Progress on DEI

Here’s an observation on human nature. When you insult people they tend to not like you. If forced to continue to sit in a room with you anyway, they will stop listening.

I’ve found myself writing a lot lately about diversity, equity and inclusion programs, mostly I suppose because there has been a fair amount of news around DEI in the last few weeks.

Here in Wisconsin last week a symposium critical of some aspects of DEI in higher education had to be moved off the Medical College of Wisconsin campus because of a concern that DEI supporters might disrupt the event. Later last week UW System President Jay Rothman banned the use of mandatory diversity statements in hiring UW faculty. I lamented the first development and praised the latter.

Today comes a story in the New York Times that reports on a positive development. Companies are coming to the conclusion that DEI as currently practiced isn’t working. The focus on seeing everyone as a member of an oppressed or privileged group only leads to further division and resentment. If anything DEI makes things worse. We need a new start.

Consultant Karith Foster is taking a new approach to DEI.

That new start comes in an evolving package known as Diversity and Belonging. Here’s how the Times’ reporter described it in the story: “Ms. Foster (a second wave diversity consultant) said companies must address racism, sexism, homophobia and antisemitism in the workplace. But she believes that an overemphasis on identity groups and a tendency to reduce people to “victim or villain” can strip agency from and alienate everyone — including employees of color. She says her approach allows everyone “to make mistakes, say the wrong thing sometimes and be able to correct it.””

This is progress. When the Supreme Court further weakens or all but strikes down affirmative action next month that will likely provide some sort of jolt to DEI programs as well, though it’s too early to tell how they might be effected. The ruling probably won’t impact them directly at all, but the shock waves will roil everything close by.

I’m not sure even this progress goes far enough. I really do question the whole DEI experiment. I share the skepticism of Jonathan Haidt (coauthor of the popular recent book The Coddling of the American Mind) who is quoted in the story. “I’ve heard from so many managers. They can’t stand it any more. The constant conflict over people’s identities.”

And, in fact, the Intercept ran a story about liberal nonprofits that can’t seem to get any work done as their employees spend their days working out their identity angst. I’ve heard the same story from nonprofit leaders in Madison. My own view is that the workplace is a place to, well you know, work, not to engage in group therapy. To some extent, you can’t ignore what’s going on outside the office. The problem comes when what’s going on outside the office eats up too much time inside the office.

But let’s be realistic. Getting rid of this stuff is probably not going to happen. So making it more palatable and even positive is a step forward that needs to be encouraged. It would also be great if someone added a “module” (consultants charge by the “module”) that would introduce a new, exotic, but related concept: productivity.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

4 thoughts on “Progress on DEI

  1. Thanks Dave – I think your observations are valuable and important to conversations (and lack thereof) folks are having.

    Hope all is well.

    Best, Jim


  2. In Missouri and elsewhere “DEI” is the new “CRT”. It is just a buzzword that expresses frustration by Trumpists to ban anything they don’t like from trans drag queens & uppity blacks to jews and feminists.


    1. Can’t agree with you on that one, Howard. There’s research reported in academic journals as well is in the hallowed pages on the Ne York Times that strongly suggests that DEI is not working.


      1. My point is that the term DEI has been transformed, like “pro-life” or “CRT” into a catch all word or phrase. There are many school districts that ban “DEI” without much thought about the meaning of the words. I understand that in places like Madison or Berkeley DEI means something else. If you got up in Kansas City and said that DEI isn’t working the initial assumption would be that you favor pre-1954 school segregation. DEI is also seen as the same thing as “affirmative action.”


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