Bill Ackman’s Transformative Role in the debate on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)

January 5, 2024

This week Bill Ackman made the most significant intervention of recent times in the push-back against the radical agenda on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). His post – now read by over 30 million people – sets out the context as to why the campaign he led to force the resignation of Harvard’s President, Claudine Gay was about much more than antisemitism.

In a piece with much read-across to the UK, Ackman brilliantly outlines how Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies on the American campus instigated a climate of fear. The emphasis on ‘diversity’ is not what it seems. As Ackman writes, “DEI’s definition of oppressed is fundamentally flawed.” He goes on to say that “Under DEI, one’s degree of oppression is determined based upon where one resides on a so-called intersectional pyramid of oppression where whites, Jews, and Asians are deemed oppressors, and a subset of people of color, LGBTQ people, and/or women are deemed to be oppressed… Under DEI’s ideology, any policy, program, educational system, economic system, grading system, admission policy, (and even climate change due its disparate impact on geographies and the people that live there), etc. that leads to unequal outcomes among people of different skin colors is deemed racist.”

Although there are important differences between the UK and the United States – we have never had affirmative action in the same way, and our history of race relations is very different – there are nevertheless enough important similarities in terms of policy approaches. The UK has been somewhat slower to embrace this new American ideology, but nevertheless a radical DEI agenda, or ‘EDI’ as it is more often called here, is increasingly the norm in UK Universities – and in the boards in our Corporations.

Ackman describes how, at Harvard, the once worthy ideals behind DEI have become warped to support a radical political ideology. So too, have similar changes been occurring at UK universities. The ability to charge students £9000 meant that the student became king (though in the long-run, they will lose out).  The University not only had to provide ensuite bathrooms as standard they also had to give the student a standardised experience based on a social-constructivism rooted in Foucault and Marx. Universities promoted a culture where a # student’s protected characteristics were all that mattered.  Students are regarded as vulnerable clients, with ‘student satisfaction’ determining a university’s place in the all-important league tables, so the University will never challenge their cash cow.

Suddenly the University administration, which until recently had been this hidden bureaucracy, becomes a political ally with the excesses of the Student union. This unholy alliance between ideological administrators, activist academics and radical student unions gives rise to the cancellation of speakers, the hiring of ideologically aligned faculty, a dilution of meritocracy – and an indifference to antisemitism.

Take the issue of public health research and race disparities. Few academics in the UK and America will get funding unless the premise of their research is based on the notion that health services are systemically racist. There is no objectivity here. The research is only to prove what the researcher – and funder =- believe they already know. Almost no one is getting any money to show that disparities may not be based on race but more complex factors. This would be considered heresy. What about research that shows some ethnic minorities having better health outcomes than white groups?  Get to the back of the queue with that premise.

When it comes to teaching literature, history, geography and the wide range of social studies courses, all of these are rooted in the new decolonisation project.  As with diversity, too many Universities have misappropriated ‘decolonisation’: they have simply created their own left-leaning colony. The job of the academy is to give students all the perspectives and tools to work out their own rigorous perspective. Given that the left perspective has dominated the academy for so long, students need to be told that there is an alternative to social-constructivism. Instead, what has happened is that anything that looks like an alternative is demonised as ‘reactionary’ and of course ‘racist’.

This has imploded at Harvard, one of the best Universities in the world.  Its policies on affirmative action have been struck down by the Supreme Court and now its President has had to resign – unable to unequivocally condemn the potential genocide of Jewish people.

There are lessons here for British Universities and the corporate sector. Policy Exchange has led the way in this terrain, with our ground-breaking work on academic freedom, that was cited extensively by Government in the passing of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, or the comprehensive polling done just over a year ago by Professor Eric Kaufmann, that revealed a radical shift in the political views of young Britons. This year we will be beginning a landmark project on ‘Politicising Business’, exploring how well-meaning endeavours to seek out talent or reduce pollution have been warped into a politicised agenda that undermines meritocracy, stifles free expression and weakens corporate performance and growth.

Of course, there are still some in universities who are doing good work to remove genuine barriers and to promote equality of opportunity in its original, truest sense. When I established Generating Genius, an organisation that has supported thousands of bright, disadvantaged black children to achieve their potential, I knew that the young black kids we were working with were just as capable as anyone else. They didn’t need lower standards or a ’decolonised’ curriculum – they just needed the right support and the power of people to believe in them and give them the chance to shine. Sadly, too many in our universities today have succumbed to the soft bigotry of low expectations, and believe that meritocracy is itself elitist, or even ‘racist’.

This has been actively enabled by government bodies and quangos, who have regularly asked universities what more they could be doing on DEI, endorsed ‘decolonising the curriculum’ as best practice and tacitly encouraged the widespread adoption of DEI schemes, such as AdvanceHE’s ‘Race Equality Charter’ or Stonewall’s ‘Diversity Champion’ programme. Right now, in a direct snub to the Prime Minister’s ambition to make Britain a science superpower, Research England is consulting on switching a tenth of its £2bn a year annual budget from rewarding scientific excellence to rewarding ‘people and culture’ – which they have explicitly said is likely to include an assessment of ‘EDI data’. Will Ministers continue to stand by while an unelected quango takes a hatchet to the foundations of our research endeavour?

It should be no surprise that, in both the USA and the UK, some of the worst expressions of antisemitism – and an apparent inability to condemn it by too many leaders – should have come from our universities – institutions steeped in this warped identity politics of DEI. As the renowned psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written, “The new morality driving these reforms was antithetical to the traditional virtues of academic life: truthfulness, free inquiry, persuasion via reasoned argument, equal opportunity, judgment by merit, and the pursuit of excellence.  A subset of students had learned this new morality in some of their courses, which trained them to view everyone as either an oppressor or a victim.” This mindset, which he terms ‘common enemy identity politics’ he says “is arguably the worst way of thinking one could possibly teach to young people in a multi-ethnic democracy such as the United States….As long as this way of thinking is taught anywhere on campus, identity-based hatred will find fertile ground.”

I would point to Bill Ackman’s advice. He says, speaking of Harvard:

The board should not be principally composed of individuals who share the same politics and views about DEI. The new board members should be chosen in a transparent process with the assistance of the 30-person Board of Overseers. There is no reason the Harvard board of 12 independent trustees cannot be composed of the most impressive, high integrity, intellectually and politically diverse members of our country and globe.

There has been a movement in the UK to diversify boards, both at a corporate and University level. However, this has still resulted in the same group-think. For example few black people with centre-right perspectives can ever get on these boards. It’s as if they are saying, yes we want a black person or a woman but they have got to be the right kind. For example, in 2022, the University of Nottingham withdrew its offer to me of an honorary degree, citing that I had been the subject of ‘controversy’ – yet last month, Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu was awarded an honorary degree by Newcastle University just days after being embroiled in controversy for comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. It is not controversy that our universities cannot tolerate but heresy – the heresy of saying that, while racism exists, not every problem that black people face in this country is because of racism.

Usually when you see the job spec, there is a list of so-called diversity tick boxes that you must sign -up to. The same approach is taken in too many university hires, with academics judged not by the quality of their research or their teaching ability, but by how well they can demonstrate their commitment to a radical, monocultural view of DEI. Yeats once said: ‘The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity’. In both the board room and the academy we need bold, creative thinkers, who have emotional intelligence, not those able to recite the latest DEI religious mantra.

Lord Sewell of Sanderstead CBE is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange, the Founding Chair of the charity Generating Genius and chaired the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. His new book ‘Black Success: The surprising truth’ (Forum)  is published in March. 

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