EDUCATION REFORM

We Need a New DEI

I’d like to humbly put forward a proposal for one.

Moshe Sipper, Ph.D.
ILLUMINATION
Published in
4 min readFeb 28, 2024

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The recent turmoil in the realm of academia has brought into the limelight the culture of DEI: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

I have not delved into the complex history of this movement, but I would like to think its originators had good intentions at heart: Help create a better society by vanquishing prejudice, inequality, and injustice. Alas, like many movements that begin with the best of intentions, something happened along the way, or perhaps the way was lost altogether: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

In his classic novel, 1984, George Orwell wrote: “Even the names of the four Ministries by which we are governed exhibit a sort of impudence in their deliberate reversal of the facts. The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation.”

There are many past wrongs that must be corrected, and the “Ministry of DEI” probably began as an honest, well-intentioned attempt at reform. However, fixing one wrong by introducing another wrong (or maybe two) just begets new injustices. Two wrongs do not a right make, and the Ministry of DEI seems to have veered off course at some point — in a 1984ish manner.

In an op-ed titled “Claudine Gay and My Scholarship” (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 17, 2023), Dr. Carol M. Swain, a renowned academic and scholar, wrote a heartfelt and impassioned account, stating that, “Harvard can’t condemn Ms. Gay because she is the product of an elite system that holds minorities of high pedigree to a lower standard. This harms academia as a whole, and it demeans Americans, of all races, who had to work for everything they earned.” [emphasis added]

Thank you, Dr. Swain, for such an eloquent statement. Personally, I find this to be a pithy summation of why DEI has gone awry. I am reminded of French diplomat and political scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville, who in his 1840 book Democracy in America wrote, “When inequality is the common law of a society, the strongest inequalities do not strike the eye; when everything is nearly on a level, the least of them wound it. That is why the desire for equality always becomes more insatiable as equality is greater.”

DEI needs fixing but perhaps not banishment: We do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The biases and injustices at the origin of DEI may still rear their unsightly heads if we ignore their existence. But we need an entirely new system — an entirely new set of values — to act as a beacon.

Goodhart’s law, named after British economist Charles Goodhart, colloquially states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. The Old DEI should have been a measure, or a guideline, but it has become an entrenched target, and has thus succumbed to the law.

What can we do, then? Perhaps we can rid ourselves of the old tablets that underlie the Ministry of DEI and etch new ones. We can deploy 1984’s doublethink in a positive way, imbuing the ministry with new meaning, one that just might begin a true mending of yesterday’s ills.

I would like to humbly propose a New DEI: Dignity, Excellence, Integrity.

Dignity: Treat the “Other” with dignity, whatever that “Other” is in terms of their physique, beliefs, opinions, and way of life. Just be a straight shooter — don’t step up, don’t not step on.

Excellence: Let’s put merit back on the table, front and center. The striving for excellence is why we live longer and healthier lives today. And, yes, excellence has its downsides: when rampant it can wreak havoc. But that’s a reason to heed — not to weed (merit out the door).

Integrity: Even just a tiny bit more integrity would be quite nice to have in today’s world. Honestly…

Dignity, Excellence, Integrity

Philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative states that one should “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. The Old DEI is asymmetric, creating a hierarchy of entitlement; thus, ipso facto, those at the hierarchy’s bottom would likely not will that it should become a universal law (even if they do not voice their frustration). The New DEI is symmetric, abiding by the categorical imperative: Wouldn’t it make for a rather nice universal maxim?

A nifty “perk” of the New DEI is that I believe it entails the Old DEI: With dignity, excellence, and integrity, we’ll probably see diversity, equity, and inclusion. The reverse, as we’ve witnessed, seems not to hold: the Old DEI does not entail the New DEI. Sometimes it even looks like we’re getting the opposite: homogeneity, bias, and omission.

As a university professor of many years, I have always tried to live up to this New DEI (which is old to me). Being merely human, I confess to having not always been successful. Which does not mean I give up: I don’t see the New DEI as a deity to worship — but as a spirit to embrace.

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Moshe Sipper, Ph.D.
ILLUMINATION

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