The decision to remove Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) statements from the hiring and admissions process at universities within the University of North Carolina (UNC) System was a step in the right direction towards cultivating a campus life that embraces viewpoint diversity, tolerance, and free speech.

Proponents of this move argue that, before legislators and university system administrators changed the policies last year, DEI implementation was counterproductive or discriminatory. Conversely, the removal of these policies, and the likelihood that the UNC System will take further action against DEI on campus soon, presents an opportunity to redirect focus towards socioeconomic status, which could foster inclusivity without the drawbacks attributed to current DEI policies.

Further complicating the issue is the involvement of UNC in high-profile legal cases such as SFFA v. Harvard, which spotlighted the misuse of DEI policies to justify discriminatory practices against students of Asian ancestry. On June 29, 2023, the the United States Supreme Court decided that Harvard and UNC had indeed discriminated against Asian students during the admissions process.

“Harvard and UNC admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause,” the decision stated. “Both programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points. We have never permitted admissions programs to work in that way, and we will not do so today.”

Such cases underscore the risk of DEI initiatives devolving into mechanisms that perpetuate the very inequalities they aim to eradicate.

Schools like UNC could counter these points by demonstrating that DEI programs have led to increased graduation and retention rates for certain minority students. But those precise datasets have been restricted from public access on their site. UNC has made every other data source publicly available except graduation and retention by demographic data. This raises concerns about transparency and accountability in assessing the effectiveness of DEI initiatives. Without such data, it is challenging to gauge whether these policies genuinely aid in improving academic outcomes for all students or if they inadvertently support biases and inequalities.

If these issues were not sufficiently compelling to end DEI programs, then the university campuses’ response following the Israel-Hamas conflict, which began with Hamas’s brutal attack on innocent individuals and families on Oct. 7, might serve as the final impetus.     

The response of some UNC faculty and students to the Israeli-Hamas conflict, which involved antisemitic rhetoric and led to a federal investigation, illustrates how DEI policies can be interpreted or manipulated to support divisive and harmful ideologies. It was found Khymani James, a leader of students protesting the war in Gaza at Columbia University, had said “Zionists don’t deserve to live.”

Closer to home, we saw protesters attempt to put reductionist DEI principles into action by suggesting that Jews were “colonizers.” From a DEI perspective, addressing historical and ongoing colonization is crucial for dismantling systemic inequities that persist. This points to a broader issue within DEI structure that clearly fosters an “us-versus-them” narrative.

DEI, as currently conceptualized and implemented, espouses a reductionist view of reality, masking deeper ideological desires that seek to undermine the academic and social fabric of universities. The promotion of what is clearly an identitarian movement under the guise of “social justice” has led to educational environments where dissenting voices are stifled and intellectual diversity is curtailed.

In light of the aforementioned facts, there is a compelling argument for the UNC System to pivot from DEI to an equity approach that emphasizes socioeconomic status as a primary vector for diversity and inclusion. This approach could address the root causes of inequity by including all income strata to minimize the effects an individual’s economic condition has on educational opportunities and outcomes.

Focusing on socioeconomic status may also sidestep some of the ideological battles associated with current DEI policies, offering a more-pragmatic and potentially less-divisive way to enhance the educational environment while addressing root causes to income disparity and restrictions to social mobility. It could lead to more targeted support for students who face barriers to higher education due to economic constraints, regardless of their demographic background.

Redirecting the focus towards socioeconomic status not only aligns with the foundational goals of educational equity but also offers a clearer, potentially more-effective path to enriching the academic and social dynamics of university campuses. As such, the UNC System has an opportunity to lead by example, demonstrating how universities can embrace diversity in ways that truly enhance the educational landscape for all students, while sidestepping identitarian movements masquerading as social change for “equity.”