DEI is a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

A law school dean tries to square the circle

The ruckus at Stanford Law School surrounding the March 9 shout-down of Judge Kyle Duncan has abated. But we can learn much from four documents that have since emerged: Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tirien Steinbach’s placatory speech, statements by two ‘marginalized’ student groups, and a 5,000-word account defending Stanford’s position by Stanford Law Dean Jennifer Martinez.

I conclude that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Cloaked in anodyne sentiments and repeated pleas for ‘love’ and ‘safe spaces’ are imperatives that promise to destroy academia as a place of free and dispassionate inquiry.

Dean Steinbach

In her now-famous prepared speech to the protesting students, Dean Steinbach avowed that she is,

uncomfortable because many of the people in the room here I’ve come to care for and in my role at this university my job is to create a space of belonging for all people in this institution [emphasis added].

Clearly, her first priority is the comfort of the students she supervises. Judge Duncan’s past actions have upset black and LGBTQ students. He is (as behavioral psychologists like to say) an aversive stimulus; his very presence causes harm. Is more speech from Duncan worth the hurt it will cause? asks Dean Steinbach, putting comfort above open inquiry—as, indeed, her job seems to require. At the same time, she “absolutely believe[s] in free speech.” But not if it upsets some people, apparently.

Belonging can be tough for black students, many of whom may have been admitted with relatively weak records. Some students struggle, while others seem to cope. Is it the school’s fault for failing them—or for admitting them? Does everyone belong at a tough law school, as Dean Steinbach (and almost everyone else, nowadays) assumes?

And, finally, Steinbach addresses Judge Duncan:

I understand why people feel like the harm is so great that we might need to reconsider those [free-speech] policies. And luckily they’re in a school where they can learn the advocacy skills to advocate for those changes.

Does Dean Steinbach really think that a proper purpose of Stanford Law is to teach students how to overthrow the free-speech principles on which it was founded?

Student Responses

Stanford Law lists more than 60 student organizations, including the Federalist Society (FedSoc), who invited Judge Duncan. Two of these have submitted written complaints1 about the March 9 affair: 1,000 words from the Stanford Black Law Students Association (BLSA), and 2,400 from Stanford OutLaw, “a student organization dedicated to serving the LGBTQ+ law student community.” (A number of other student groups have “shared letters” supporting the anti-Duncan protest.)

[Related: “The Juice is Worth the Squeeze”]

These two are powerful groups that have extracted substantial concessions from Stanford. For example, enrolled transgender students are offered hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery. Race is a “protected class,” even as the Constitution promises “equal protection” for all.

Both groups were unhappy with Stanford’s actions, which included suspending Dean Steinbach and apologizing for the disruptive and insulting reception that greeted Judge Duncan. Here are some comments from the BLSA letter:

Stanford’s administration has actively marginalized its Black community, most recently by scapegoating Dean Tirien Steinbach in an apology to Judge Duncan.

“Marginalized”? Yet the BLSA has its own physical address (along with only two other student organizations, one of which is OutLaw) and has received plenty of special treatment from the Stanford administration, including the creation of Steinbach’s position. “Privileged” might be a more accurate description. But, yes, Dean Steinbach was in a difficult position, because of the contradictions between her job and the university’s professed ideal of free speech. She was, to some extent, “scapegoated.” The problem is not Dean Steinbach, but the whole DEI apparatus.

Apparently, Stanford has “failed to provide a supportive learning environment for its Black students.” Does this mean black students are not doing well? Is the problem the learning environment—or the students? The BLSA continues,

The Black community at SLS has suffered from the administrative constraints placed on both BLSA’s capacity to create a safe space for its members and the ability of faculty like Dean Steinbach to support and advocate for SLS’s students from historically exploited backgrounds [emphasis added].

So, the BLSA is playing the race/exploitation card, appealing to the tragic history suffered by others while ignoring a present in which they are probably favored. They repeatedly emphasize the need for safety. Are blacks really unsafe at Stanford? What are the statistics? Or do they mean something else by “safe”?

[W]e are continually overlooked by the administration when it makes significant decisions …

Translation: Stanford failed to violate its free-speech rules at the BLSA’s behest.

