Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion vs. Merit, Fairness, and Equality– Both sides of upcoming MIT debate weigh in

Participants in an upcoming Massachusetts Institute of Technology debate–luminaries in business, journalism, and academia–will answer the question, 'Should Academic DEI Programs be Abolished?'

The debate's host is the MIT Free Speech Alliance, an organization that formed after the university canceled geophysicist Dorian Abbot's lecture over his op-ed, which proposed that merit replace DEI.

“Should Academic DEI Programs be Abolished?”

Participants in the upcoming Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) debate will consider the question behind the origin story of its sponsor, the MIT Free Speech Alliance (MFSA). 

The organization “of alumni, faculty, students and friends of MIT” formed after the university canceled a 2021 lecture by University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot. Students and faculty called for his cancellation because his op-ed proposed replacing DEI with merit, fairness, and equality (MFE). 

Since then, the organization “has been successful in building relationships with the MIT administration,” according to its president, Charles Davis

MFSA, Davis told Campus Reform, wants “to jointly sponsor … open forums where people can experience discussion and dissent,” part of its goal of advancing viewpoint diversity. 

The first forum on Apr. 4 takes place on MIT’s campus in Boston and over livestream. Former American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) President Nadine Strossen will serve as the debate’s moderator. 

Participants spoke with Campus Reform about their visions for higher education. One side of the debate imagines campuses without DEI, while the other imagines it rebranded. 

“In this conversation about merit, fairness, and equality versus DEI, we are falling for the idea that it’s one or the other,” Pamela Denise Long, CEO of the behavioral health group Youthcentrix®, told Campus Reform. 

“I think what learned people ought to do is focus on how to marry the two concepts.” 

Long, who will argue in favor of DEI, says that practices including affirmative action serve to right historical wrongs on college campuses. 

[RELATED: Majority of Americans oppose race-based admissions, according to poll] 

Her problem with MFE, a framework that evaluates students on academic ability without considering identity, is that it divorces these wrongs from present-day outcomes.

For Long, a good approach to DEI at colleges and universities is one that encourages honest conversations about civil and human rights. 

“We have some things that happened in our country that were absolutely horrendous,” Long said, referencing “250 years of slavery.”

But Long acknowledges that U.S. history includes “some really beautiful things.” 

“So we can’t take the good and throw away the bad or only focus on the bad,” she told Campus Reform, imagining an approach that does less of the scolding that has come to characterize DEI training. “We have to be able to focus on solutions.”

Pat Kambhampati, however, says that merit is about success in the present, not historical barriers that have prevented people from success. 

“Life is tough everywhere,” Kambhampati told Campus Reform. “If you shine brightly, you get to do certain things. You get to play first violin at the philharmonic. [You] get to be a Nobel-winning professor at Stanford.” 

Kambhampati is a chemistry professor at McGill University in Canada and will represent the side of the debate that wants to dismantle DEI bureaucracies. 

In 2021, Kambhampati received international media attention for his answer to a diversity question on a grant application. He pledged not, as he told Campus Reform, “to the God of [DEI]” but to hiring “the most qualified people based upon their skills and mutual interests.” 

As other professors relax rigor, he stands out for maintaining high expectations for his students. Science professors are “not meant to be Mr. Rogers” Kambhampati says. Instead, they are “in a race for the cure for cancer.”

[RELATED: PROF. ELLWANGER: Low expectations in high school undermine college success]

But Karith Foster, who supports DEI, says that diversity is not just about identity, a fixation that Kambhampati suggests deprived him of grant funding. Foster is the founder of Inversity, a training and consulting organization that offers, as its website suggests, “DIVERSITY WITHOUT DIVISION.” 

“I will never know what it’s like to be a gay Asian man,” she told Campus Reform. “My husband, who is a 6-foot-4 Australian, will never know what it’s like to be a black woman.” They can still share their experiences without conveying, “You’re wrong for being who you are.” This, Foster says, is how campuses should approach DEI. 

Because of her background as a comedian, Foster is “a huge advocate for the First Amendment.”

She suggests, however, that typical DEI programming is humorless, “robbing people of that agency to say, ‘You know what, I can choose whether or not I want to be upset about this.’” 

Heather Mac Donald told Campus Reform that DEI prioritizes upset students over “the truth of [a] proposition.” 

Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the forthcoming book When Race Trumps Merit, will debate on “team abolish DEI.”

She says that “any politician who’s got the guts to take on the academic establishment” should follow the example of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

Like DeSantis, Mac Donald calls for removing ideology from education, which “should be the non-political transmission of Western civilization.” She laments a similar transformation in the arts, with canonical works dismissed as racist or too white. 

“It breaks my heart that the guardians of our various traditions that are so powerful–that have given humanity such liberation from poverty and sickness and ugliness in favor of beauty and prosperity and freedom–are indicting their own traditions,” she told Campus Reform. 

“We need a total change of leadership in this country–of our cultural institutions. And, increasingly, our economic ones as well.” 

Campus Reform contacted all relevant parties listed for comment and will update this article accordingly.