Early Warnings Were Ignored: DEI Trainings and Social Pressure

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America — Alexis de Tocqueville

From 1991 to 1994, at Duke University, I edited a publication called the Faculty Newsletter. The Newsletter had a short and rather erratic history and folded a couple of years after I quit. When I was editor, I tried to attract faculty with different specialties and different political positions to debate controversial topics to get a little more “uni” into university. No luck! A few traditional types contributed, but only one faculty member on the postmodern side was willing to write anything.

I still have the files from those days, but they are in an old and almost unreadable format—anyone remember Wordstar? Nevertheless, I have been able to decode a few and one in particular rather surprised me.

The diversity, equity, and inclusion pandemic that came to a head in 2020—annus horribilis floydus—was an unexpected shock, at least to me. My memory is that in 1991, DEI was a tiny and slightly absurd cloud on the horizon. “Woke” was a word in the future. Most didn’t take multiculturalism and the like seriously. But in 2020, science faculty nationwide were suddenly urged to sign a “shutdownSTEM” petition. Apparently, concern about an unfortunate event in Minneapolis, the details of which were largely unknown, was enough to persuade science faculty to abandon their calling in favor of political protest.

Not everyone ignored the trends in 1991. One who did not was Kurt Back, a distinguished professor of sociology at Duke.

Browsing through old articles, I found one in which Back expertly points to some of the problems of diversity, equity, and inclusion and the facilitated trainings that are part of these programs (FN November 15, 1991).[1] The points he raised in 1991 have been ignored. These sessions are still carried out by untrained and unqualified people. They amount to human experiments, yet they are not treated as such. They are not subjected to review by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of the university. Yet they may cause various kinds of harm, which Back describes.

It’s interesting that all these events took place more than 30 years ago, and yet here we are, trainings forever!


Legitimacy of Group Methods

Kurt Back is the author of a 1972 book on group methods: Beyond Words: The Story of Sensitivity Training and the Encounter Movement (Social Science Classics Series). Here, he discusses a DEI forerunner at Duke in 1990:

The Cultural Diversity Program has been discussed from ethical and legal points of view. Besides its content and apparent aims, its methods—and especially the use of group techniques—also merit consideration. The different names by which the program has been referred to, diversity program, awareness program, sensitivity training, etc. show some confusion about what is intended and how the intent is to be achieved. An analysis of group methods in an institutional context raises some warning flags.

Common experience teaches us that social pressure in its various forms is one of the strongest forces that can impinge on our lives. Like any force, it can be beneficial; but without skilled control, it can also be extremely dangerous. In the last half century, we have learned much about the workings of these forces. We are now much more aware of both the dangers involved in their uncontrolled use and the training needed to employ them productively.

Group work is one of most prominent examples of this new technology and it has accumulated a respectable body of professional knowledge. We know that sometimes powerful and sometimes persistent effects can be achieved on indi­viduals through a group experience. However, sometimes participants can be badly harmed—including, in extreme cases, psychotic episodes and suicides—and unintended social effects such as violent eruptions of repressed aggression may result.

For these reasons, any responsible organization ought to use some precau­tions before instituting a program that uses group methods on a significant number of its members. The proposed multi-cultural training program at Duke must be judged by these standards. In essence, such a major exercise in group action in a non-emergency situation is an experiment on human subjects—but lacking the stringent review procedures that have evolved to monitor human-subject behavioral experiments. No program that uses group pressure as one of its tools should be carried out without informed consent and strict monitoring and evaluation by competent personnel.


Requirements for Responsible Group Experiences

For the conduct of the program itself certain requirements are essential.