The complaint concludes, in a paragraph that needs editing,

Based on the administration’s handling of DEI, we unequivocally share a vote of no confidence in the current state of the administration’s ability to the administration’s willingness to adequately consider and respect the needs of Black students and administrators [emphasis in original].

Apparently, the BLSA expects special treatment and is upset that, at least on this occasion, it was denied.

The other student complaint, from OutLaw, is less strident. It is all about feelings and love:

We, the OutLaw Board, wish to first thank everyone who stood with our queer and trans students on March 9, 2023. On that day, you filled the corridors of Stanford Law School with joy, love, and affirmation for all the beautiful diversity of our community … We strive to create a space where trans and queer students can know—can feel—that they are loved.

. . . free speech, not so much: “reducing the events of the last month to a debate over ‘free speech,’” we are told, “is both insulting and ignorant of context.” And demonstration placards like “Fed Suck” don’t sound so lovable.

[Related: “More Hope From Stanford”]

This rather disingenuous letter ends by expressing strong support for Dean Steinbach and asking for a “world that sees, loves, and protects queer and trans people …” But should trans people be protected more than others? Why should they, especially, be “loved”? Does being trans make you lovable? They didn’t act very lovably toward Judge Duncan.

Dean Martinez

The Stanford administration faced a powerful challenge. In response, Dean Jenny Martinez put together a lengthy exposition of her position. She repeatedly defends free speech. For example, “the First Amendment does not give protestors a ‘heckler’s veto.’” The dean quotes favorably the 1967 Kalven Report of the University of Chicago: “The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge.”  “Belonging,” “safe spaces,” and love for sexual variants make no appearance in the Kalven report.

Dean Martinez says all the right things. She notes that history teaches us that the “power to suppress speech is often very quickly directed towards suppressing the views of marginalized groups.” But now, of course, it is the so-called “marginalized groups” that have the power to suppress.

One thing she does not mention is the duty of a university to teach its students to think before they emote, to evaluate an idea before they get upset and attack it. To learn to look at a fact objectively, to ask “Is it true?” before crying or cheering. This is something that Stanford, along with many other contemporary universities, has signally failed to do.

There is a real contradiction between the values that animate DEI and the values essential to a real university. Beguiled, perhaps, by the amiable tone of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Dean Martinez affirms that,

[O]ur commitment to diversity and inclusion means that we must protect the expression of all views.

The views expressed earlier by the DEI dean and her student supporters show that this claim is false. Far from one entailing the other, DEI resists “the expression of all views.” Dean Steinbach famously asked, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” In other words, her DEI mandate implies that free speech should yield to hurt feelings. DEI values, as expressed by the protesting students and Dean Steinbach, inhibit the free discussion of uncomfortable ideas.

While paying lip service to open inquiry and free speech, DEI treats emotion and identity as top priorities. It is about the power and social status of racial and sexual identity groups, not free inquiry. DEI is incompatible with the telos of a university. It has no place in academe.

1 Which landed in my email inbox from a woman at a public relations firm who said that she “worked with Tirien Steinbach.”

Image: Adobe Stock


  • John Staddon

    John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology emeritus at Duke University. His most recent books are The New Behaviorism: Foundations of Behavioral Science, 3rd edition (Psychology Press, 2021) and Science in an Age of Unreason (Regnery, 2022).

4 thoughts on “DEI is a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

  1. “DEI is a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” presents a thought-provoking perspective on the concept of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. While it is crucial to approach this topic with an open mind and acknowledge that there can be differing viewpoints, it is important to recognize the potential for positive change that DEI initiatives can bring.

  2. The only reason I can think of as to why law school administrations tolerate these bigots is because, deep down, they agree with them.

    1. In some cases, undoubtedly. But in most cases, it’s cowardice coupled with laziness.

      Standing up to these folks means they likely will declare you a racist, bigot, etc., and then you have to spend time and energy defending yourself. On the other hand, just giving in to them saves you the effort. That’s the calculation I see most high ed administrators making.

  3. These law schools don’t have Klan chapters for a reason — they would neither admit nor tolerate students inclined to join one.

    For some reason, they lack the will to do likewise with these bigots.

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