The debate around DEI has got it all wrong

Why confusing the issues around inclusivity hurts everyone

Published May 30, 2023 5:46AM (EDT)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during The Heritage Foundation 50th Anniversary Celebration at the Gaylord National Harbor Resort on April 21, 2023 in National Harbor, Md. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during The Heritage Foundation 50th Anniversary Celebration at the Gaylord National Harbor Resort on April 21, 2023 in National Harbor, Md. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The culture wars have taken a wrong turn. Last week, just ahead of announcing a run at the Republican Presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill seeking to eradicate DEI programs and critical race studies (CRT) in public universities statewide. Positioning himself as a champion of American values battling against a "woke mob" determined to undermine them, he explained his position to a roundtable back in March:  "I believe that state universities should be focused on teaching students how to think, not what to think." Platitudes aside, the irony should be lost on no one: DeSantis is talking about freedom of thought while advocating for state-mandated censorship. 

But more than that, he is creating a false equivalency between very different concepts. This is more than just rhetorical sleight of hand. It's an attempt at reupholstering the fabric of U.S. public education. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) describes an approach to organizational culture. Critical race theory is an approach to contextualizing our understanding of race. They are both tied to notions about how power functions in America. But they are not the same thing.

DeSantis' followers have admitted as much. As Chris Rufo, one of the chief ideologues leading the offensive against DEI in Florida, once put it: "The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory… We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans." What Rufo is talking about is a classic bait-and-switch — cutting and pasting a polemic from one place into another for a strategic advantage. That may be effective political maneuvering, but it's not a basis from which we should determine our educational policy.

I'm an educator, entrepreneur, and activist in the field of neurodiversity. I used to think this sort of thing was out of my wheelhouse. I was wrong. 

Neurodiversity and DEI

For the past year, I've served as president of the ICCTA, a consortium of community colleges in the state of Illinois working with over 700,000 students. Last fall, we successfully ratified a Neurodiversity Inclusion Charter as part of our DEI strategy. This charter inspired similar legislation in the form of HR 219, which was formally adopted on May 19 by the Illinois General Assembly

DEI is about creating a bigger tent where more people are included in the conversation — it is not about pushing people out. 

The need is there. Neurodivergent people — an umbrella term that encompasses learning differences such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia among others— make up something like one in seven of the U.S. population; around 30 to 40 percent of this community is unemployed. Neurodivergent students also largely begin the higher education journey through the U.S. community college system. 

Expanding access to education should be a no-brainer — at least I thought it was until we started encountering pushback. "Inclusion statements are slippery slopes," we were told; "DEI is about vilifying normal Americans," I heard more than a few times; "Critical race theory and DEI are exclusionary, grievance-based practices being used to indoctrinate our youth." If you think this sounds familiar, you're right. Reading objections to our neurodiversity inclusion statement was like scanning the transcript of an affirmative action debate from the 1990s, with some of the terminologies switched out. That is on purpose — and by shoehorning CRT into the picture, critics of DEI have been able to send Americans scrambling to the same old battle lines ahead of the presidential primaries. 

The conversation has moved on. Today, something like 80% of Generation Z sees DEI as a priority when looking for jobs. And while DEI shares some roots with the affirmative action movement, it has since evolved to encompass broader concepts of inclusivity of people from a range of backgrounds and perspectives, including race, ethnic and cultural background, religious affiliation, disability, gender and sexual orientation and unique cognitive perspectives that fall underneath the neurodiversity umbrella. This means whoever you are, you'll find the support you need. 

DEI has also changed substantively, setting its sights on practices and inclusive organizational cultures where more people feel welcomed in schools and the workplace as opposed to a preoccupation with quotas and superficial training. This shift cannot be overemphasized. DEI is about creating a bigger tent where more people are included in the conversation — it is not about pushing people out. 

"Structural" doesn't have to be scary

There can be a tendency to label any structural perspective on American society as necessarily anti-American. But all that 'structural' means is looking beyond the individual to how ideas, institutions and policies create a reality and the consensus surrounding it. Thomas Kuhn's seminal book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," offers a framework for how even the seemingly objective principles of scientific research can be informed by a structural perspective. For Kuhn, previous ways of doing things never make much sense after new discoveries, which is why we can find ourselves looking at the past crook-eyed. It goes without saying that if you apply this approach towards any history — American included — things can get uncomfortable. But there is consolation, too, because that is the telltale sign things have changed. The gulf between "then" and "now" is usually what we call progress.