    1. The prime requirement is that participation should be voluntary. This is important not only for the most obvious reason of preserving the civil rights of the participants, but for the conduct of the program itself. Unwilling or even uninterested participants can be destructive within the groups and express their resentment at a later time. Announcement of the program by anyone who has a supervisory or disciplinary role over possible participants must be considered as coercive. Any arrangement by which attendance in, or performance during, such a program is reported to people in authority may also be coercive. Participation cannot be considered voluntary if it is required of people in certain positions, such as residential advisors. Forced disciplinary participation in such a program (as imposed on at least one individual last Spring) is also inconsistent with these principles. Moreover, practices like this appear to violate confidentiality, which is also one the necessities of such a program.
    2. The organizers should be clear about the nature of the participants and the nature of the relations between the different group members. Even if there is no overt pressure to participate, there are many reasons for attending. People may want to join groups of this kind because they feel some distress or deficiency, as a sort of therapy for normals; they may come out of curiosity; they may want to discuss common problems in an open atmosphere; they may want to improve some skills; they may simply want to meet people. There may be many motives, but the organizers will act differently depending on the chief motivations of the group members. In the Duke program the participants appear to be treated as if they suffer from some deficiency, for which the “facilitator” has a sovereign cure: education in pre-defined “cultural proficiency” (see extracts from the Diversity Awareness Facilitator Manual…). Thus, the Diversity Awareness Program seems to constitute a program of psychotherapy, taught by people without professional qualifications and for “patients” who probably do not see any need for therapy and can be resentful at being tricked into such a situation and possibly harmed by it.
    3. Ambiguities can also weaken the position of the organizers of the groups. Openness is not created by calling the leaders “facilitators”, as if they just guiding the program, especially as the label is intentionally misleading. The so-called facilitators are instructed to “facilitate” not in an undirected way, but so as to promote a certain agenda. They run exercises whose ostensible aim is radically different from the real, but hidden aim. If discussions get off track (this is called “resistance”), facilitators are provided with an armory of techniques for “correcting” deviant participants and “restructuring their thinking.” The group leaders are therefore encouraged to use totalitarian methods by subterfuge. Whatever one may think of the morality of such a procedure, it clearly violates the expectations of the participants and is likely to leave at least the more perceptive among them confused or upset.
    4. Because of the subtle personal interactions and the potential damage, programs like this should be carefully designed and the leaders carefully trained. Professional organizations have issued detailed lists of requirements to produce leaders who are aware of their responsibilities and able to deal with potentially damaging incidents. A mass program, that trains a large number of unscreened leaders in one-day sessions, is hardly adequate for this purpose. Leaders in the Duke program seem often to be aware of their deficiencies and, in at least one instance, have been observed to read their “spontaneous” interpretations from their instruction sheets. Essentially untrained people like this are unlikely to be able to deal with serious problems.
    5. A common thread through all these difficulties with the program is the disregard of work in psychology and the other social sciences that is pertinent to this issue. Besides the lack of concern with such issues as participation, confidentiality, selection, training this unconcern is also shown by the use of ersatz “scales” and other questionnaires that seem to be based on no previous work. No valid assessment procedures seem to have been worked out. In a field that has produced a great mass of research on the general topic of attitude change and assessment this program looks half-baked. There may be nothing wrong in trying something that novel, but one would think that well-monitored pilot studies should be completed before unleashing such a program on the University community.

The same disregard of accumulated research in social science is also shown by the whole thrust of the program. There is hardly any evidence that multicultural understanding—a focus on group membership as opposed to the qualities of the individual—will lead to better relationships among individuals or among groups. A detailed discussion of this issue goes beyond the aims of this article, which concentrates on the group methods. But we would do well to remember that few groups understand one another as well as the Serbs and the Croats!

It is unfortunate that these issues were not debated in 1991. Perhaps it’s not too late now.

[1] See, for example, the many companies that now exist to provide these trainings: Diversity,
Equity & Inclusion; DEI Trainings/DEI Certificate Program

Photo by Delta Amphule — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 635482632


  • 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).

8 thoughts on “Early Warnings Were Ignored: DEI Trainings and Social Pressure

  1. WordStar . . . yup, I recall using that in law school (1983-86), on a KayPro II CPM-80 machine (a/k/a “Darth Vader’s Lunchbox”).

    Back then, the hot controversy in law schools was over “Critical Legal Studies.” Amidst a huge pushback from the bench and bar, the “crits” were pretty much washed out by the late 1980’s, but their basic message incubated to later be reborn in mutated form as Critical Race Theory and DEI.

  2. I made the mistake around 2009 of pointing out that including specific minimum numerical goals for racially and sexually based hiring and admissions in a CEPH accreditation document would create prima facie evidence against the school if we were subject to a discrimination suit. I was practically a pariah among department faculty. I had insisted that the question be checked with legal council. Our chair started with the (black) university Affirmative Action Officer, who immediately backed me up and insisted that the language be removed. Even with a chief “DEI” officer who actually opposed discriminatory programs, the rot was deep enough at that time that no one else even questioned implementing a program that discriminated on the basis of race. Needless to say, I have been in the private sector for over a decade now.

