No DEI or better DEI?– MIT free speech advocates hold historic debate

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology hosted a historic debate on Apr. 4 that asked whether 'academic DEI programs should be abolished.'

Both sides acknowledged DEI's shortcomings, with one participant arguing that '[c]ollege is not going to solve the academic skills gap' and another calling DEI 'a wolf in sheep's clothing.'

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosted a historic debate on Apr. 4 that examined whether diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs are fundamentally flawed or worth reviving. 

Two of DEI’s fiercest critics, Manhattan Institute fellow and author Heather Mac Donald and McGill University chemistry professor Pat Kambhampati, supported the debate’s resolution, “academic DEI programs should be abolished.” But they found common ground with their opponents, Youthcentrix CEO Pamela Denise Long and INVERSITY Solutions founder Karith Foster 

Though Long and Foster support DEI, all four participants acknowledged its shortcomings. 

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

J. R. Scott, co-president of MIT’s chapter of the Adam Smith Society, introduced the participants. He told Campus Reform that his organization sponsored the event because its “mission is to facilitate debate and discussion about the twin roles of free enterprise and individual liberty in advancing human flourishing.” 

The debate’s moderator–author, professor emerita, and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Nadine Strossen–began by invoking the classical liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, donning a hat that said, “MAKE J.S. MILL GREAT AGAIN.” 

“I can imagine a program that would be called ‘DEI’ that I think would be completely in sync with classical liberal values,” she said in an interview with Campus Reform

Current DEI programs, according to Strossen, are missing diversity of thought. She referenced Harvey Silverglate, a co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). Silverglate, a Harvard graduate, reportedly observed that the “idea of diversity” at his alma mater, Harvard, “is that everybody should look different and think alike.”

Long’s opening statement suggested that DEI should exist to address the aftereffects of slavery. Instead, it often centers claims that become fodder for those who think that “DEI can make things worse.” 

One example of what derails DEI, Long argues, is “when activists say, ‘Men who want to be women are equal to women,’ and allow those men access to women’s hard-earned rights.”

Foster agreed and said that, though DEI is unfair when it penalizes people for the color of their skin, “abolishing all DEI efforts in higher education is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.”

After Mac Donald delivered her opening statement, Foster asked whether history or economics account for the skills gaps of DEI beneficiaries who have lower grades and test scores. 

“That’s not the issue before us,” Mac Donald replied. “College is not going to solve the academic skills gap. It has to be solved at the earliest grades.”

[RELATED: ANALYSIS: Scholars say DEI is having a potentially disastrous impact on the hard sciences]

During the Q&A, Kambhampati called DEI “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“Equity involves redistribution of resources from me to you,” he said. “This falls under the auspices of what the communists tried to do.” 

The debate’s central tension between merit and diversity is what inspired the formation of its co-sponsor, the MIT Free Speech Alliance (MFSA). In 2021, MIT disinvited University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot because he advocated for merit. Long approached the debate with the goal of discussing DEI and merit “in a humane and actionable way,” according to a statement she sent Campus Reform. 

Foster similarly told Campus Reform that she “respect[s] the need for free speech and the even more important need for civil discourse.” 

Accounts of the debate note that change is happening at MIT. A press release shared by the MFSA declares that the debate, the first to address DEI on an American campus, was peaceful. 

Despite his cancellation, Abbot delivered a lecture on MIT’s campus in May 2022. 

I enjoyed my visit very much and met with a large number of excellent scientists,” he told Campus Reform. “We had intellectually stimulating conversations focused on scientific research.”

Watch the full debate here

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