outcomes regardless of academic achievement, effort and results, the telos of the university is destroyed.  

The danger of interjecting identity into every aspect of American life by legislative or executive fiat is a massive setback to those centuries of progress. Identitarianism, as Haidt coined the phrase, has its consequences, mostly all negative. 

If everyone is evaluated primarily on the basis of race, we will remain a polarized segmented society forever. The places to improve the educational achievement of the vast majority of young people resides where it has always resided ― in homes, local churches and community groups and in primary and secondary public schools. The purpose, or the telos, of going to college is to be inquisitive and learn from the masters of knowledge in the past, not to be defensive about beliefs garnered from the internet and cable news or to be indoctrinated politically one way or the other at age 18. 

“Identity politics” just sounds so wrong and dissonant to older Boomers who were raised on a steady diet of integration as a way to achieve fairness and equal opportunity in our great country. It is difficult to see how dividing our nation by accusing every white person of being racist solely because the color of their skin is going to heal our racial strife instead of making it worse.  

We don’t need another term for segregation based on race, creed, culture or sexual orientation ― it was bad enough when it was used to subjugate black citizens for over a century in America. University administrators should heed the admonition of Jonathan Haidt and end DEI before they destroy the concept of the university and thereby help heal America in the process.