    As I wrote for the James G. Martin Center eight years ago (Avery G. “The Quiet Dagger: Professional Program Accreditation and the Pressure for ‘Diversity Initiatives.” Asheville, NC: The John Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. May 13, 2016 available at http://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=3369), accreditation organizations were captured by critical race theory long ago and have played a key role in forcing organizational isomorphism and conformity to the ideology. The problem is only becoming worse, as we see with medical societies forcing Woke ideology on postgraduate residency programs, often contradicting evidence-based medicine and increasing patient risk, under the guise of accreditation.

    I think my first glimpse of the trend in higher education was when I was in student government at Purdue in the late 1980s and raised an objection to a resulting applauding then-President Steven Beering’s “Desegregation Awards” to student organizations. Ironically, he was awarding one to a racially segregated *black* dance troup, and my objection was based on the idea that a desegregation award should not REWARD segregation. Unfortunately, academia has bought into an ideology that not only accepts segregation, but has completely forgotten the real evils of the old Jim Crow system of racial segregation. With my father stationed at military bases in the South during the period ending segregated schools (the year I started kindergarten was the year local schools were desegrated in the area), I have memories of that system. Few today in academia have had the first hand experience of seeing segregation true institutionalized racial inequality under the law and the damage it produces, and hence have forgotten WHY it is morally repugnant.

  3. “My memory is that in 1991, DEI was a tiny and slightly absurd cloud on the horizon. “Woke” was a word in the future. Most didn’t take multiculturalism and the like seriously.”

    In 1991, I was a first-year graduate student at UMass Amherst, then the most politically-correct college in the country. Other than the director, I was also the only heterosexual White male in the entire Res Ed department — the entity that supervised the dorms and the students residing therein.

    Recycling was being promoted back then, so I recycled a used ammunition container as a pen holder — it took about 4 months for anyone to figure out that those were brass rifle shell casings and then the bleep hit the fan. I was sentenced to an unpaid diversity weekend on “men and masculinity” because of my “militarism.”

    I remember one departmental staff meeting that devolved into a shouting match over who was more oppressed and something called “passisim” — the ability to “pass” as a member of the majority. Gays & lesbians apparently could (this was before all the other variants) while persons of color could not. Or something like that.

    There had been two Resident Assistants — undergraduate students who work in the dorms — physically assaulted. One was Black, the other was gay and I knew them both. They were good kids who didn’t need this grief, and definitely didn’t need to be used as pawns by campus activists attempting to expand their powerbases.

    So I stood up and said “excuse me, this is an interesting conversation, but I think we need to say that we are not going to tolerate our RAs being used as punching bags. I think that we — all of us — need to stand behind all of them, regardless of identity group or anything else, and if they are doing what we are asking them to do, then we need to back them. All of them, and to tell everyone that we will back all of them.”

    My assistantship wasn’t renewed for the following year.

    And I long ago lost count of how many School of Education seminars I had to sit through listening to how evil a person I am because of my physical characteristics. I remember a few nights walking aimlessly down the dark farm roads adjacent to campus in an attempt to calm down after a particularly vitriolic seminar.

    It was called “Social Justice” back then, and at Planet UMass, it was a full-blown Category 5 Hurricane. Historically, the university had been governed by political appointees — Democrats of the John F Kennedy era who, like most Massachusetts Democrats of their generation, were socially conservative Catholics. And they were being purged.

    One high level administrator, an Amherst resident with a daughter in the local high school, was fired for opposing condom distribution in the local high school. That actually was a controversial issue back then, and a lot of devout Catholics opposed birth control on religious grounds. And for having publicly stated his opposition (as a parent, citizen, and taxpayer — to something that had nothing to do with UMass), he was fired — and replaced with someone with approved viewpoints.

    DEI did not come from nowhere — it was a full-fledged configuration at UMass in the 1990s, and I wasn’t the only one sending up flares warning about it.

    The UMass radicals proceeded to go elsewhere upon graduation, getting good jobs at better wages and three decades later, many of them are the very people championing DEI in academia and elsewhere. This really is nothing new — one of the Black activists who brought a gun into Cornell in the 1960s went on to head TIAA/CREF.

    They are now dug in and worse have managed to revive the Soviet concept of “Sluggishly Progressing Schizophrenia” — the ability to declare anyone who disagrees with them to be mentally ill. I fear that it is too late to debate these issues now, that it will take the outside hand of government and/or a massive purge to clean up the mess.