DEI seeks to take that structural perspective and use it to push down barriers toward inclusion and belonging. It does this by asking the straightforward question of: How? That might sound abstract, but what it means in practice is that DEI is a series of "process-based" initiatives. In the context of neurodiversity, that might mean asking how we can make our admissions and interview processes more responsive to people from different cognitive backgrounds. It could mean revisiting practices that might inadvertently exclude students from participation in higher education — for neurodivergent students, that might be the provision of quiet rooms on campus, which can be tremendously helpful, especially for individuals prone to auditory sensory overload. And it definitely means thinking about how to create the kind of feedback loops that adjust to people's changing needs. Because, at the end of the day, schools are there to serve their students. 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Some critics are often quick to point out that DEI foregoes equality of opportunity in an attempt to engineer equality of outcome. My response to this is always the same — there is a difference between wanting all your students to pass and wanting them all to get the same grade. Others allege that an emphasis on "inclusion" instead of "belonging" pits students and personnel from different groups against one another. My reply is usually a variation on — "Good point, let's keep talking." 

One of the biggest misconceptions about DEI is that it is a discrete policy agenda. It's not — it's a set of initiatives and practices that are handled in vastly different ways according to different needs and circumstances and it's also changing as we speak. What unites them is the belief that facilitating broader dialogue and inclusion is better for everyone. As for the critics who say it's a form of indoctrination, I'm a firm believer that there is only one good response given the current political climate: DEI does not have a role in determining the content of school curriculums — that's what teachers are supposed to do.  

A dangerous precedent

I've been in education in some shape or form for a long time. After finishing my undergrad, I did a series of master's degrees before going on to do a doctorate in cognitive science at Oxford. I've been working in the neurodiversity space ever since. When I moved back to Illinois, I had three children of my own and decided to take things one step further and get involved with some of my local school boards. A couple of years earlier, I took in a beautiful 6-year-old autistic boy as a foster parent. Today, I find myself looking at the neurodiversity question from both ends of the spectrum — as a parent wanting the best for her child, and as a public servant looking for solutions that are actually feasible. 

When I was elected as president of the ICCTA, I made it my mission to try and make the community colleges in our state accessible for as many students as possible. The adoption of our neurodiversity inclusion charter was a part of this, and its ratification by the Illinois General Assembly has been heartening — it's amazing how fast attitudes can change over a couple of years. 

But traffic moves two ways. And what I see happening in Florida — and increasingly in other states as well, such as Iowa, Missouri, South Carolina and Texas — worries me enormously as both a parent and an educator. It's a top-down, slash-and-burn policy toward education with little regard for the teachers, administrators, and communities responding to realities on the ground. Leveraging the power of the state to make proclamations about what can and cannot feature in school curricula sets a dangerous precedent.

I think of the students who will be affected. Many from marginalized backgrounds may have been on the fence about attending higher education in the first place. The withdrawal of administrative support sends the message to those already there that their voices are less important; and to those who have yet to apply, that maybe that is how things should stay. Our children deserve better. 

A bigger tent

"I believe that state universities should be focused on teaching students how to think, not what to think" — DeSantis' turn of phrase keeps ringing in my ear. And that's because any educator worth their salt would agree with it, in theory. With the raft of technological and social changes confronting our students, they will need to have the right critical thinking skills to navigate the choppy seas ahead. One thing is for sure, though — that won't be achieved through censorship. It will be achieved by fostering organizational cultures that openly embrace better questions over unquestioned answers and experimentation over conformity. DEI done right does just that. 

Democracy means a lot less if you're not invited to the table where collective decisions are made. We all know that education is the primary engine of social mobility in this country. It's the very substance of positive freedom, and we would do well to start thinking of it in those terms.

My son's future is our future. What he and millions of others like him represent is an opportunity to include more people in our national conversation. This poses a question — do we want that conversation to be broader, more articulate and more creative? The answer must be yes. Because it's also the very definition of a healthy democracy.

By Maureen Dunne

Dr. Maureen Dunne is a globally recognized neurodiversity expert and president of the ICCTA, the third largest consortium of community colleges in the U.S. She also serves as faculty affiliate at the Discovery Partners Institute and on the board of directors of the Association of Community College Trustees. She obtained her PhD in Cognitive Science at Oxford University and is the co-founder of Autism Angels Group, CEO of Autism Community Ventures and helped launch LEGO Foundation’s Play for All Accelerator Fund. She is the author of two upcoming books on neurodiversity.

MORE FROM Maureen Dunne

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Culture War Dei Diversity Education Equity Florida Inclusion Ron Desantis