On April 4, 2023, the MIT Great DEI Debate finally came off.
Four debaters squared off over the question: Resolved, that academic diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs should be abolished. On the Yea side was Patanjali Kambhampati, professor of chemistry at McGill University; and Heather Mac Donald, Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. On the Nay side was Karith Foster, founder and CEO of a management training company, Inversity Solutions; and Denise Long, a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) consultant at another management training company, YouthCentrix.
The debate organizers, the MIT Free Speech Alliance (MFSA), aimed to host a “constructive, meaningful debate” of the issues surrounding the remarkably rapid and thorough intrusion of identity politics into the sciences and engineering. Aided by MIT’s Adam Smith Society, and moderated by Nadine Strossen, they succeeded admirably. Don’t take my word for it: you can watch it yourself and make your own judgment. It was civil and respectful—hard-hitting at times, squishy at others—but weapons were never brandished. There were no shout-downs, no fisticuffs, and the police did not have a presence.1 By those terms, it was a spectacular win.
Even so, the debate took place on an uneven playing field. There were not really two debaters defending Yea, and two arguing Nay. It was more like two-and-a-half Yea against one-and-a-half Nay.
Denise Long was the one unambiguous defender of the Nay side of the resolution. Her defense was, shall we say, curious. I learned, for example, that the term “Negro” is now back in fashion, as in “American Negro.” This, apparently, is now a term of art to describe descendants of slaves, who, Long claimed, make up 80% of American black people.
According to Long, DEI programs should be directed solely to the benefit of said American Negroes, because it is they who have borne the ongoing effects of American slavery, and who, according to her, are still being enslaved. She would therefore exclude any black émigré from Africa or the Caribbean from DEI, and, of course, any other member of the endlessly proliferating classes of the aggrieved. No matter that these individuals may carry their own legacies of slavery or oppression—DEI is for us, the American Negro, and the rest of you will have to find your own way. This is unsustainable, of course. It feeds the victimhood Olympics mentality whereby grievance is an entitlement that confers rewards and advantages to the most aggrieved. How does valorizing victimhood solve anything? It leads to a sordid mud-wrestle between competing aggrieved groups.
Long also argued that DEI should be entrenched in academia for as long as American Negroes have been oppressed by white social policy. So, does she mean that DEI should be entrenched for four hundred years (since 1619)? What’s the start date on those four hundred years? She argues that American Negroes continue to be oppressed, so, presumably, we haven’t yet fixed the start date. Should DEI therefore continue in perpetuity? That seems to be her logic.
Even so, I thought she had a point, although not one she would like. Clearly, she wants us to focus our grievance narrative on the collapse of post-Civil War reconstruction and Jim Crow segregation. But it’s been sixty years, three generations since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 supposedly put an end to all that. Since then, social policy has been directed with monomaniacal intensity toward helping black Americans overcome whatever historical disadvantages may have beset them in 1964. Hundreds of trillions of dollars have been directed to this crusade, which has been an utter failure with no measurable positive effects. The destruction of the black family is its most prominent accomplishment. Arguably, it is sixty years of liberal solicitude that has oppressed black people, and that continues to do so. To Denise Long’s dubious point, then. How will doubling down on this record of failure help anyone? Long seems to be arguing here for a perpetuation of failure, not progress toward an admirable goal.
On the Yea side of the question, Heather Mac Donald was Denise Long’s clear counterpart. She not only addressed the resolution question directly, but she also made a compelling argument that academic DEI programs must go. Her arguments were familiar. The “racial skills gap” is real—it is cruel to crowbar underqualified people into elite colleges and universities where they will be forced to “drink from the firehose.” Far from being oppressed, racial minorities, women, and the sexually heterodox are now “gold dust” to academic administrators. They are avidly sought after with generous offers of employment and perquisites that are generally not open to white males. Institutions pay dearly to fund this DEI sweepstakes: DEI bureaucracies are very expensive and ineffective, and are thus a colossal waste of money that could be better spent on scholarships and faculty. All good points.
The debate got a little contentious after Mac Donald argued that the most effective correctives for the skills gaps should be directed toward younger children. We are failing on that score, the principal failures stemming from the degradation of the family and the tolerance of disruptive behavior in classrooms. This drew a rebuke from Karith Foster, who essentially absolved parents of responsibility for their unruly children. Bizarrely, she blamed disruptive behavior on Red Dye 40, and said that we can’t solve it with Ritalin, which Mac Donald never claimed.
For what it’s worth, I thought Mac Donald weakened her argument by verging a few times into America-bashing. I quote her directly [55:50]:
“The history of this country is heartbreaking. Whites treated blacks until very recently with gratuitous cruelty, with constant nastiness until very recently, and the conservative history of America is a whitewash. I think we do not pay enough attention to the fact that we were a white supremacist country.”