    The other thing to remember about UMass in the early 1990s was that enrollment had plummeted due to demographics at the same time that the end of Cold War DOD funding had led to a state budget crisis and reduction in the university’s allocation. This enabled the purge and enabled a lot of the traditional professors to be pushed into early retirement, particularly after the state offered a lucrative incentive.

    That’s relevant because Fall 2026 is when the bottom falls out of higher education. There will have to be massive layoffs even amongst the institutions that survive, and that may be how we end this.

    The birth rate declined significantly in 2008 — and hasn’t yet gone back to where it was before then, the Millennials aren’t having children. This means that there aren’t going to be the same number of 18-year-olds available to enroll in college starting F-26.

    1. You are correct there are fewer 18-year olds available. I don’t see that changing. Moreover, the demographics of the country are changing with a huge influx of people who historically do not put much value in a college education.

      But there is another factor: the bloom is off the rose on even going to college. Too many adults are still paying off their college loans. Many are employed in fields where their degree is of little or no value. State governments (PA and VA) no longer require a degree for a vast majority of state jobs. Companies too (Google and IBM come to mind). The result is many of these parents are not going to so adamantly push little Suzy to go to college—particularly if Suzy is intent on getting one of those worthless degrees such as womens studies or black studies.

      1. The other factor is the US Supreme Court case of Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971)

        To make a long story short, this case is why a lot of employers started requiring a college degree (in anything, from anywhere) for management and professional applicants. The reason for this is racial discrimination and disparate impact.

        Having a test is discriminatory if Blacks (as a group) do worse on it — but requiring the college degree is not. I don’t know why — it’s just how it is. (Griggs was about requiring a high school diploma, but I digress…)

        Griggs is why a lot of companies, not wanting to be sued, started requiring a college degree for jobs that didn’t need one and which had never before required one. States come under different rules — the EEOC can’t sue them — and I’m not sure how Google & IBM get around it. But Griggs is why most companies require college degrees and likely will continue to do so.

        As to 18-year-olds, yes the number is down, but it will drop a lot *more* in 2026 — 2008 is when the housing market imploded with the birth rate declining as a result.

  4. As to the faculty newsletter:

    1:I would check with the Special Collections (archives) of your university library. If you widely distributed it on campus, there is a very good chance that they have paper copies of it in a file. Faculty publications and administrative correspondence is the sort of thing that the archives tries to keep.

    2: Wordstar was initially on the CP/M operating system, and *not* MS/DOS (Microsoft) which then became Windows. This might be your problem as I believe documents back then were stored in plain text (I know that Perfect Writer did this) but plain text may differ between operating systems.

    3: I was under the impression that the initial (circa 1993) version of MS Word was largely based on Wordstar (WordPerfect largely based on Perfect Writer). Talk to your computer support people, there may be a way to read Wordstar in Word. Likewise, you may have to do something funky to read MS-DOS files in Windows 10/11.

    4: If it is a MS-DOS file, remember that there was a rigid 7&3 protocol for file names back then, that you could only have seven characters in the file name, and (after the dot) only three in the extension. And the extension told the computer what kind of a file it was and hence (a) what to do with it and in this case (b) how to read it.

    (This is true today, e.g. “.pdf” is Adobe PDF, “.htm” or “.html” is a web document, “.doc” or “.docx” a Word document, etc.)

    After saving at least one backup copy, I would try changing the 3 letter file extensions — that’s just changing the file name. Try “.txt” (without the quotes) which is text file, if it *is* a text file, you might get lucky. DO NOT use “.exe” or “.com” as those tell the machine that it is a program and Lord knows what will happen next, but otherwise the worst that will happen is you’ll have to reboot the computer. You may get a *lot* of gibberish with paragraphs of your article in the middle of it — well, cut & paste or print the whole mess and retype the article (sometimes this is easier, particularly if the original was in columns.

    IMHO, the big thing is if it is the version of Wordstar that ran on the CP/M operating system that was popular in the 1980s, that might be a problem.

    Good luck…

    1. Wordstar was widely available for MS-DOS by the late 1980s. It was not until the MS Word and WordPerfect software beat it onto the Windows platform that Wordstar faded away. I used it quite a bit in college on MS-DOS….I still remember how much the formatting mechanism resembles UNIX LaTex or modern http formatting.

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