Identifying The Goals of Zero-Sum Anti-DEI Proponents

Their Objective Is to Destroy Professional Reputations and Careers and Dictate our Future

Illustration of a red-faced angry man, representing a zero-sum anti-DEI proponent.

There is an alarming zero-sum philosophy among some anti-DEI proponents. These individuals not only stand in opposition to what they believe is the harmful and damaging impact of DEI—especially on college campuses—they aim to completely dismantle DEI initiatives by any means. Their hope is that DEI cannot survive and must be entirely rooted out.

Among these zero-sum anti-DEI individuals are Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, conservative activist Christopher Rufo, and billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman. A content analysis of their speeches, messages on X (formerly known as Twitter), and interviews, reveals that these individuals’ behavior follows certain patterns:

  1. Raise diversity/DEI/“wokeness” as a problem that they must fix
  2. Weaponize their influence and resources to determine human targets to be removed from their positions
  3. Amplify that those who are “diversity hires” (by their definition) are incompetent and subsequently incapable of fulfilling their professional duties.
  4. Apply pressure on their human targets’ institutions and boards to have those people removed from their positions

Whether these individuals’ efforts are coordinated has yet to be determined. However, the sequencing of the above-outlined approach appears to demonstrate an alignment toward a vicious endgame: destroying anything and anyone they brand as DEI-aligned. In a Politico interview, Christopher Rufo discussed the resignation of Harvard University’s first Black president, Claudine Gay, and admitted to pursuing a multipronged approach to remove Gay from her role. His racist characterization of Gay’s resignation as a “scalping” (he misspelled it on X) makes his zero-sum anti-DEI intentions crystal clear.

Over the past two years, we have witnessed the rapid acceleration of anti-DEI efforts within the United States. Vastly amplified and driven by those claiming to espouse politically conservative views, these efforts have become a full-frontal attack on higher education institutions and educationally adjacent institutions, such as public libraries. We are seeing record highs with book bans; the elimination of DEI offices, roles, and programs on college campuses; campaigns to reshape higher education boards; and interference with faculty hiring and curriculum design.

When anti-DEI efforts meet temporary setbacks, the pivot toward new disinformation campaigns and strategies is swift. One example is the deliberate mischaracterization of critical race theory (CRT) by the zero-sum anti-DEI proponents. When the anti-CRT campaign was deconstructed, its backers pivoted to claiming that DEI is in sharp conflict with merit, fairness, and equality.

The most recent zero-sum anti-DEI pivot is far more vicious, in my opinion. Exploiting the heartbreaking tragedy of the Israel-Hamas war, zero-sum anti-DEI proponents have claimed that several university presidents “allowed” anti-Semitism to take root at their institutions.

This claim is fundamentally ugly and inaccurate.

One must ask themselves: why would someone take on the responsibility of being a university president, arguably one of the most challenging jobs, only to vacate a core aspect of their duty in protecting those within their campus communities?

Jewish, Palestinian, and Muslim students, faculty, and staff have been hurting and harmed in a litany of ways since the onset of this war. To add to their pain and that of their allies proves the extent to which the zero-sum anti-DEI proponents are willing to advance their ill-conceived “cause” without any concern for who they harm in the process.

Zero-sum anti-DEI proponents aim to eliminate jobs, destroy career trajectories, and damage professional reputations. Disagreeing with this group means that one must be silenced and removed, period. The proverbial goalpost will continue to move with the zero-sum anti-DEI proponents, whose ravenous appetites will never be satisfied until their narrow vision for higher education is actualized.

Zero-sum anti-DEI efforts have no place in a democratic society and must not be allowed to continue impacting our higher education institutions. Our diversity as a nation and global community enriches all of us, including those critical of DEI initiatives. We must continue to engage in critical discourse and wrestle with the text, data, and theories about DEI’s efficacy or lack thereof. 

But we absolutely must not allow the bullying and harassment of DEI proponents and people from marginalized communities, particularly those in higher education leadership. We must not allow our collective energy to be drained by those who attack DEI and its advocates.

Centering ourselves on evidence-based DEI approaches (paywalled) and the work needed to educate the next generation of scholars, researchers, and leaders is the most vital action we can advance at this critical moment in history.

Alexia Hudson-Ward headshot

About the author:

Alexia Hudson-Ward is Associate Director of Research, Learning, and Strategic Partnerships, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.