Holy generalization, Heather! The Civil War, the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, and the enormous expenditures of money intended to elevate black people hardly constitute a “whitewash.” And if there is a whitewash, it is hardly a “conservative” project: the suppression of black people, from slavery to the post-Civil War KKK, to Jim Crow, to Woodrow Wilson, and arguably to the present day, has largely been a Democrat Party program, which we as a society assiduously ignore. Instead, we are embroiled in arguments over reparations, and make no mistake: DEI is very much a reparations program. Which brings up the question nobody seems to be asking: in a fair accounting of the reparations balance sheet, who would end up owing whom?
Even so, Mac Donald gets a pass because her cross-examination of Karith Foster was the most effective of the night [53:00]:
HM: Do you have an example of a black faculty member who was not just turned down because of his race, but was not considered for his race?
KF: I am not aware of that.
HM: Okay. And of black students, do you know of any black students who have not been admitted to college because of the color of their skin?
KF: Personally, I do not.
Oh. Are we finally allowed to say it out loud? That the whole DEI “racket” (Mac Donald’s description) is an expensive, wasteful, misdirected, and divisive “corrective” to a ginned-up moral panic over a non-existent problem?
Pat Kambhampati, also on the Yea side, took the straightforward position that academic DEI programs should be abolished because they run counter to core academic ideals of liberal (i.e., liberating) education. DEI programs shoehorn people into arbitrarily defined groups rather than respecting them as individuals, whose talents and merit might vary, but who are nevertheless worthy to strive, and to be judged as individuals.
Kambhampati was the target of some rather unfair pot-shots. Early in the debate, for example, Denise Long asserted that Kambhampati, as an immigrant, should have little to say about DEI. So much for the “belonging” part of DEIB. Long was also behind the most head-turning moment, when she equated Kambhampati’s emphasis on “Merit, Fairness, and Equality” (MFE) to Jim Crow.
Through it all, Kambhampati sat serene as the Buddha. He had no notes—he did not need them because he argued his position from a few simple, firmly held principles. His composure served him well, giving him the most effective take-down of the night. In a Kamala-ist moment, Karith Foster rebuked Kambhampati for mispronouncing her name. Kambhampati apologized, noting that he was quite familiar with his name being mispronounced.
For me, Karith Foster came off as the most interesting debater, because she seemed to be arguing both sides of the question: she was the half-and-half part of the Nay team. Compared to Heather Mac Donald, Foster’s defense of DEI programs turned mostly on platitudes: that difference is good, that we should all appreciate difference, that we should talk to one another, that multiple ‘perspectives’ enrich, etc. I don’t think there was a single listener who disagreed with those sentiments, but her argument conflated “small-d” diversity (with which no one disagrees) with the coercive and authoritative tendencies of ‘big-D” diversity. At the same time, she repeatedly asserted that DEI had “gone off the rails,” a sentiment she sometimes expressed in quite earthy language, and which sometimes earned her enthusiastic applause from the mostly anti-DEI audience.
This raises the question: why was Foster, unlike her debate partner, only prepared to offer a half-hearted defense of the Nay side of the question? I suspect it is because Foster, unlike Long, sees that, as the significant costs of implementing “big-D” diversity are coming into focus, the bloom is coming off the DEI rose. Again, Mac Donald put the matter succinctly [38:49]:
“We are witnessing at this very moment a great institutional mitosis as existing [DEI] bureaucracies spawn identical bureaucracies. These latter go under a new name, however: ‘offices of belonging.’ If you thought that inclusion encompassed belonging, you underestimate DEI’s fecundity in endlessly generating sinecures.”
Lots of people are waking up to the bait-and-switch behind the “big-D” diversity flim-flam that is crippling our universities. Unlike academic DEI programs, which can usually fall back on other peoples’ pockets to survive, Karith Foster operates a private company for whom DEI programs are her bread-and-butter. She knows the side on which her bread is buttered. As DEI wanes, so does her bottom line.
Hence, Foster drew her card from Bill Clinton’s 1995 “mend-it-don’t-end-it,” half-hearted defense of affirmative action. It’s the same game with the same tactics: defend the indefensible by appealing to “reasonable” half-measures. Acknowledge that DEI has gone “off-the-rails” and that DEI administrators do not bring particular expertise to their jobs; then, advocate for reaching out to the entrenched DEI bureaucracies to nudge them along to the “true” DEI. Like, you know, that “true” communism that has never been tried?
Foster’s tepid defense of DEI therefore amounts to prestidigitation, deflecting our attention from the real problem: the DEI bureaucrats are not the solution to the problem, they are the problem. We cannot expect them to change—they are too secure in their self-created sinecures, and they do not feel much obligation to be held accountable. There is no other solution than to turf them out from our colleges and universities completely.
Will we fall again for this well-worn dodge? It worked for Clinton thirty years ago, and Foster seems to think that we are still ripe for the picking. She might be right, I’m sad to say. But Heather Mac Donald reminds us that the stakes are very high [36:50]:
“[At] present, you can have diversity, or you can have meritocracy. You cannot have both.”
Will we choose, or will we fudge?
J Scott Turner is Director of the Intrusion of Diversity project at the National Association of Scholars